Monastic Silence: Being instead of Doing


“I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators….”
– Thomas Merton, In My Own Words

These words came to me in an email from the Merton Institute this week. In the midst of all the lies and propaganda swirling in an angry storm around the reform of healthcare, they were like a soothing summer rain. So strident is the debate, that even while it depletes my energy and burdens my soul, it draws me into it. I feel I must address the demagoguery and fear mongering and within minutes my blood pressure rises and all I have really done is add to the chaos. I am on the razor thin edge of becoming what I hate. Clearly my righteous anger puts my equanimity at risk and does little to quell the storm raging both in and around me. So the next approach I try is to simply ignore the whole thing. But this is almost impossible. It leaves me with practically nothing to read in the paper except the comics. I steal a glance at the editorial pages every morning and maybe even read a few paragraphs of Paul Krugman or David Brooks before I feel my heart beating faster and my anxiety building. But sticking my head in the sand feels disingenuous. The Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg says, “Compassion is nurtured by interconnectedness.” By disconnecting I run the risk of hardening my heart. There is a deep sadness that accompanies a growing awareness of the brokenness of our world. It stems – at least for me – from the feeling of utter helplessness I have in the face of our troubled economy, wars in theMiddle East, and politicians who often seem more concerned about winning elections than solving problems. I worry and fret over what it is I am supposed to be doing. But this week the winds of grace blew to me those few words from Thomas Merton, and I remembered that there is a way of being politically engaged that finds its strength in being rather than doing. What does Merton mean by “monastic silence?” It is certainly not the silence of apathy or despair; it is the life-giving silence of contemplation. Contemplation is both a prayer and a way of being in the world. But we cannot live contemplatively – seeing through our illusion of separateness – without first practicing the silence of contemplative prayer. In this silence we simply agree to be in the presence of the Divine Mystery. And in so doing we come to realize who we really are. In Merton’s words, “We discover an older unity. . . we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.” It is our very willingness to sit in the mystery of who we are that is the most eloquent protest imaginable to the fragmenting “lies of politicians, propagandists, and agitators.” I am writing this in late August. By the time you read it the healthcare debate may be over, but the brokenness of the world will still be with us. Contemplative silence addresses the root cause of the brokenness – our illusion of separateness – as Merton reminds us over and over again. In contemplative silence we gain the wisdom of seeing things exactly as they are. In the story of Martha and Mary Jesus says to Martha, “You are anxious and troubled about many things. Only one thing is necessary.” In the practice of contemplative silence we come to learn what that one thing is.