"A carpet of silence is what we have to create as we take our first step into the sanctuary a tall order for most people nowadays. So let's consider the place of silence in the busy world of everyday life. To begin with, notice that silence is often considered awkward: witness the embarrassed silence of people at a party not sure what to say next, or of a group of strangers stuck in an elevator. These awkward silences disturb us. On the other hand, there is a silence that consoles us: the silence of a sleeping child, the stillness of mountains, or the tranquility of a church.
"As with silence, so too with sound: there is good sound and bad sound. But in the case of sound we have a separate word to describe the bad sort namely, noise. Incessant noise creates stress and deprives us of sleep, while at an extreme it can be used as torture; and yet the right kind of sound is highly sought after. Really loud rock music is popular and clubs pump it out to paying customers; it may be noise to some of us, but to others it is 'the latest sound:' Even in the milder context of a supermarket or an elevator, canned music is present in the background to provide the right kind of sound and to keep bad silence at bay. More positively, classical music is used in classrooms to calm the atmosphere and to help students concentrate. In essence, the wrong kind of noise disturbs us and the right kind of sound helps us.
"The challenge for people today is to find positive silence in the city, the setting in which most people now live. Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is to help people find positive silence inside themselves. In the quest for sanctuary people often find the biggest obstacles are inside themselves. These obstacles are of different kinds and at different levels, but the first one that people most commonly encounter is what we can call 'noises inside my head.' This is not 'the voices inside my head' of the delirious or insane person; this is the simpler phenomenon of thoughts racing in all directions at once.
"At Worth we have many people who come on retreat for the first time, and we invite them to spend some time in silence. At one level this is what they crave and why they have come. So they are often shocked to discover that no sooner have they removed the daily routine, set aside the television, and found a place of silence than their head fills up with trivial thoughts: 'I wonder what's for supper.' 'I need to book an appointment with the dentist.' 'I need to write to my cousin.' People discover, to their shame and embarrassment, that the busyness of life has got right inside their heads and they can't get it out. To empty our heads of all thoughts, words, and images is almost impossible; yet somehow these distressing internal noises need to become gentle internal sounds.
"To help us address the challenge of 'the noises in my head,' I want to look at how we try to avoid silence and then at how we can choose to build times of silence into our lives. The five men in The Monastery found silence the hardest aspect of the monastic life to handle and, in some ways, they never really came to grips with it. In the monastic tradition there is a basic background of silence: where people today commonly have background music, monks have background silence. In some monasteries (Trappist ones, for example) the norm is that the silence is broken only in order to communicate during work or in order to receive guests. In Benedictine monasteries we have special times of recreation and conversation, while our work often involves pastoral activity such as teaching, running retreats, or parish work. All monasteries promote background silence by having meals in silence during which a monk reads aloud from a book and by having the 'Greater Silence' from about 9 p.m. until about 8 a.m., so that the nighttime silence is especially profound. The monastic routine involves not only this general background silence but also two periods of half an hour, morning and evening, set aside for meditation.
"This degree of physical silence is a great help in fostering inner silence; Benedict knew this and it motivates his desire to create exterior silence. But this silence is not an end in itself; it is there to let inner silence grow in the monk so that the inner life might flourish. A gardening analogy may help here: if you have not been used to silence, the first things you notice when you enter into it are the distractions inside yourself the weeds. Even when you pull them up and throw them away, they grow back again quickly and you wonder why you bothered. But you need to keep weeding in order to let the flowers grow. The flowers in this case are the words from God that can grow if you have cleared a space for them. The trouble is that the flowers grow more slowly than the weeds, and so we give up."