For God alone my soul waits in silence.
(Ps. 61:1)

When the Lamb opened the seventh seal,
there was silence in heaven for about about half and hour.

(Rev. 8:1)

Silence is the sacrament of the world to come.
(St. Isaac the Syrian)

Silence is not just the absence of ambient noise.
Nor does it mean the lack of laughter or music or shared reflection.

Silence is a state of mind and heart, a condition of the soul. It is inner stillness.

Silence in heaven reigns amidst joyous song and ceaseless celebration.
It is awe in the presence of the Divine.

Silence in this world leads us beyond earthquake, storm and fire, beyond stress, anguish and pain.
It makes audible, words of ineffable beauty.

Silence lets us hear the still small voice of God.

Hidden in the mountains of south-central France is an ancient Carthusian monastery that dates, in part, from the late eleventh century. The new section was completed some two hundred years later. Referred to as La Petite Chartreuse, it is the smaller—yet still massive—sister structure to le couvent de la Grande-Chartreuse, founded by St Bruno in 1084. The Carthusians follow the Rule of St Benedict. They were perhaps the only medieval monastic body that preserved the Rules strictness, including its emphasis on silence.

Chapter six of the Rule includes the following admonition: Since the spirit of silence is so important, permission to speak should rarely be granted even to perfect disciples, even though it be for good, holy, edifying conversation; for it is written, In much speaking you will not escape sin, and in another place, Death and life are in the power of the tongue.

This strictness regarding silence may seem severe to most Orthodox Christians, even to those who have devoted themselves to the monastic vocation. A lack of rigidity is a great blessing in Orthodox monastic life, but it too often goes together with an equal lack of silence.

(An Orthodox bishop once confided to me an unhappy impression: Our monastics talk too much….) To recover a sense for the sacramental quality of silence, we would do well to spend some time in a community of Carthusian monks. Or in any case, to live for a while among monastics whose life and calling have been shaped by strict observance of the Benedictine Rule.

Many years ago I had such an experience, and it left a mark on me that I hope and pray will never be totally lost. With my wife and children I visited a community of contemplative sisters who, with their bishops blessing, had taken up residence in la Petite Chartreuse. Although their liturgy and spiritual pathway had been very much influenced by Orthodoxy, they owed their gift of silence to St Bruno and to the environment he created.

One moment of that visit stands out above every other. After an early morning climb through the hills surrounding the monastery, I arrived back at the heavy, carved wooden gate leading into the main cluster of buildings. Crossing the courtyard, I stood in front of the huge stone walls of the first building, then entered one wing by an arched doorway at the rear.

In front of me was a long corridor, some fifteen feet wide, stretching into the darkness ahead. Sunlight poured through a row of small windows to my left, illuminating myriad particles of dust suspended in the air. As my eyes became accustomed to the semi-darkness, I made out the shape of a tall figure standing at the end of the corridor, dressed in monastic garb, with the cowl pulled down over his face. A moment later, I realized I was looking at a large, carved wood statue, one that had stood in that place for hundreds of years.

The silence was palpable. Walls of sand-colored rock closed it in, and me with it, to the point that I could hear my heart beat. The floor was a bed of crushed rock, so that each step broke the silence with a quiet crunch.

Standing still in that place, I felt the walls permeated with prayer. Countless monks, unknown to the world but cherished by God, had passed along that corridor, moving with measured steps toward the chapel and the communal office. For a moment, I longed to be with them, to pull a cowl down over my head and spend long moments or hours in a silence broken only by the solemn beauty of Gregorian chant.

I left that place with a certain sadness, knowing full well that I could never acquire the depths of inner stillness that authentic monasticism, of East or West, requires. I, too, talk too much, am too distracted, too spoiled by the glitter of this world, too impatient, too vulnerable, too weak, too proud…. And above all, I lack silence—silence of the kind that comes with genuine inner struggle against all I have just named, and so much more that I dare not mention outside of confession.

I still feel that sadness, and for the same reasons. But by the grace of God, I have tasted the beauty and the power of silence, at least a little. And I am grateful.

If there is one gift I could offer to our monastics, indeed to all of us including myself, it would be the gift of silence. Silence in the outward conditions of our life, that encourages the growth of deep inner stillness. Silence that stifles the perpetual noise that fills the mind and tenses the nerves. Silence that opens both the mind and the heart to otherwise unattainable heights of prayer.

Silence that lets us hear the still small voice of God.