Monastic silence

Zoroastrian Towers of Silence outside Yazd, Yazd province, Iran
Dove of the Holy Spirit (ca. 1660, alabaster, Throne of St. Peter, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican)

Monastic silence is a spiritual practice recommended in varieties of religious practice for purposes including facilitation of approaching deity, or for achieving elevated states of spiritual purity [1] is the practice of silence. Silence has been practiced in every monastic tradition for centuries.[2] It may or may not be in accordance with monk's formal vows of silence but can also engage vowed or un-vowed laity who have not taken vows or novices who are preparing to take vows. Monastic silence is more highly developed in the Roman Catholic faith than in Protestantism, but it is not limited to Catholicism and has corresponding manifestation in Orthodox church, which teaches that silence is a means to access the deity and also a means to develop self-knowledge[3] or to live more harmoniously.[4] Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, even place the virtue of silence on par with the very faith itself in a synodal letter of AD 400. "Monks-if they wish to be what they are called-will love silence and the Catholic faith, for nothing at all is more important than these two things." [5]


Practice of silence by ordained and laity

The practice of silence is observed during different parts of the day; practitioners talk when they need to but maintain a sense of silence or a sense of prayer when talking. Silence practice rules apply to non-vowed guests as well as vowed religious.[6] Contrary to what may be a widespread layperson's view, religious recommendations of silence as praxis does not deprecate speech when it is thoughtful and considerate of commonly held values. According to Andrew March, a Benedictine religious, we "can listen to substantive speech for hours while five minutes of garrulous speech is too much." It is noteworthy that "silence" can include what is more aptly characterized as "quietness", i.e., speaking in low voice tones.[6] Silence is not a mere absence of words or thoughts; it is a positive and substantive reality.[7]

Christian contemplative traditions

Old Testament roots

In Silence, The Still Small Voice of God, Andrew March establishes the roots of silence doctrine in the Psalms attributed to David. "Benedict and his monastics would know from chanting the Psalter every week the verse that follows: “I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse, my heart became hot within me. While I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue” (Psalm 39: 3).

St. Norbet's Arts Center[8] also anchors its views on silence in the Old Testament, citing "For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation." -Psalm 62

Aids to practice

Trappist doctrine under the rubric of "Living in silence" illustrates that over centuries, "a code of simple hand gestures developed to convey basic communication of work and spirit".[9]


Silence plays a salient role in the Benedictine rule. It is thought that by clearing the mind of distraction, one may listen more attentively to the deity.

Christian theology differs from Dharmic religion with regard to the mode in which spiritual ascent transpires within the context of contemplative quiet. Buddhism and Hinduism promote various spiritual practices, as do many Christian denominations. However, Christianity, particularly Protestantism, emphasis the belief that ultimate spiritual achievement is not within the grasp of mortals, no matter how persistent their practice may be. Rather, the mechanism of spiritual attainment, which they regard as salvation and proximity to the deity, is believed to occur solely through supernatural mechanism. This mechanism is variously described as the action of God, conceived as the Father, or, frequently, by action of the Holy Spirit. This mechanism of action, whether conceptualized as by the Father, or the Spirit, is called grace.

In contemplative practice, the role of silence is clearly expressed by the Fr. David Bird, OSB, (Order of St. Benedict), as follows

  • "When both our interior and exterior are quiet, God will do the rest."

Benedictine articulation found wanting

According to Andrew March, Terence Kardong and Esther De Waal contend that, despite the importance of silence practice in Benedictine spirituality, St. Benedict did not articulate its role as well as others.[10] Despite their contention that "disappointment stems from the rich experience each has had with silence that doesn’t seem to be caught as effectively in Benedict’s words as they are in writings by other spiritual master," the Benedictine rule serves as a baseline for many later orders. Nevertheless, the saint's Rule was based upon an earlier text called the Rule of the Master, and considerably redacted treatment of the topic of silence.<ref? Ibid.</ref>


Cistercian monastics have remained active in the promotion of contemplative meditation.[11] Part of the emphasis is on achieving spiritual ascent, but monastic silence also functions to avoid sin.[11]

Although, in itself, speech is morally neutral, the Epistle of James (3:1-12) and many writers of the monastic tradition see in silence the only effective means of neutralizing our tendency towards sins of the tongue.[12] There is an ongoing dialogue between Benedictine and Cistercian [13] which speaks of a "monastic archetype" characterized by peace and silence.


