Tag Archives: silence

Off the Grid…kinda’

27 Oct

I suppose this is a sequel of sorts to my post about getting “Off the Grid” and fostering silence in our busy lives. A version of that post appeared on Catholic Exchange, and it generated a response from one “Mugger Malcolmridge.” Here’s Mugger’s comment in full:

Richard, I’m very much in agreement with you regarding the value of silence. But why listen to NPR?

As they used to say on Monty Python, “It’s a fair cop.”

Alright, I admit it: I listen to NPR — lots of it. Diane  Rehm, Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Car Talk on the weekends. I also listen to Rush Limbaugh from time to time. And the audio from the PBS NewsHour on WSND in the evenings.

Plus, I read the Wall Street Journal daily. And the South Bend Tribune on the weekends. And The Economist. And The Utne Reader when I can get it. And The Week.

That’s a lot, I know. But then, I’m not a monk. I’m a dad. With a job. I have kids to raise. I vote.

“Mugger” was right to challenge somebody who urges silence and detachment from worldly media noise while quoting stories from NPR and major newspapers. And I’m grateful, of course, that he took the trouble to make any kind of response to my post, positive or negative. (Thanks, Mugger, btw).

But I feel compelled to defend myself: The call to silence and detachment for those of us in the world is a relative one.

Recently, a friend reminded me of a familiar saying attributed to Karl Barth:Barth_Writing

Pray with the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other.

Profound, yes, but apparently Barth never actually said those exact words. What he did say, though, was more subtle, and even more profound.

Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.

That’s a quotation lifted from a 1963 interview in Time, and here’s some more:

A theologian should never be formed by the world around him – either East or West. He should make his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash.

Barth was suggesting that Christians not only pray with both Bible and newspaper in hand, but also to do theology that way, yet always with an eye toward the Bible first. We need to know and understand the world we inhabit and hope to minister to, true enough. Nevertheless, that knowledge and understanding must be framed and informed by our knowledge and understanding of Divine Revelation.

This is something the Carthusians have always known and practiced, and why I imagine St. Thomas More so readily adopted their spirituality to his busy secular life. On the one hand, the Carthusians are bound by their charism and their Statutes to cut themselves off from things like NPR:

[G]reat abnegation is required, especially of the natural curiosity that men feel about human affairs.

We should not allow our minds to wander through the world in search of news and gossip; on the contrary, our part is to remain hidden in the shelter of the Lord’s presence. We should therefore avoid all secular books or periodicals that could disturb our interior silence.

That’s all well and good, of course, and certainly understandable given their cloistered and rigorously detached vocation. Nevertheless, the Cathusian Statutes continue:

The heart, however, is not narrowed but enlarged by intimacy with God, so that it is able to embrace in him the hopes and difficulties of the world, and the great causes of the Church, of which it is fitting that monks should have some knowledge.

If it’s true that even Carthusian monks should have some knowledge of the world, how much more so those of us who actually live and function in it. And, if I may be so bold, this is especially true for those of us blessed IGS12with children who require guidance and instruction and familiarization regarding the world they themselves will have to inhabit and navigate.

Still, and in deference to Mr. Malcolmridge, it’s true that we Catholics, lay and religious alike, have to be cautious with regards to the degree to which we sully our souls with the things of the world. Here, too, the Carthusians guide our way forward:

Nevertheless our concern for the welfare of men, if it is true, should express itself, not by the satisfying of our curiosity, but by our remaining closely united to Christ. Let each one, therefore, listen to the Spirit within him, and determine what he can admit into his mind without harm to interior converse with God.

No doubt, I listen to my radio more than I need to, and I could probably skip the newspaper from time to time in favor of more time in prayer. In silence.

All true. But it’s a matter of balance, and not complete abstinence. Even the Carthusians, in their solitude, know what’s going on in the world. We do well to follow their example.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Off the Grid

13 Oct

Give me thy grace, good Lord,
To set the world at nought’,
To set my mind fast upon thee.
And not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths.
~ St. Thomas More, A Godly Meditation (1534)

Thomas More wrote the above when he was in the slammer—the Tower of London, to be exact, and pretty much cut off from the rest of the world.

Nevertheless, he was asking for God’s grace to focus more on Him, and to eschew the “blast of men’s mouths.” Blast of men’s mouths? I’m guessing the only mouthy blast More endured in the Tower was halitosis of his warden and a guard or two.SirTMore

So, if Thomas More, awaiting trial and a death sentence in a jail cell can be concerned about noise and distraction, how much more so those of us in a world full of blasting mouths. No need to go to jail, though, to focus my mind on the things of God. All I have to do is hit the “off” switch—maybe a dozen times or more. Whatever it takes.

Allan Ripp brought this home to me in his WSJ article about BlackBerry and smart phones. Ripp wistfully recalls his Motorola flip phone days, before he succumbed and gave in to the smart phone juggernaut:

Being partially incommunicado had its virtues, until inevitably one too many clients sent an email with nothing more than a lone question mark—or five—the universal sign of “Where the hell are you and why haven’t you responded to this mother-of-all demands I sent all of 30 seconds ago?”

We all live this life these days, regardless of the devices we’ve incorporated into our lives. Cell phones, smart phones, tablets, or whatever (including blogs!), we’re rarely far from being connected and “on.”

Perhaps there are some who relish the connected life—probably the same folks who wear those Bluetooth things in their ears no matter where they go. But I’m guessing there are plenty of people like me who paused a moment when they heard the NPR story last week about the National Radio Quiet Zone in West Virginia—thousands of square miles surrounding the National Radio Astronomy Observatory completely devoid of cell phone service.

Yes. Completely. A veritable paradise of unconnectedness.

But then, you don’t need a federally enforced Quiet Zone for that. Just ask the monks.

St. Benedict wrote about silence in his Rule way back in the sixth century:

Let us do what the Prophet saith: “I said, I will take heed of my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I have set a guard to my mouth, I was dumb, and was humbled, and kept silence even from good things” (Ps 38[39]:2-3).

And the silence was supposed to go both ways in the monastery—i.e., the monks kept quiet themselves, but they also expected to coexist in quiet. In fact, keeping quiet was considered a matter of justice according to Benedict:

When the Work of God is finished, let all go out with the deepest silence, and let reverence be shown to God; that a brother who perhaps desireth to pray especially by himself is not prevented by another’s misconduct (52).

Great-Silence-4That the noisy world we ourselves inhabit hungers for this kind of calm and quiet is evident from the popularity of the 2005 film Into Great Silence, or even the more recent Of Gods and Men (2011). What is it about monks and their separateness that we find so fascinating.

Maybe we get a clue from the Carthusians and their Statutes:

The primary application of our vocation is to give ourselves to the silence and solitude of the cell. It is holy ground, the area where God and his servant hold frequent conversations, as between friends.

The silence and solitude aren’t ends in themselves, in other words, and it’s not just to guard against being polluted by the outside world.

Instead, it’s about finding the space to have a relationship with the Almighty, and like any relationship, it requires focus on the other. No distractions. No beeps and buzzes and ring tones and vibrates. Just quiet and focus, and room for conversation with God.

Thomas More, a mover and shaker, and definitely a player, actually lived with the Carthusians of London for a few years during his law school days, so it’s no wonder he had a different perspective on what constitutes blasty mouths than we do. Despite his place in the world, he knew what really fed him and sustained him, and yet even in the solitude of his cell, it somehow escaped him.

In any case, I don’t need to go to jail to focus my mind on God. All I have to do is hit the “off” switch—maybe a dozen times or more. Whatever it takes.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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