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The Word in the Silence

When midnight stuck this January first, I was in a different time zone. My New Year was spent with the nuns of Carmel de la Paix in Mazille, France. There were no imacs, iphones or television sets on which to watch the big ball drop in Times Square. But there was a lot of time. The seeming surplus of it meant that hours (literally) were offered freely, generously to silence in the chapel—simply sitting, being.

Carmel de la Paix is old and it is new. Its roots reach rich soil, dating all the way back to the twelfth century. At that time, pilgrims and ex-crusaders to the Holy Land gathered to pray in silence and solitude at Mount Carmel, and pockets of these “Carmelites” eventually migrated north and west, establishing a significant monastic presence in medieval Europe.

By the sixteenth century, the Carmelite order was ripe for reform. Teresa of Avila, together with John of the Cross, worked to restore Carmel to a deeper spirituality of poverty and prayer. John especially suffered for his involvement in the reform movement, spending nine brutal months as a prisoner of his own fellow Carmelite brethren in Toledo, Spain. The nuns of Carmel de la Paix today find wisdom and help for their spiritual lives in the writings of John and Teresa.

That is their heritage as Carmelites. But the nuns of Mazille are also, as I said, a “new” community. Their presence in Mazille is young, going back only to the early seventies when Brother Roger of Taize requested that a community dedicated to prayer be established somewhere close to his own very active community. From Taize I walked, map in hand on Christmas Day, to Mazille—about seven miles—looking for the “ugly concrete buildings on a hill” I’d been told about. True, against a quaint country landscape, Carmel de la Paix looks somewhat stark. But I think there is a certain monastic style to the modern architecture (by Jose Luis Sert). There is a simplicity, an emptiness that somehow fits the Carmelite charism.[1] I especially liked the chapel, which from the outside looks like a great windowless sarcophagus—cold and impenetrable. But inside there is a space—a protected, womblike space where prayer (a thing so often so frail) can mature freely, at its own pace. 

The nuns of Carmel run a farm, producing all their own vegetables, milk, cheese, butter, etc. (Oh, the butter!) I especially admired the ruddy-faced nun who directed my work in the afternoons—a joyful woman, quick and strong, whose mouth didn’t run like mine but whose quiet movements spoke a confidence I wished I had. She taught me, together with two or three other guests, how to make candles out of cloth, wood and wax, how to clip bushes and rake leaves, and how to tell when a cow is about to give birth. Cows and sheep are sacrificed only for guests at Carmel, whose tables are spread three times a day with the choicest foods. This was hard for me to take as a vegetarian, but the generosity of my hosts enabled me to eat and even enjoy the meaty gravies that touched my vegetables.

Prayer times were where I saw the real fruit of monastic silence. We gathered together in the chapel four times a day to hear scripture and to sing the Psalms and other songs. (How those sisters could sing!) Long pauses punctuated all four liturgies, but at two of the daily prayer times, one pause would last a whole hour. For the first half hour or so, the room would be utterly still. But then, quite often, I would hear a gentle whisper up front where the sisters sat, and I would see one very old little nun talking to her younger neighbor. A dialogue would ensue, ending in the old nun’s quiet for the next five minutes ’til she spoke again. A couple times I watched the old nun rise unnoticed by her prayerful companions, and she would wander sweetly down the line with a smile on her face, patting people tenderly, whispering kind words into their ears. Finally, just before the hour ended, someone would lead the confused but happy old nun from the chapel.

I knew it must be some form of dementia. But what a testimony to the authenticity of their lives! That woman no longer knew she was a nun, or that the Carmelite constitution instructed silence during silent prayer. But her interior self, trained for years by prayer, now naturally reverenced the silence. She felt comfortable with it (at least for half an hour). When she spoke, she whispered, and her speech spread joy, not pain. I was moved profoundly.

The whispers of us guests at meal times were not always so holy. We whispered because we itched to talk, to say something, to be heard. We thought the fact that our voices were quiet meant that we were quiet.

But the silence of the sisters’ lives was different. It was pregnant—pregnant with the Word of God. In Mazille I saw the truth set by Dietrich Bonheoffer that genuine “silence does not mean dumbness, as speech does not mean chatter. Dumbness does not create solitude and chatter does not create fellowship… The Word comes not to the chatterer, but to him who holds his tongue.”[2]

I wonder if the inward silence of those nuns is what gave time at Carmel that transcendent quality I crave so badly in my own daily life. It was honest—devoid of grasping or clutching. And it seemed to usher us all beyond ourselves, into the time and speech of the Father who “spoke one Word, which was his Son… [who] speaks always in eternal silence…” When our inner selves are silent, says John of the Cross, we learn to listen to the timeless Word. And it transforms us. It makes us new.[3]

[1] The term “charism” refers to the special spirit or flavor of a given religious order or community.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, (HarperOne, 1978), pp. 78-79.

[3] John of the Cross, The Sayings of Light and Love, #100 in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington: ICS Publications, 1991), p. 92. [Emphasis added.]

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