Posted by: Philip Rushton | September 30, 2013

What The Silence Taught Me: Reflections on a week at a Trappist monastery

“Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Abba Moses (4th century desert father)

Last week I spent four days at a Trappist Monastery in Carlton, OR. The majority of my retreat was spent in silence and solitude. While I ate communal meals with other retreat participants, we were asked to keep silence while we ate. My cell phone was off and I had no access to the internet. Aside from my participation in the five daily prayer services with the monks, I spent the rest of my time walking in the woods or praying in my cell.

Church-from-distance

While this type of silence is not entirely foreign to me, I have rarely experienced it for such a long period of time. By the second day I was already making excuses for why I should come home early. It was stretching some spiritual muscles that have not been used very much.

However, the silence proved to be a very fruitful exercise. These four days of silence taught me a lot. I filled up 35 pages in my journal with insights, prayers, and questions. Silence created a context where I could be available to God’s presence and voice.

Among other things, the practice of silence proved to be a school in humility. This was especially the case during our silent meals. I found the first silent meal to be extremely awkward. I was sitting with all these people I had never met and I wanted desperately to introduce myself and get to know who they were. However, as I got used to this exercise I found it to be very freeing. I did not have to defend myself or try and impress these strangers. To simply sit there was a small exercise in putting to death the ego. I was there to listen to God not to make a name for myself.

Indeed, one of the things that came to the surface this week was how powerful the ego is. If we are not careful our spirituality and ministry can become about our need to prove our worth and significance to others. The silence taught me to heed the words of John the Baptist when he says, “I must decrease and you (Jesus) must increase.”

This death to the ego was modeled for me in the spiritual practices of the monks. The center of the services was always on God and the scriptures rather than them as individuals. They took turns reading and sharing reflections on scripture. Most of the time they simply read scripture and then spent time in silence. The word of God was elevated above the individual. There was no need to defend God or his scripture. They simply let it stand – ambiguities and all.

slider-2

This was illustrated most prominently during the first service I was apart of. The reading of the evening was the passage in Ephesians 5 that talks about how wives and husbands are to submit to one another. Thirty of these celibate monks were reading and reflecting on a text that was rather foreign to their experience. Yet, they did not gloss over it or try and explain how it might connect with their vocation. They humbled themselves before scripture and allowed this text to be lifted up and reflected upon.

This reminded me of the importance of letting scripture be scripture. We ought to attend to the whole witness of God and not simply pick and chose the texts that we think are relevant. We need to approach the whole text of scripture in a spirit of humility, trusting that it has something important to say. This will give us space to be surprised by the depth and complexity of God.

As I confronted the prominent place of the ego in spirituality and ministry, I was also forced to re-evaluate my relationship with social media. I read an article last week that talks about the way social media creates a context for envy and dissatisfaction. Social media can easily become a format where we try and make ourselves look good. It is also a context where we can start to become envious of the image other people create of themselves. The irony is that most of us are not as confident, successful, or happy as we try and make people think. This ends up creating a situation where we are taunted by the false image of others. The following graph illustrates this well.
Screen shot 2013-09-30 at 10.12.14 AM

The graph pictures a fictional character named Lucy who is frustrated by the gap between her expectations about life and her reality. This frustration is reinforced as she is taunted by false images of happiness and success from her peers, even though they are probably also feeling frustrated and inadequate themselves.

As I re-enter the real world I am feeling the need to limit my exposure and use of social media platforms like Facebook. It easily becomes a context of envy as I compare myself to others, and pride as I seek to defend my significance to the world. Aside from keeping people informed about things at the church and posting my blog I think it is time to limit status updates and pictures.

There are a lot of other thoughts that came out of this week of silence that I will reflect on in the coming days. For now it is sufficient to say that silence is a great school for learning to humbly submit to the will of God. I highly recommend participating in a retreat at the Trappist Abbey. It only costs 50 dollars a night and it includes all of your meals. Perhaps this might be a formative experience for you as well. To read more about this retreat opportunity click on the following link:
http://trappistabbey.org/

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Responses

  1. Really a valuable insight into the effects of social media, Phil. In addition I find the silence of meditation to be healing of my spirit and my mind, and as a result of that, of the body. While I can’t control the noise from outside, I have control of 90% of the noise within my home, and I’m choosing silence more and more.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Doris. I appreciate having fellow companions like you on this journey!

  2. Hi Phil, Discernment is telling me that taking communion to shut-ins on Sunday would best be postponed till next Sunday ( Oct. 13 ) provided that works for you. Appreciate knowing your flexibility in that situation. This little old lady from Pasadena knows her limits! Thanks for your patience, Carol Fuller Date: Mon, 30 Sep 2013 18:02:52 +0000 To: oscarol2@msn.com

  3. Sorry dear friends for all my technical challenges which become most apparent. OOOOOps. Sorry you got emaik to the Withrows. Carol


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