From a Monastic Life Today
Tranquility is one of the first impressions which strikes those visiting a monastery. With the exception of feastdays or when larger groups of visitors come, who may be sources of chatter, in general, the quiet is surely a hallmark. Yet this quiet should not be oppressive, even if even if perhaps one might see an older monastic reprimand someone for an unseemly burst of laughter or careless talk. On the contrary, a monastery, while maintaining a sober atmosphere, is actually a should be a cheerful place, even if it is spiritual battleground. Displays of emotion and talk are kept in moderation for one’s own good and the good of one’s neighbor, as everyone’s main job is prayer and the battle with the passions. Reining in one’s tongue is a huge help in both of these jobs, and what is even better, it opens up an entire new world which no one who leads a careless life full of babble and distraction will ever experience.
For those coming from the world, who are used to, not to say addicted to, noise, especially the endless mental noise that all are addicted to with the advent of the internet and smart phones, the silence and lack of this information (as there is hardly any internet reception here), can be very jarring. However, to us, this is our greatest treasure and our best chance at being at least normal human beings, which surely we can all agree is becoming more difficult by the day. For those who are bold (and blessed) enough to spend time here, they will find that the mountains themselves are an endless source of pleasant noise, the noise of life. Unlike the noise of the cities, which seem to numb and stupefy the city dweller, mountain noise helps the dweller of the desert to perceive the realities not just of this material world but also of the inner, spiritual world. In Chapter 23 of Unseen Warfare, the writer describes all the ways that we can use our sense perceptions to turn us to holy and compunctionate thoughts. At the monastery we have a wealth of such perceptions. Early in the morning, the first thing we hear is the crowing of the rooster. Just as it reminded the Holy Apostle Peter of his betrayal of the Lord, it can also remind us of our daily betrayal of the Lord every time we fail, which we do on endless occasions, especially, perhaps, in the command to love our neighbor. The sound of the semantron reminds one of the sound the hammer which nailed Christ to the Cross. The sound of bells or the singing of birds remind us of the endless glorifying of God that is happening throughout the universe at any given moment… the more one listens, the more there is to hear and learn.
It is no accident that the images of the saints always portray them with large eyes, ears, and even noses, but small mouths. And yet they are radiating with light, not just from their halo, but it seems, from every pore. This is because, as their representation suggests, they quieted themselves so they could be ever greater receptors for the wisdom and grace of God which then filled them with light.
We were all created to be the temples of the Holy Spirit, but until we are cleansed of all the garbage in our souls, this is not going to happen. Again, practicing silence is a huge aid to help us with this in many ways. Does your sister criticize you? Ask forgiveness, then remain silent, resisting the urge to justify yourself. Feeling out of sorts and ungrateful? Remain silent, rather than complaining, nourishing your ingratitude towards God and being a burden for your neighbor. Judging your neighbor? Remain silent, resisting the urge to gossip about her and bring others along with you into the sin of judging. Having trouble concentrating in prayer? Resisting the urge to chitchat, even about harmless things, is the first step to control your thoughts and bend them more towards thoughts of God, internal pleas to God, and examination of yourself. Even if, for the talkative characters among us, this habit may take some real effort to acquire, the benefits are endless. The greater the effort, the greater our wreath from God, and the more fruits that this podvig will bring forth for us. It is a key activity in our striving for a heavenly life. For as St. Isaac the Syrian so wisely put it: “Words are the instruments of this world, but silence is a mystery of the age to come.” Even the deepest words are only pointers to the most profound and joyful communion with the Living God and His saints, a joy in which words are no longer needed.