The Catholic Thing
A Great Silence Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Thursday, 16 April 2009
A note to readers: Thanks to all of you who have responded to our appeal for support. If you would like to be reminded why you should support The Catholic Thing, just look at today’s column by Brad Miner on monastic life or yesterday's by Professor McInerny on the Apocalypse. What more proof do you need? – Eds

I came to Our Lady of Gethsemani Trappist Abbey one cloudy winter morning when I was twenty-six. I drove down from a seminary in Cincinnati along roads made slick from the previous night’s ice storm. Power lines sagged under the weight of icicles. Tree limbs were bowed but glistening.

As I turned onto Kentucky 247 a few miles south of Bardstown my hands gripped the wheel so tightly my knuckles were white, especially when I saw a yellow caution sign warning that the curving road ahead was about to dip. I worried that the tires on my old Nash Rambler might not have the traction necessary to climb the hill up after the hill down, but the rise was gentle, and as I made the east-west curve and came onto the last flat straightaway, I saw the monastery spire and saw that there was a patch of blue sky above the abbey and saw the border of gray clouds around the blue rimmed in fiery gold. Sunlight streamed down in ribbons on the monastery, and I was frightened that I was witnessing a message from God; that this retreat was meant to be the beginning for me of a vocation to monasticism. I almost turned the car around.

It was a momentous stay for me – as I recall it was a Monday to Friday retreat – because I realized I was not cut out to be a monk, however much I admired the monastic life and might try to emulate it in my worldly existence. I did not mind rising at three in the morning and collapsing into bed at eight in the evening, and, though as a visitor one does not participate in the work of the house, I would not have minded the farming I saw the monks doing – I’d spent summers in high school working on a farm. And I did not mind the silence, which in any case is not particularly burdensome for a visitor. What I minded was the absence of women, and if you miss the girls you know you are not made for monkhood. I shared my thoughts with the guestmaster and told him about the omen of sunlight that had greeted my arrival. Was I missing God’s call? The monk looked at me for a moment and then, barely suppressing a chuckle, he asked:

“You mean to say you think God arranges the weather for you?”

Then we both had a good laugh.

Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous, anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not. So wrote Václav Havel in Disturbing the Peace.

I hadn’t expected to realize so quickly that I wasn’t cut out for the monastic life (or the priesthood) and in the years following often wondered if I’d missed something essential on my visit. I didn’t marry for another decade, and until I did, I’d wonder if I’d overestimated my passion for domesticity – this despite considerable evidence to the contrary. I’d tell friends the story of my retreat: the ride down, the portentous sunlight, the day-long process of prayer, the hiking in the woods, the hours in the library studying the Rule of St. Benedict.

“Tell me about that rule,” a friend said once. “You were reading it then and there. Did the Trappists seem to be following it?”

I said I thought they surely were, and my pal wondered what that meant.

Ne quid nimis,” I replied.

“Which means what?” he asked.

Nothing to excess.

He was flabbergasted. He demanded to know how cloistered men praying incessantly and living in silence and solitude can be considered anything but excessive. I replied that the monks seem to float along on a cushion of equable poise. They were unflappable.

“Stoic?” he asked.

That and more.

They were capable, when they did speak, of speaking directly, simply, and without sermonizing. They possess the compassion you expect but also a detachment that takes you by surprise. That’s the stillness that on first encounter seems downright eerie. I tended to glamorize it, imagining that the monks really were floating by, feet off the ground, carried along by angels. But they were just going here and there and they knew exactly where, and in fact they were always already there. The guestmaster spoke to me plainly, and his words were wonderful because they were created only for me. He gave me his precious time, and in the minutes we shared he was able to see me with a heart and a soul and a mind uncluttered by the bumptious intrusions of television and movies, car payments and mortgages, women and children, war and peace.

If your retreat into monasticism works, it works because you share a week, a day, an hour smack on the edge of eternity.

Brad Miner, the senior editor of The Catholic Thing, is the author of five books, including The Compleat Gentleman, a new edition of which will be published on April 29 by Richard Vigilante Books.

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Comments (5)Add Comment
Orare et Laborare
written by William Dennis, April 16, 2009
This wholesome article reminds one of the contibution of monastacism in salvaging Western civilization and the Classics, in addition to preserving Christian culture. On the other hand the consistent Christian quandry of who is better Martha or Mary comes to mind. Is there something a bit selfish about removing onself from his fellow man as the Dessert Fathers did? Is it difficult to give Chritian charity in isolation? How close to eternity was Mother Theresa? Do you suppose we needed both? Yes
To Brad
written by debby, April 16, 2009
2nd to last para you describe men completely comfortable w/themselves, men who know themselves, who they are in their dignity as both sons of God & beloved of God. So please tell us how are YOU doing this in your secular life? It is hard not to think that the single-hearted life is Easier (which of course it is not, its just different)than our lives. But please share your secrets of maintaining the Silence of God within the noise of our daily duty as secular people loaded w/concerns & people.
To Debby
written by Brad Miner, April 16, 2009
You wrote: "[P]lease share your secrets of maintaining the Silence of God within the noise of our daily duty as secular people loaded w/concerns . . ." Well, I do it imperfectly, of course. It helps, though, to say the Divine Office daily--it obliterates time, if not also space. It roots you. It quiets you. And I'm a big believer in restraint and in humor. And, of course, I pray and pray and pray. You know what else? I cultivate an "even temper."
thank you Brad
written by debby, April 17, 2009
i know in your Divine Office prayers you are praying for all of us & in His generosity, He allows the general to become person specific, so from this very specific person, please receive my sincere gratitude.
I need to work more on cultivating an even temper.
& thanks staying up thru the wee hours of 4/16-17 to repair this site. prayer of a different kind.
one day we will all be Known, we will see Him face to face, & in His face
we will find All.
Can't wait.
see you then!
Beautiful reflection
written by Brian, May 26, 2009
Once a year I make a three day retreat at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass. It is also Trappist. My first retreat was in summer. I remember turning off the main road and driving up to the Abbey Church - I immediately sensed God's peace. As a daily commuter to NYC, I was a bit jealous of these monks. Alas, the monks life is not for me. I am married with two grown children, a candidate for the Permanent Diaconate. May I paste or link your reflection to my blog? Thanks & God bless you!

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