Silence in Community

by Paul Philibert, O.P.
Southern Province

The cloister of St. Albert's Priory in Oakland, California.
One of the oldest practices of Dominican life is the cultivation of silence. The Order's Constitutions say: "Silence shall be diligently observed by the brethren, especially in places and at times reserved for prayer and study; it is the guardian of all observance and contributes particularly to interior religious life, to peace, prayer, the study of truth, and the sincerity of preaching" (46, i). There is no question about the seriousness with which the Constitutions of the Order of Preachers urges the cultivation by each brother of a discipline of silence. Obviously, the practice of silence requires the cooperation of all the brothers to make possible the development of the values and attitudes that flow from a climate of silence. In the pages that follow, I wan to lead you through a reflection on the nature, meaning, and importance of silence for our life. This is an important topic in itself, but more notable today because of the Order's growing retrieval of its contemplative tradition.

Silence Has Many Meanings

Silence is first about prayer and the spirit of prayer. It fosters mindfulness of God. It allows us to listen to what the Other (God) has to say. Silence, leading to an inner silence, is essential to developing the listening heart that is a necessary element of mature Christian prayer. A Dominican friar is expected to be drawn by silence into the non-verbal dialogue with God that opens us up to what God has to say to us as graced instruction, healing, consolation, and inspiration. The purpose of silence is the offering up of ourselves to God and to others in love

The Acts of the General Chapter of Providence (AGCP) state the following.

Silence prepares our bodies, our minds, our hearts and our spirit for prayer and study. A rich, pregnant silence enables us to hand ourselves over to God, to become more conscious of our own woundedness, and to see, listen, and respond to the risen Christ in our brothers and sisters. Finally, silence propels us to go out and preach. (§222)

Silence is as much a part of communication as is speech, especially with respect to "speaking" to God in prayer. All human communication involves two people in dialogue. In order to communicate, they cannot both be talking at the same time. One speaks while the other listens. Yet it is possible for two persons to be silent together and still communicate. This is even truer when it comes to prayer.  A wise old religious, when asked, "How can I go deeper into prayer?" finally said after some reflection, "Limit the input!" Silence is limiting our input in order to listen to God.

Silence is about learning. The one vow that we Dominicans explicitly articulate in our profession is obedience (obedientia) which comes from two Latin words, (audire) meaning to listen (and ob-) with focused attention. We have promised to listen to the tradition of the Order of Preachers, this new way of life, which we come here to seek and to find. Obviously an obedience big enough to provide satisfying meaning for the whole of life is not about superficial conformity in material things, but rather an inner reorganization of the shape of our life to create a pattern that coordinates study, prayer, ministry, and community in a cycle of ever-deepening inwardness. Our fundamental obedience i s to follow a new way of life,

Silence Requires Learning and Practice

Speaking metaphorically, silence is a new language with its own structure and dynamics. To learn what the dynamics of silence have to say to you in prayer, you must learn and practice silence as fully as if you were learning a foreign idiom. Many contemporary teachers of silent prayer (drawing upon ancient traditions) instruct the novice to link silence with breathing (as one does in Centering Prayer). The physical act of breathing is itself a symbol of the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives. (In the Greek New Testament, Spirit is signified by the word Pneuma which means breathing, breeze, and principle of life.)

Additionally, tie meditative perusal of the scriptures is another pathway to silent prayer. The author of a recent book advises that such prayer occurs when the person reading the scriptures pauses at any "hot spot" and lingers attentively to ask what God is saying to one's heart. The image of a "hot spot" obviously refers to any word or phrase that touches me, moves me, or challenges me in a deep way. This form of reading of the inspired word of God is an excellent and helpful method to seek out the transforming energy of a silence filled with God's revelation and peace.

Some theologians make the distinction between the "exterior word" and the "interior word." In this sense, the "exterior word" means any witness to God's revelation (even the scriptures themselves as texts) that comes to us in objective form as printed, read, spoken, or discussed. This is the "outside" of the structure of faith. However, in order for faith to become a theological reality, there must also be an "interior word" that is nothing less than the action of God's Holy Spirit within us. There are several classic texts that make this clear:

Romans 8:26 "when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words..." (NJB)

2 Corinthians I .21-22 "It is God who gives us, with you, a sure place in Christ arid has both anointed us and marked us with his seat, giving us as pledge the Spirit in our hearts." (NJB)

1 John 2:20, 27 "But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and have received all knowledge" ... "But as for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do no need anyone to teach you." (NJB)

The "interior word" continues to speak to our hearts and to shape our prayer throughout the day. All we need to do is to remember the word that we studied or prayed earlier in order to revive our openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Our personal and communal practice of silence is linked to this experience of the "interior word " Another way of describing this same phenomenon is to call it "anointed silence," a silence which has become the articulation of the Holy Spirit's own privileged medium of communication in grace.

It is in the silence of our hearts that we meet the silent and invisible God walking softly in the garden and among the creatures of the earth. It is in the silence of our hearts that we learn to wonder at the glory of God, and to marvel at the mystery of human existence and the grandeur of the universe (AGCP §24)

Silence and Community Life

Silence can transform our fraternal relations in community. Acquiring the habit of silence as an attitude of listening and reverence can greatly help us to avoid sins of the tongue, from slander and detraction at one end of the spectrum to logorrhea (incessant trivial banter) at the other.