A Trappist’s commitment to silence is a monastic value which assures solitude in community. It fosters mindfulness of God and fraternal communion. It opens the mind to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit and favours attentiveness of heart and solitary prayer to God. Early monastic communities evolved simple hand signing for essential communications. Today spoken conversations between monks are permitted but limited according to the norms established by the community, and approved by the Order.

2. Silence is the mystery of the world to come. Speech is the organ of this present world... More than all things love silence: it brings you a fruit that the tongue cannot describe. In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then from our very silence is born something that draws us into deeper silence. May God give you an experience of this 'something' that is born of silence. If you practice this, inexpressible light will dawn upon you." -Issac of Ninive.

Buddhist tradition

Buddhist meditation techniques use extensive use of meditation practice of vissipana and samatha techniques. In addition, one of the central categories of Buddhist thought is sunyata, which can be characterized as the silence of ontological Being. [6] Contrary to what some may believe, neither the Bodhisattva vows of Mahayana Buddhism nor Theravada typically involve any vows of silence; vowed religious do not typically practice silence pursuant to their vows, but rather as a local or "denominational" rule of monastic life.

Zen practice of silence

  • The zen monastery is called the zen-dō and a primary practice is sitting meditation which is often called zazen. Zazen is practiced either in silence, or by chanting.
  • Apart from sitting practice, silence is frequently customary during simple vegetarian rice-gruel meals.[14] Communication is through codified hand and arm gestures.[15] However, the silence is generally preceded by recitation of, typically, the Hridaya sutra and the five meditations.[16]

Codification of silence in parable

Various stories or parables codify or endorse silence in meditation and action, in both vowed and lay practice.

  • Three monks who had taken vows of silence were permitted an annual reprieve during which one monk was permitted to speak at the end of each year of silence.
At the end of the first year, the first monk was allowed his opportunity to speak, whereupon he said: The soup is too hot.
Another year elapsed. Then it was the next monk's turn. The monks turned their attention to him, whereupon he said: The soup is too cold.
Another year elapsed. It was the third monk's turn. The assembled monks turned to him, whereupon he said: The soup is neither too cold nor too hot. However, it is too salty.
By the fourth year, the Abbess had posted a notice that it would be she who would speak at the end of that year. The assembled monks were particularly alert to hear the esteemed Abess give her speech. One could
hear the sound of a butterfly's wings in the silence which enveloped the hall. Whereupon the Abess said: There will be no more of this quibbling about the soup.
Thus have I heard.


Competitive silence

  • Sounds of Silence
Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks.
By nightfall on the first day, the candle began to flicker and then went out.
The first monk said, "Oh, no! The candle is out."
The second :monk said, "Aren't we not suppose to talk?"
The third monk said, "Why must you two break the silence?"
The fourth monk laughed and said, "Ha! I'm the only one who didn't speak."

Silence practice in Judaism

Judaism has a rich tradition of silence in sacred space and in sacred structures. Although technically not classified as monasteries, synagogues, yeshivas and beit midrash (house of study) are the model, along with the Tanahk (Bible) upon which later monastic silence tradition are built. [19]

Rabbi Shmuel Afek starts minyan with ‘5 minutes of silence’ during which each one of us can engage in his/her own personal preparation for tefillah.[20]

Isadore Twersky is quoted as stating in his monumental Introduction to the Code of Maimonides: "One must be attuned to the silences"[21]

Merton: bridging contemplative traditions

One of the leading exponents of monastic contemplative awareness is Thomas Merton.

Thanks-Giving Square chapel interior in Dallas, Texas

From Thoughts in Solitude (1956)

Merton seems to contend that silence represents a form of transcending paradoxes such as he may have encountered in zazen training.

"Contradictions have always existed in the soul of [individuals]. But it is only when we prefer analysis to silence that they become a constant and insoluble problem. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them and see them in the light of exterior and objective values which make them trivial by comparison."

