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Religious Life

Ascending to a place that celebrates silence


It’s not quite 6 p.m. on a winter evening. Aside from a wind that occasionally kicks up a bitter flurry, the silence on this hilltop is piercing. Elsewhere lines of commuters and cars vie noisily for passage home. Cluttered airwaves -- ads, analysis and commentary -- compete with human expression: yelling, crying, soothing, arguing, laughing, repeating and advising. Whether on hold, interrogating a tomato in the vegetable aisle, waiting for a tooth to be capped or hair to be trimmed, Muzak fills in the dreaded pause. The incessant noise creates restlessness and unease, but there are places that celebrate the quiet.

On Mount Saviour in the wilds of southern New York, there are no sighs from a precipitous drop in the Dow or a roar and high-fives from a dunk. As the liturgical hour known as Vespers draws near, 13 Benedictine monks in black tunics and full-length black-hooded scapulars enter the chapel and sit on wooden benches. Some wear sandals; others sneakers or boots. Some stare with a distant look; others with eyes shut and a faint smile. There is little to distract.

The octagonal shape of the sanctuary with its stone altar in the center reaches up to a dome with sides of clear glass that stretch further to a pointed steeple with cross. At night, the lit chapel appears like a lantern on nearby hills. From above, naves off the sanctuary take on the dimensions of a Greek cross. The floor is flagstone. The walls are white stucco with an alternating rhythm of small square windows and solid blocks. Beneath is a crypt that is dark and bare except for clear votive lights in front of a 14th-century sculpture of Mary adoring our savior, her son.

The quiet encourages us to listen. The emptiness is an invitation to journey. As incense spirals upward, the cantor imposes upon the silence a chanted appeal: “O God come to my assistance.”

The monks and guests respond: “O Lord make haste to help me.”

As I join in prayer with the monks of Mount Saviour Monastery my questions and confusion, my noise, my dogged demands and limitations are stilled. It’s a moment when the “now” is never a prelude to the “next.”

Upon this mount, I recall my pre-adolescent fascination with these monks in their medieval garb. As a teen, I felt the hope my family kept lit in the chapel’s crypt in front of Our Lady Queen of Peace for my brother in Vietnam. As a young adult trying to unravel the emotional snarls of a physical disability, it is here where I stayed and experienced growing in self and spiritual maturity. Now as an oblate and a neighbor, I vicariously live a monastic life while thankful for my calling to be a husband and a dad.

The moment one ascends the road to Mount Saviour, the natural charm and lack of pretense is as striking as the sudden awareness of quiet. Scottish Blackface sheep graze lazily in long terraced pastures that sweep up gentle slopes. Old farmhouses and barns sit proudly on stone foundations. From the predawn Vigil to the dusk hour of Compline, the chapel’s bell keeps true to the spirit of Benedict, seven times a day, by echoing throughout the surrounding hills and hollows a call to prayer.

It is the bell that centers me on my search, the beauty that opens me to wonder, the silence where I come in touch with enough reality to enable me to live comfortably with mystery, disappointment and uncertainty. However, the consolation is anything but complacent. It dares me to live and act as if every moment is my last, to endure paradox and contradiction with faith and hope. I am not always able to do so.

Like the exposed maple and oak in winter, silence engages the self in a much more exacting way. It lays bare my being. Rather than sit still and listen, it is easier at times to allow my passions to scamper about like rabbits on a dirt road. At other times, the silence can draw me into a communion with the mystery and lull me into a meditative mood with creation. Appreciation glows within like embers being poked by an iron. I greet the howling wind with wonder, not a solitary chill.

For the thousands who visit this mount, scripture and the Rule of Benedict shepherd the way. An egalitarian spirit as Christ taught is practiced. It does not segregate according to wealth or social standing. Teachers and toilers, educated and unschooled, rich and poor, healers and the hurt, pray, eat, sleep, work and wonder together in the chapel, the refectory, the guesthouses, the fields and along dirt paths. The single and married, divorced or widowed, young and old, restless and discouraged come to seek God.

Most are curious about these men who don a habit and pursue this calling. Facts often mix with apocrypha or one’s fancy. The monks who have come and gone or remain are doctors, lawyers, laborers, priests, businessmen, professors, architects, psychologists and artists from places as distant as Germany, Austria, Denmark, Canada, Cuba and every corner of America. They seek transfiguration in heart and mind upon this mount -- to bare their being so God might adorn it.

Aside from their common search, their personalities are distinct. Some are intent as scholars and intellectual seekers; others are simple in their quest. Some are playful, others serious. Some are receptive to visitors; others remain distant. At times, they are weak, tired, discouraged, anxious or at odds with one another. In other words, they have all the qualities and quirks, loveable and otherwise, that go with being human. But what distinguishes these men of faith from others is their desire to prostrate their passions and live according to a direction of prayer, work and study as Benedict prescribed. It is not easy. To live in community often makes clear that cliché about familiarity and contempt. Behind the beautiful liturgies, the solemn eucharistic prayer and the Divine Office, lies the effort to persevere against the staleness of routine. Behind the soft, chanted tones is the harder task of holding on to words that testify to God’s continued, loving presence when one feels spiritually alienated or unloved. The deference paid their vocation by visitors is often too exacting and leads to unfair expectation or disappointment.

Yet, their tenacity and commitment to this life and devotion to prayer is for me a sign of God’s fidelity. Likewise, they more than lip-sync the gospel message; they compensate for much that is deceptive and shallow in the institutional church and society. They support many of us who seek to become better. They are counterculture. In its 50 years, Mount Saviour has dared to mix tradition and informality.

Its idea of hospitality, as with its worship, has always been inclusive. Rabbis, ministers, charismatics and recluses, agnostics and atheists are invited into their circle of praise. It is an incorporating spirit that prompted a global ecumenism of faiths.

As an oblate, I appreciate the daily invitation by the monks to enter into a dimension of their life. As a neighbor, I am grateful for the silence and solitude of this mount. Neither makes me holy, but the monks and this mount teach how the diversions I use to flee or the pace I assume inhibits my recognition of God’s presence. Conversely, I have to worry about gorging myself on too much silence and solitude to the exclusion of life around me. Seeking after the holy is not just a detachment and preoccupation with “what is unseen” but an immersion in “what is” with all its unwelcome interruptions and frustrations.

The silence keeps me humble by reminding me of God’s paradox -- infinity and intimacy. It is this mount’s silence that becomes sacred when I apply it to all my actions and words regardless of the season, my fears, the clamor or whether I’m up here on the hill or down in the hollow.

G. Wayne Barr, an oblate of Mount Saviour Monastery, works part-time as a mentor assistant for SUNY Empire State College in Corning, N.Y. His e-mail address is WaySi53@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001