As a religion teacher at a Benedictine high school, I’m required to incorporate moments of silence into my lessons every day. Imagine trying find silence while teaching in an inner-city high school. My classroom is directly situated by a main avenue, providing my students with an intermittent soundtrack of police sirens, reggaeton, and disgruntled Newarkers berating the person at the other end of the phone. A seemingly impossible feat, the struggle for silence in the inner-city has led to an illuminating path to discovery for both my students and (perhaps even more so) for myself.
As a central aspect of the Benedictine life, silence is the space in which the monk or nun develops a deeper understanding of the ultimate value of his or her work and relationships. Benedict writes in the sixth chapter of his fifth century monastic rule:
“Therefore, because of the importance of silence, let permission to speak be seldom given to perfect disciples even for good and holy and edifying discourse...For it belongeth to the master to speak and to teach; it becometh the disciple to be silent and to listen.”
There are groans whenever I announce that it’s time for Lectio Divina. I asked my students why they are so opposed to working in prolonged periods of silence. They’ll usually argue that without noise, they start to think “too much.”
“What’s wrong with thinking?” I ask them.
“I don’t like the questions that come into my mind when I’m silent...it’s too hard to find the answers to them”
Silence in order to Question
Thinking about life, about the meaning of things-including work, relationships, suffering, and the future-can be scary, threatening, even. If we are honest with ourselves we will realize that we don’t exactly have clear cut answers about the purpose of our lives...at least not yet.
What is needed most is a “pedagogy of questioning.” Distinct from a form of questioning that seeks to deconstruct truth claims and that end up leaving the student lost in a rubble of doubt, this approach questions everything for the sake of discovering authentic truth and meaning in all aspects of life. Only she who faces reality with an open question, claims Luigi Giussani in his book Tu (o dell’Amicizia) [translated You (or On Friendship)], can genuinely hope to live a fulfilling life in unity with others: “The question is the expression of the nature of man, it’s a gift inasmuch as existence is a gift.” It is an expression of the profound desire at the heart of each man and woman to discover the origin and purpose of his or her existence.
“At first, this desire pours out as a cry which contains an air of desperation, an air of conceit and of pretense.” The heart, then, must be “educated”-it must be taught to welcome the questions that arise in silence and to face life as an opportunity for uncovering that “something more” which is always beckoning to us to discover it. “True novelty is ‘something other.’ When you encounter something new, your capacity to understand is opened to perceiving things with much greater depth.”
Education to Prepare Questioning
This initial “cry” for meaning will manifest in self-destructive ways if the heart is not properly educated. Those whose attitude blocks out the presence of the Mystery of life with “noise”—evading the existential questions by insisting upon self-constructed answers—tend to experience exhaustion more quickly than those who face life with a perpetual openness to novelty.
The more we open ourselves to that which is “not ourselves,” we begin to discover that which gives life its richness. “The Infinite, the Eternal-that which is Being...is totally free and different from that which we tend to reduce it to...If you don’t reduce whatever is in front of you…it’s as if you can never finish looking at it, because you perceive it as something other, totally new: the more you look at it the more it is ever-new.” He who faces life in this way is never bored or exhausted; he is always awaiting the next discovery!
The key to freedom and to discovering our true selves is making ourselves simple like children, accepting that our knowledge is finite, and opening ourselves to that which exists outside of ourselves. When we don’t face life with a childlike curiosity, we easily lose patience with our daily tasks and with the people we encounter at work and at home. When we claim to have all the answers, we lose sight of the fact that life does not bend to fit our whims. “When you are childlike, when you are poor in spirit...you become as God made you to be-you become yourself. Only the child’s gaze toward life is capable of perceiving it as something other in itself.”
Returning to Benedict
Benedict writes later on in his rule that when leaving communal prayer, the monks should depart in silence out of respect for any of the other brothers who may be staying behind to pray longer: “When the Work of God is finished, let all go out with the deepest silence, and let reverence be shown to God; that a brother who perhaps desireth to pray especially by himself is not prevented by another’s misconduct.” (RB 52)
We all live in a “city” of some sort. We live in a culture that is deluged in noise-whether it’s coming from music being blasted from out the window, a news station, or the busyness of our daily affairs. We may often doubt if it’s worth turning down the noise and allowing ourselves to take a step back, to think in silence, to ask those deep and mysterious questions which God has placed in our hearts. Benedict’s emphases on both silence and on being attentive to the others in one’s community can seem utterly utopian and unrealistic for modern men and women. But Benedict’s “unrealistic utopia” is based on an utterly realistic view of the human heart. As we strive to understand our own lives and to engage with those around us, we ought to consider the value of facing those existential questions that arise in moments of silence, and to begin to listen to the voice of the Other-in whichever way It chooses to communicate an answer to us, be it through the words on a page or the face of one of my whining students.