In an Orthodox monastery a visitor may perceive many things: fragrant smells, beautiful sights of flowers, trees and architecture, the sound of church bells chiming or wooden talatons being rhythmically knocked. But sometimes the greatest impression is made by the lack of sound, by silence. Silence in a holy monastery seems to permeate the air.
For some silence is a welcomed escape from the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives in which we can’t buy groceries without pop music playing overhead. A great deal of white noise accompanies our every move, our every thought. For others silence may make our unaccustomed ears ring, having experienced it so infrequently.
For me the silence of a monastery was contrasted with the loudness of my voice, my thoughts and my feelings. In the face of the monastery’s silence I began to reflect on how loud I am both externally as well as internally. It was a liberating experience because I was recognizing a character flaw for the first time which had previously gone unnoticed, unchecked and unchallenged. I made a mental and emotional note that from that point on I was going to struggle to be more quiet, more silent. Of course it is one thing to will something and another to carry it out, but knowledge and will are important first steps in our battle with the passions.
In the Desert Fathers we are told that “Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, ‘Say something to the archbishop, so that he may edified.’ The old man said to them, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.’” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 81)
Silence, hesychia in Greek, is not only the absence of speech, but a spiritual state of being. This is why the Abba said if the Bishop was not edified by his silence he would not be edified by his speech, because to be edified by his silence is to perceive and understand the higher spiritual state the abba occupied.
Incorporating more silence into our daily lives is not easy, but it is possible. A few things I noticed the sisters do may help shed light on the practical side of acquiring silence: They measure their words, they restrain themselves from speaking too much about superfluous things, they replace idle talk with prayer, they laugh in moderation, avoid gossip, they share spiritually uplifting stories and anecdotes, and they speak in soft voices to maintain the respect due to the grounds of a holy monastery which is dedicated to the glory of God and is an extension of the sacredness of the holy church temple. This creates a peaceful and comforting atmosphere. By imitating the sisters’ virtue and by paying attention to the measure of noise in our own lives (externally and internally) we too can begin to be edified by silence and offer a peaceful haven for others, our family and friends, who are no doubt weary from the noise of the world.
May the Master of All grant us His grace and mercy to not only be edified by silence but edify others by our silence also!