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.
cloister of St. Albert's Priory in Oakland, California.
Has Many Meanings
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.
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,
Requires Learning and Practice
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
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)
and Community Life
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
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
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).
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
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
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. .