Trappist Monks and The Vow of Silence

Fellow DUFL Press blogger, Anthony K, emailed me this article the other day. It is an email interview with 4 Trappist Monks and how they deal with their orders vow of silence.  It is a fascinating interview, and I suggest you read the whole thing, but I thought I would focus on one particular quote:

 “As regards “grappling” with the world, in its present state, I will frankly confide to you two very personal vulnerabilities which would make living outside the cloister very difficult for me. First is my impression of the general formlessness of life in America today. So many people today live without a coherent language, symbol system, tradition, or rituals to give concrete expression to what they believe and so speak of seeking “happiness,” “contentment, “light,” “fulfillment”… The abstract formlessness of how Americans talk about matters of ultimate concern wearies me deeply.

The other is the loneliness that characterizes life in America today. Mother Theresa, visiting the U.S. for the first time in the 70s, said she had never seen poverty like what she saw here and she meant the loneliness of Americans. The breakdown and relinquishment of shared value systems and traditions, has left individuals adrift in a private search for God and meaning. This is a terribly lonely way to live. In America, loneliness can become like the blueness of the sky. After a while, people don’t think about it anymore.”

This particular passage struck me because it is something I have felt for a long time. I look at my friends and peers, and I sense a spiritual deadness among them. So many people I know are filled with the dread of anxiety, with so much fear about what they are and hope to be. Meaning is often sought in what our society tells will make us happy… the principle of constant consumption whether its food, sex, drugs, clothes or whatever you deem important enough to “worship.”

There is nothing wrong with any of the above, I think. Who doesn’t love a great meal or having sex all night or brand new shoes? But many of us seem to mistake those pleasures as the end-all-be-all, and when they fail us—and they will always fail us because they are impermanent— it is easy to feel completely empty and lost.

It is this depressive emptiness that seems to be everywhere, especially in this city. The number of people on antidepressants is skyrocketing. In my personal life, I have known so many people to use them as an aid for their own depression. The underlying reason it seems from my experience in the mental health field is that nothing people give them an authentic feeling of meaning. Something appears to be missing, but few people seem to have answers. In the old days, the religion and the church gave us a sense of meaning, but too many generations have seen the hypocrisy of religion to give it any real credence. As Sartre once said, “Nothingness haunts being.”

So what’s the answer? I can try and bullshit you, but I don’t know. My personal feeling is that the continued search and for pleasure is a dead end. Maybe the answer, like the Trappist monks, is in withdrawal. A literal withdrawal like Thoreau into Walden Pond may not be possible for most of us. But a figurative one might. Maybe there are answers in solitude and silence and not constantly seeking. Of course, silence is terrifying for most of us, as the feeling of loneliness can be overwhelming. But I think there is value in that terror and loneliness. As someone once said, “We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them.”

***

I could hardly be called religious. I have no belief in a personal God or any serious connection to any religion. But at this point in my life I have a sense of connection to Things and the mysteries of our existence, which some people could call “God.”  My 20s were spent chasing happiness in the outside world whether it was in relationships or a long list of other pleasures. At 32, I feel happy to let go of that chase and take pleasure in the few moments of silence found in this noisy, unreflective city.

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