The Asian Journal

"I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything — without refutation — without establishing some other argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening."

Monastic life

"The chief function of monastic silence is then to preserve that memoria Dei which is much more than just "memory." It is a total consciousness and awareness of God which is impossible without silence, recollection, solitude and a certain withdrawal."[22]

Contemplative silence as protest

In addition to being a major figure in the field of contemplative studies, Merton also expressed awareness of social issues conscience.

"I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators...."
~ Thomas Merton
-In My Own Words[23]

East-West concurrence on role of silent practice

Monastic silence is a category of practice which unites faiths[24] and contributes a perennial topic of convergence between eastern and western traditions.[25] Father Thomas Keating[26] is a highly regarded teacher who garners respect from a wide variety of practitioners from divergent backgrounds. He is founder of Contemplative Outreach and Abbot of St. Benedict's Monatery in Snowmass, Colorado, and as such is a recognized authority on monastic silence. He states that " as in Buddhism, Christianity has several contemplative methods. The methods of contemplative prayer are expressed in two traditions: centering prayer, which we represent, and Christian Meditation, designed by John Main, which is now spreading rapidly throughout the world under the charismatic leadership of Father Lawrence Freeman." Keating's approach is more directly influenced by his collaboration with Buddhists from various traditions, whereas Main is influenced by his travels amongst Indian Hindus.[27]

Keating asserts that one "progresses eventually to Christ nature or Buddha nature"[28] Keating distinguishes his contemplative method from that of John Main, another world renown teacher of Christian mindfulness, but asserts an affinity for "interior silence".

"The John Main approach is a little different than ours, but both go in the same direction: moving beyond dependence on concepts and words to a direct encounter with God on the level of faith and interior silence."[29]

Fr. James Conner, OCSO has written on the Fifth Christian-Buddhist Contemplative Conference held at the Naropa Institute in which ordained from various Zen, Vajrayana and Catholic monastic lineages conducted meditation and discussion. According to his account, wordless prayer is designed to transcend rational processes to allow perception of an exalted state. "Zen says that Buddha-nature begins where the rational level ends. The same is taught in Christianity. One is to practice thoughtless, wordless prayer and thus perceive the divine presence."[28]

Silence motif injected into cross cultural adaptation

Silence is introjected into this famous Christian parable in some circles.

One of master Gasan's monks visited the university in Tokyo. When he returned, he asked the master if he had ever read the Christian Bible.
"No," Gasan replied, "Please read some of it to me." The monk opened the Bible to the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew, and began reading. After reading Christ's words about the lilies in the field, he paused. Master Gasan was silent for a long time.[18]
"Yes," he finally said, "Whoever uttered these words is an enlightened being. What you have read to me is the essence of everything I have been trying to teach you here!"
  • Note that the original rendering of this syncope or parable,[30] does not incorporate silence, and that the adaptation into Zen tradition could have omitted the role of silence. This particular use of silence is neither monastic nor vowed, but the dialogue may well have taken place in a monastery rather than a university.

Buddhism and Christianity are by no means the only traditions enunciating the virtues of quietism. The Tao Te Ching enunciates a view of the supreme value of doing absolutely nothing, in a profound metaphysical sense. This is called wu wei and consistent with the concept of sunyata more fully elaborated in Buddhism. Silence is merely the application of this concept to the tongue in addition to hands and feet.[31]

Application of monastic silence practice outside of religious context

Spiritual practice of silence has been extended into n the healthcare setting under the rubric of Mind-Body healing.[32] Dr. Jack Engler of the Theravada Tradition of Buddhism is Director of the Schiff Psychiatric Center at Harvard University in Boston and also participates in the Christian Buddhist dialogue.Dr Engller lived as a novice at the Abbey of Gethsemane, which is affiliated with Merton, and studied Buddhist meditation practices in Burma and India.[28]

