The Volume of Silence
I live in a little red house on Broadway street in New Haven. And by on Broadway street, I literally mean on the street. My bedroom window faces the Barnes and Noble across from Christ Church, but between that Barnes and Noble and me are four lanes of traffic and a parking lot. It can get kind of loud in the little red house. Between the street noise and raucous and joyful chaos of seven people being lived inside of it, the little red house rarely experiences silence. I’m not bothered by noise. Noise is comfort, a sign of life. It is a distraction from the incredible and deafening loudness of silence.
In mid October, my six housemates and I attended a retreat to Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY. The most anticipated part of the retreat for the house was the “silence” we were about to be submerged in. I was not quite prepared for the decibel of quiet we actually encountered. Upon stepping out of the car and into the overcast weather I was blown away at just how utterly desert and noiseless it was. No street noise, no ambulances, no people screaming or laughing or talking on their phones at loud volumes, no random music, no anything. I felt intrusive and loud when I spoke. Thankfully, we were greeted by the unabashedly loud and joyful and warm Brother Joseph. The silence was still present, but had been temporarily been dispersed by the welcome of Brother Joseph. I didn’t realize how much I actually like having background noise until there was none. It was like the soundtrack to my life had been stop
ped. I was distracted by the quiet and silence of the monastery more than comforted by it. What had been intended to provide relaxation had actually caused a minor bout of anxiety. I passed through a series of emotions in the first hours of being at the monastery, the initial panic over how incredibly silent the monastery and its grounds were had evaporated with the help of chatter from others in the monastery and my housemates, and I had begun to relax and embrace the quiet. “This isn’t so bad, stop freaking out,” had become my mantra for the day. Then came the Great Silence.
The Great Silence is observed at Holy Cross Monastery from 8 pm (or the end of the compline service) until 8:30 am and there is NO speaking, and NO noise at all. If the silence had been loud during the day, it was practically deafening in the pitch dark of my small room. I hadn’t slept in complete silence and darkness ever. Not once in my life had I ever slept in an environment as dark or quiet as that monastery. I have lived such a loud and vibrant life, that silence scares me. To be completely alone in the dark, with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company was jarring and confusing. People actually like this? They seek this out? Pay good money to stay in places like this?! What does that say about me?!
I was shown the importance of silence in spirituality, but I was also shown that it isn’t for everybody, and it’s not for me! Which is totally fine! I think it is important to at least experience that level of quiet once or twice, but it’s ok if it isn’t a good fit. I live life loud, and total silence makes me incredibly uncomfortable, and that’s just how God made me. I don’t think I’ve ever missed the noise of the city or my street so much before. I think it’s safe to say that silence might not play a very big role in my spiritual life, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.