This is another essay that I wrote a few years ago, shortly before I became Orthodox, and never got to publishing. I thought that it may be worth publishing it here as it relates to things that I also keep coming across here and so have expanded and updated it slightly in the hope that it may be helpful. Of course, there is more that can be said on related matters if I ever get to it…
A few years ago, while I was still in the Netherlands, I became aware of a certain media interest in monasticism. Despite their declining numbers and the secularization of society, monasteries continued to fascinate people and had even become rather fashionable destinations for those in search of some sort of inner peace.
What struck me then about this phenomenon was that it was fundamentally redefining monasticism. I read an article that managed to explain the meaning of monasticism for a broad public without once mentioning God or Christ. Instead, it told us that monastics withdraw from society in order to search for silence, for the heart of their life is concerned with what happens in this silence.
That silence is important for the monastic life is indisputable. But for a concept such as “silence” to come to define monasticism, even to the point of replacing any reference to God, is at the very least rather problematic. For Saint Benedict, the necessary condition for becoming a monk was that one truly sought God. Silence can be an important means by which we seek God, but we also need to ask ourselves what silence means. Is silence something neutral? How and with what is silence filled? What is the relationship between word and silence? Is the silence of a Christian monastery different to that of a Buddhist monastery? And what is it that actually happens in the silence?
Since coming back to South Africa, I have become aware that there is a similar dynamic at work among many people who are seeking after “spirituality” – something that I keep hoping to write more about. All too often I have seen references to retreats, courses, groups, and “inspirational” quotes (I could name names but I won’t) that originate in a Christian context but would seem to replace any specifically Christian content with a reference to silence, or solitude, or the absolute. An experience of this silence is what we are told that we need to seek, often by contrasting it to dogma which is invariably viewed in negative terms. But, once more, what is this silence? What is its relationship to Christian tradition and to dogma? (more…)