Understand that I do think that we should have fun in recreation. Yet I also think that we tend to do a lot of repetitive teasing of the same persons and a good bit of talking about people behind their backs—and we could do better than that.

More important, an attitude of silence helps to create conditions for deeper conversation. If we choose to become intentional about the practice of silence, we should also choose to become intentional about our practice of community recreation. We can't come to the brief time we devote to recreation with the expectation that the other brothers have a responsibility to amuse us. We needed to be willing to share our experiences, our enthusiasms, our questions, and our hopes, however simple and ordinary these may be on any given day. We have to desire to listen to others, to hear about their experience, and to acknowledge it.

The cultivation of silence as a practice of Dominican life has a significant impact upon our liturgies as well. If we come to either Eucharist of the Liturgy of the Hours without the habit of inner silence, we bring a greatly diminished or limited capacity for listening to the scriptures and to the community's common prayer as God's living word. Silent prayer and the development of interior silence make the quiet moments of common prayer resonate with deeply felt awareness of the presence of God. Put one way, we wound the integrity of our liturgical prayer by coming to it without the spiritual depth that is the fruit of inner silence. Put another way, we will unquestionably derive deeper spiritual fruit and joy from the liturgy when we bring to it the gift of a heart made ready by inner silence.

Waiting in silence together is a fitting prelude to our common prayer. I would love to see every brother come at least five minutes early to each liturgy so that we can sense that we are centered on a shared purpose at the moment we begin the office. Arriving late, in addition to creating a hectic spirit for the brother in question, is also distracting and troubling for the rest of the community. It is a value worth striving for to begin our common prayer with attentive, common purpose and unity in shared alert expectation.

Finally, our observance of silence is the doorway to contemplation. Deep gifts of prayer cannot come to us unless we are steeped in the practice of silence. God's Spirit, who seeks to dwell in the quiet heart, also yearns to share with us gifts offered to us by God (Cf. I Cor 2:12 "Now, the Spirit we have received is not the spirit of the world but God's own Spirit, so that we may understand the lavish gifts God has given us." (NJB) The only obstacle to receiving these gifts that God has promised is our unreadiness.

Through the Dominican practice of silence, we root out the obstacles to God's gifts and aim to prepare a willing place for God's action in our lives.

Silence is a necessary condition for listening to God, to our neighbor and to our own harts. Effective material silence, that is the absence of noise, helps to develop progressively) an inner silence, which is the true goal. "I will be silent and let God speak within" (Eckhart). Developing this inner, contemplative silence will enable us to continue to listen, undisturbed, even when there is around us noise that we cannot avoid (AGCP §233).

Times of Silence

Concretely, the living of the value of community silence needs to be translated into practice. Here are some suggestions:

    • Silence in the early morning until after Morning Prayer or Eucharist (silence inside your room at this time is strongly, recommended)

    • Silent prayer (LCO 66, ii) for about a half an hour a day minimum

    • Silence in the corridors of the priory at the end of the day

    • Maintain silence in Chapel in anticipation of our community liturgies

A Final Reflection

James Joyce described one of his fictional, characters by saying, "Mr. Duffy, lived a short distance from his body." Most of us live that way a good deal of the time. It is hard for us to be fully present to others and to our routine activities unless we are really intentional about doing so. We allow ourselves to become over-busy, over-tired, and over- programmed. As a result, we pass through many important activities, including prayer, not fully focused. Bob Wicks wrote recently that this happens to us not so much because we are afraid of being present, but because we have forgotten how to do it. We have to learn how through the practice of silence.

The pressing pastoral question we have to deal with most of the time is not whether Jesus is really present in the Eucharist, but whether we are really present. How present are we to the word of God, to the assembly, and to the action of the Holy Spirit that transforms bread and wine into the Eucharistic body of Christ and that transforms us into his mystical body? We must prepare ourselves to be alive in the body of Christ by rendering ourselves as alive as we can be in our own body-persons. Really dwelling in our bodies is an incarnation of consciousness, allowing ourselves to feel and experience our conscious life through protracted prayer that draws our bodies into our prayer (as Dominic did in his "Nine Ways").

It is easy for us to live totally in our minds. A lot of the popular culture grabs our attention by moving us quickly through highly pitched fragmented narratives to keep our attention stimulated with violence, sexual incident, and melodrama. We may secretly congratulate ourselves for having witnessed moving dramatic action; and we are invited to fantasize ourselves as participants in the stories--all the while remaining physically and psychologically passive. Our own real story is displaced or lost, the more engrossed we become in (even addicted to) the cosmetically crafted tales of media drama.

By contrast, much of the practice of silent prayer is simply sitting in the presence of God. Yet simply sitting is not easy. As Bob Wicks says, "When we sit in silence we create a vacuum in consciousness and the preconscious rises into it, and then we are faced with our lies and our games." God wants us to become authentic expressions of a Spirit driven sacramental life. God wants us to let go of our bitterness, our weakness, our fears, and our fantasies of grandiosity. God wants to empty us out of everything; unsuited to the manifestation of incarnational grace, precisely so that ''knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, [we] may be filled with the utter fullness of God " (Ephesians 3:19 NJB)

As the whole Order responds to the invitation of the General Chapter of Providence (2001) to reappropriate our Dominican contemplative tradition, it seems reasonable for us to examine, explore, and choose ways to shape our common life in accord with the practice of silence. We need to discuss this with one another and pray that we may choose prudently. .