Taking a Temporary Vow of Silence
The anonymous white walls of my cell were bare except for a crucifix. My tiny cot creaked loudly against the church-imposed silence as I rolled, trying to sleep. Even flushing the toilet seemed a noisy intrusion. At 6 a.m., the steeple bells would call me and 30 bleary-eyed men down dimly lit halls and into the chapel for the day’s first prayers.
It was 12 hours into my stay at St. Anselm Abbey, a 108-year-old Benedictine monastery, and already I had had enough silence and prayer.
Since the 6th century, the Benedictine monks have lived by 73 rules, a strict guide that governs how they pray, eat and sleep.
“We live, die and are buried on this property,” said Father Mathias Durette, who looked more Marine than man of God. “That’s a sense of stability most people do not have.”
But embarking on a lifetime of faith was not my plan. I was here for a weekend, to write a story and to assuage my curiosity about 20th century men whose lives are lodged in the Middle Ages.
Father Mathias was to be my guide--fittingly, since he was my age, 24, when he first came to the monastery.
He had wanted a wife and children--a normal life--but he knew that would not satisfy him. He left the monastery after a few years, just weeks before taking his first vows. Not long after, he returned, and 10 years later, this 40-year-old monk has no doubts.
“It was the most brutal decision I ever made, but it was also the best. When I left, I knew I was coming back,” he said. “It makes me whole.”
So whole, in fact, that he has no fear of death. He said he has found his answers and lived a good life. He is ready to meet God.
Such confidence frightened me. For me, death means projects undone, questions unprobed, adventures unexplored.
Father Mathias laughed when I said this. God already had provided his answers and the strength to accept them. What more was there to explore?
On Friday, I entered the monastery and encountered the silence. Chattering monks crowded around in welcome, but even their soft voices scratched at the quiet.
They ushered me into the refectory, their cavernous dining hall built to resemble a chapel. Over cookies, the monks explained their days of prayer and silence.
As a product of the wired 1990s, my comfort level is determined by how well connected I am to the streams of information that create a white noise of information around me.
At my home, CNN always is on. In my car, the cellular phone is lodged between my shoulder and ear and my laptop is opened on the passenger seat. Never am I more than an e-mail, a page or a ring from the news.
In my cell, I looked for a telephone jack to get online and check my e-mail. Failure! I then tried my cellular phone to check messages . . . nothing. Although the phone worked only 20 yards away at my car, the monastery seemed to be some sort of cellular black hole.
The bell for evening prayers moaned. Photographer Andrew Sullivan and I marched silently behind the monks and into the chapel, an enormous chamber heavy with wood beams and brick pillars.
The pillars, tentacles from the 100-foot dome, dwarfed the tiny congregation. Still, their prayers, sung with an untrained harmony, filled the room.
The soothing psalms brought serenity to the monks’ faces. Mine was vacant; Andrew appeared to be dozing, although he later said he had been listening.
I wanted to join in. I tried to meditate. I tried to contemplate, but before the hour was out, I couldn’t even concentrate.
For a few moments, I drifted back to my last visit to a church. I was a scrawny 10-year-old altar boy, proud to have been entrusted with carrying the 7-foot crucifix during the procession to the altar.
Intimidated by the crowd, I dropped it, nearly taking out several pews of parishioners.
Father Roy later reprimanded me: My love of God should have given me the strength to bear the cross, as Jesus had. Clearly, I did not truly love God.
Clearly, his God was not for me.
After Vespers, we went into the refectory and stood in front of our tables while the abbot, the monastery’s spiritual leader, said more prayers. Then silence.
Father Mathias had warned us not to speak during meals.
“You try to take what you got from church into the meal,” he said. “You need to feed the soul first and then the body.”
There also was the boredom factor.
“Sitting next to the same person three meals a day for your entire life? How much can you say?” Father Mathias asked.
Andrew and I sat at tables facing each other from across the 20-foot-wide hall. The hush was awkward. I did not know what to do with my hands and my chewing seemed unbearably loud.
Then there was the hunger. We wanted seconds. Actually, we wanted thirds and fourths. But how to ask under a code of silence?
Nibbling at the meat chunk on my plate, I eyed with longing the cookie jar from which we had snacked earlier.
After dinner, Father Mathias took us on a walk around the campus. We walked through the monastery’s small graveyard. Nearly 40 polished stones stood in rigid lines.
Reflecting on my own life, I realized the only constant was its lack of stability. Born in Massachusetts, grew up in Germany, earned my degree in Scotland, taught in South Africa and now working in New Hampshire.
Where would I be buried?
At the ring of a bell, we hurried back to the chapel for the day’s final formal prayers. The hour of sermon and song passed slowly.
At 8 p.m., we filed out, the monks returning to their cells for 30 minutes of silent prayer and bed. I sat on my cot for 15 minutes, hungry, drumming my fingers in the silence and waiting for . . . something.
I slipped next door to Andrew’s cell. Fraternizing is discouraged, so silence was essential.
Armed with flashlights, we slunk barefoot into the dark halls. The beams bounced ghoulish shadows off the statues of saints that lined the route to the refectory.
In the dining hall, my flashlight caught our target--the jar of cookies, waiting to be raided.
Too early the next morning, I tried to appreciate the beauty of the prayers, soft baritones filling the chamber with Gregorian chant.
I couldn’t. Prayer came before breakfast, and so before coffee. Already two pints low on caffeine.
When breakfast came, it was silent. Again I wondered what to do with my hands and wished for more food. I knew my anxiety stemmed from my conditioning, that slowing down would do me good. I admitted it, but I couldn’t do it.
By noon, the meals and prayers were blurring. While waiting for Father Mathias to take another walk, I watched the monks moving slowly through their day.
I was feeling elderly, looking forward to my walks as big outings. The silence was pervasive. The monks seemed to bathe in it, shielding themselves from the barrage I call my life.
Everything about monasticism, from the servitude to God to the great size of the chapel, reduces the individual. The monks said it gave them a sense of place in God. To me, it was painful.
Father Mathias chuckled when I asked him how it made him feel.
Never had he felt so liberated, so free to talk about who he is and what matters most to him, he said. The black robes I thought so confining and cumbersome, he said, gave him license to speak freely about God.
“I do this because it allows me to talk about my faith and nourishes and strengthens it,” he said.
Father Mathias said he understood how difficult it is for young men to move from my world to his. But when they do, they are rewarded with a sense of family few people know, he said.
“It’s the monk and God alone, but in community. That’s where the strength comes in, because you’re not alone,” he said. “We don’t have a television, because that destroys community. That’s when it becomes just a bunch of guys living together.”
The weekend passed. My appreciation for monastic life did not grow.
Father Mathias laughed at the idea that monks are holier than others, that they always love praying and their spartan lives.
“It can be boring. Prayer can be inconvenient. But that too is healthy because it forces you to discipline yourself,” he said. “But there are days--and it’s justified--when you just don’t feel like talking to God.”
My sentiments exactly. But that doesn’t stop me from asking questions.