Working at an inner-city high school makes it difficult to experience moments of pure silence. My classroom is directly situated by a main avenue, providing my students with an intermittent soundtrack that includes police sirens, reggaeton blasting out of car windows, and disgruntled Newarkers berating the person at the other end of a phone call. Lucky for me, teaching reliigon at a Benedictine institution means that I am encouraged (note, required) to incorporate moments of silence into my lessons daily. Serving as a central aspect of life in a Benedictine monastery, silence is the space in which the monk grows in wisdom and comes to understand the ultimate value of his work and relationships.
In the sixth chapter of his fifth century monastic rule, Benedict writes:
“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 is written: ‘In much talk thou shalt not escape sin (Prov 10:19). And elsewhere: ’Death and life are in the power of the tongue’ (Prov 18:21). For it belongeth to the master to speak and to teach; it becometh the disciple to be silent and to listen. If, therefore, anything must be asked of the Superior, let it be asked with all humility and respectful submission. But coarse jests, and idle words or speech provoking laughter, we condemn everywhere to eternal exclusion; and for such speech we do not permit the disciple to open his lips.”
It’s a long shot to attempt to get inner-city high school students to adhere to Benedict’s ideal of silence, let alone to adhere to any of his seemingly utopian tenets, not only because of the gratuitous soundtrack provided to us from outside the window, but also due in part to the resistance I receive from them when they hear me announce that it’s time for Lectio Divina.
Being the compassionate and patient teacher that I am, I always respond to their groans and complaints with a question, rather than a reprimand. When asked why they are so opposed to working in prolonged periods of silence, sans access to their phones or music, they argue that without some form of sound to stimulate their minds, they start to think “too much.” “What’s wrong with thinking?” I ask them. Occasionally, one brave and self-aware soul will announce, “I don’t like the thoughts that come to my mind when I’m silent.” Thinking about “life,” about the meaning of their work and relationships, about their suffering, their future, is scary, it’s threatening; it makes them uncomfortable to face the lack of certainty that they have about the purpose of their own lives.
But from where does certainty come? How can I arrive at some form of answer to these existential questions? How can I allow myself to freely face my thoughts without impulsively trying to drown them out with noise?
Perhaps what is needed most is a pedagogy of questioning. Such an approach to education is distinct from approaches that seek to question for the sake of breaking down claims to truth and leaving one lost in the rubble of doubt, but rather questions everything for the sake of discovering authentic truth and meaning in all aspects of life. Only he who faces reality with an open question, claims Luigi Giussani, can have a genuine hope to live a fulfilling life.
“My capacity to ask questions, my potential to be free, which is to recognize a You, is born from the fact of my existence, from the fact that I was created…it is the essence of being yourself.” Giussani continues, “The question is the expression of the nature of man, it’s a gift in as much as existence is a gift.” The questions that arise in silence are an expression of ourselves, of the essential desire at the heart of each man and woman to discover the origin and purpose of his or her existence.
Without a proper “education of the heart” which teaches one to face life as an opportunity for discovery and to welcome the more particular questions that arise in silence, this initial “cry” will manifest in violent and self-destructive ways. “At first, this desire pours out as a cry which contains an air of desperation, an air of conceit and of pretense.” He who closes himself to the mystery of reality and of his own existence will begin to project his own narrow measure and limited understanding onto everyone he encounters and everything he experiences. “For this reason it’s never the discovery of something new, there is no novelty. Rather the novelty is ’something other.’ Inversely, if you encounter something new, then your capacity to understand is opened to perceiving things with much greater depth. You recognize when you encounter something that is truly new. As much as that something new is always proportioned to your measurement, it always becomes something reduced. In this sense novelty is reduced to something you already know, it’s terrible!”
An attitude that blocks out the presence of the Mystery of life with “noise” and self-constructed answers tends to experience exhaustion more quickly than he who faces life with a perpetual openness to novelty. “Novelty tends to be reduced to what we believe we already know, what we already know, and for this reason it is a novelty that consumes us, that wears us down…” The more we open ourselves to that which is “not ourselves,” we begin to discover that which gives life its novelty and fullness. “The infinite, the eternal-that which is Being, that which is, that which everything is-is totally free and different from that which we tend to reduce it to. We tend to reduce it to some imaginary matrix to that which we already have: our own. Rather, no! If you don’t reduce it, 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: how much more you look at it the more it is new.” He who faces life in this way is never bored or exhausted; he is always awaiting the next discovery!
Therefore, 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 by means of asking questions in front of our life experiences. “Don’t reduce novelty to things you already know, because when you are that childlike, when you are that much poor in spirit, when you are that true, that simple, you become as God made you to be-you become yourself. Because God made you to be simple, with your eyes wide open; and it’s the child in front of something who perceives it as something other in itself, it’s so true that it neither is afraid nor has reverence, like the primitive man in front of reality. If you are poor in spirit and simple, you understand that it is something other, it’s something other!”
We have seen the dangers of losing this “childlike” orientation to life, both on the personal and societal levels. When we don’t face life with 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 harden ourselves to the fact that life does not sway according to our demands. The more we try to impose our “answers” on those in front of us, we end up hurting them with our unrealistic expectations. The false certainties that particular public figures rely on have the potential to create discord of even greater proportions. An attitude that refuses to listen in silence to the voices of others, especially to the voices of those who disagree with us, before speaking continues to drive our nation further and further apart. Thus, we ought to consider the value of an approach to life that centers on silence, listening, and questioning. Imagine how differently the presidential election would have been if the candidates actually listened to each other before responding…if we asked ourselves why our spouse is angry, and how I might have hurt them, before pointing the finger back at them.
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: “Let the oratory be what it is called, and let nothing else be done or stored there. 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. But if perhaps another desireth to pray alone in private, let him enter with simplicity and pray, not with a loud voice, but with tears and fervor of heart. Therefore, let him who doth not say his prayers in this way, not be permitted to stay in the oratory after the Work of God is finished, as we said, that another may not be disturbed.” (RB 52)
Benedict’s precept of being attentive to the others in one’s community is yet another example of his seemingly utopian vision of community life. While this utopia may seem unrealistic, it is founded upon ideals that transcend his own limited goals and expectations. Because his community is founded upon Divine authority rather than human authority alone, he offers a proposal that is truly universal and attractive to all who accept it. This is starkly different from a proposal derived from the false certainties conceived by a finite man with a restricted understanding of reality. As we continue to face our personal lives and our engagement with society, 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 “[O/o]ther” in whichever way he chooses to communicate an answer to us. Only with this “childlike” attitude will we have the potential to transcend our failures and conflicts and come to live meaningful lives in harmony with each other.