See also


  1. ^ "Holy Trinity Monastery, a Benedictine Community in Southeastern Arizona, Chronicles". 2010-02-24. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  2. ^ Ibid
  3. ^ "The Value of Silence - A Russian Orthodox Church Website : A Russian Orthodox Church Website". 2011-03-28. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  4. ^ "Silence That Screams". Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  5. ^ "Brepols Publishers - Journal Article". 2008-10-01. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  6. ^ a b Corrigan, Maureen (2011-02-10). "Spare And Sublime: A Monastery's Spell Of 'Silence'". NPR. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  7. ^ Ibid
  8. ^ "Trappist Monk : Ideas : Silence". Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  9. ^ "Trappist monk : Ideas : Monasticism". Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b "Tarrawarra Abbey - Monastic Silence". 2007-05-22. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  12. ^ Ibid
  13. ^
  14. ^ gruel and pickled vegetables
  15. ^ Ibid
  16. ^ Ibid
  17. ^ Wisdom from Mom: A American Dharma, D. Virmalakirti, Dharma Bum IMC CCL.3 Press, Austin, 2011
  18. ^ a b "Sufi and Zen parables". Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  19. ^ |Finding meaning in the sound of silence | AZ Jewish Post Dec 23, 2010
  20. ^
  21. ^ Isadore Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah) (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), p. xvi.
  22. ^ Thomas Merton, Monastic Life.
  23. ^ "Monastic Silence: Being instead of Doing - Good Health by Seton". 2009-09-23. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  24. ^ . JSTOR 1390538. 
  25. ^ "Second Buddhist-Christian Colloquium". Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  26. ^ "Father Thomas Keating". Contemplative Outreach. 2010-09-22. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  27. ^ Naropa conference, cited Ibid.
  28. ^ a b c Monastic Dialogue. "Monastic Interreligious Dialogue | Fifth Buddhist-Christian Meditation Conference at Naropa". Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  29. ^
  30. ^ Gospel of Luke, chapter and verse needed
  31. ^ Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu.Various translations.
  32. ^ Speier, DMin, Executive Director, The Seton Cove.

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Monastic sign languages — monastic sign Signed in Europe Native signers (not a primary language)  (date missing) Language family (sign lexicons) Dialects Anglo Saxon Augustinian Benedictine …   Wikipedia

  • Monastic sign language — Monastic sign languages have been used in Europe from at least the tenth century by christian monks, and some, such as Cistercian and Trappist sign languages, are still in use today not only in Europe but also in Japan, China and the USA.… …   Wikipedia

  • Into Great Silence — Promotional movie poster for the film Directed by Philip Gröning Music b …   Wikipedia

  • Vow of silence — A vow of silence is a religious vow, usually taken in a monastic context, to maintain silence. Known as Mauna in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, the practice is integral to Christian and Islamic traditions as well. Apart from that it is also… …   Wikipedia

  • Hari Dass, Baba — (1923– )    teacher of Ashtanga Yoga    For over 50 years, Baba Hari Dass has been teach ing ASHTANGA YOGA and instituting organizations for social service in the United States, Canada, and India, while maintaining vows of monastic silence.… …   Encyclopedia of Hinduism

  • Nirvana — This article is about the religious concept. For the American grunge band, see Nirvana (band). For other uses, see Nirvana (disambiguation). Nirvāṇa (Sanskrit: निर्वाण; Pali: निब्बान (nibbāna); Prakrit: णिव्वाण) is a central concept in Indian… …   Wikipedia

  • Monk — For other uses, see Monk (disambiguation). St. Anthony the Great, considered the Father of Christian Monasticism A monk (from Greek: μοναχός, monachos, single, solitary [1]) is a person who practices religious asceticism, living either alone or… …   Wikipedia

  • Desert Fathers — Coptic icon of Saint Anthony the Great. The Desert Fathers were hermits, ascetics, monks, and nuns (Desert Mothers) who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt beginning around the third century AD. The most well known was Anthony the Great,… …   Wikipedia

  • Cistercians — coat of arms Vietnamese Cistercian monks standing in a cloi …   Wikipedia

  • Luther, Martin — • Leader of the great religious revolt of the sixteenth century in Germany; born at Eisleben, 10 November, 1483; died at Eisleben, 18 February, 1546 Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006. Luther, Martin      …   Catholic encyclopedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.