Monday, December 31, 2012


The other day I was having a chat with a friend about my experience exploring a Roman Catholic monastic order.  I spent the summer of 1988 at a monastery run by the Order of St. John in Le Creusot, France (in my former mission field) because I wanted to explore what it might mean to live my life as a celibate gay man.

That particular order had a rule of general silence.  It's not that talking was against the rules, but the monks were encouraged to keep silence except in specifically mandated situations.  For instance, it was OK to have very open discussion during classes where we were studying the scriptures together.  After meals on Sunday, conversation and socializing was also allowed.  But generally, you observed silence.

At the monastery, the monks slept in a kind of dormitory.  You had your own private cell.  You showered and washed in a common bathroom where there were private shower stalls.  You ate in a common area, and spent most of your day in group activities (working on a potato farm owned by the monastery, participating in matins, vespers, and other devotionals, scripture study, etc.).  But you didn't do a lot of talking.

My friend seemed sort of surprised as I described this.  He asked me, "Could you ever invite invite another monk to your dormitory cell and have one on one conversations?" I replied that it wouldn't have surprised me if that was against the rules.  Even if it wasn't, I didn't think that would be a general practice. The monks took their commitment to celibacy seriously, and I am sure they would have been aware of the temptations associated with privately entertaining someone in your bedroom.

I think my friend wondered if a life without intimate conversation wouldn't be a life without intimacy, a life of loneliness.

What I can say from my (admittedly short) experience of this, though, is that silence is actually more conducive to intimacy than conversation.  We often use conversation as a shield or a mask.  We can use talk to put on a persona or to distance people from us.  Silence is, oddly, more congenial to truth.

To me, there was something very powerfully intimate about kneeling silently with someone in prayer, or working silently side-by-side with someone in a field.  The intimacy comes through your common work and commitments, and just being together.  Under the right circumstances, there is also a special kind of intimacy that comes from observing the mutually agreed upon physical and spiritual boundaries associated with a commitment to celibacy.

It wasn't a calling that I ultimately felt called to, but I am extremely grateful I had that experience, and I'm grateful for what it taught me about the power of silence.


Anonymous said...

maybe John should take a retreat to St Augustine's house in Michigan.....

J G-W said...

I take it you've spent some time there? It looks like a cool place.

Anonymous said...

Nope, haven't been there. Thought it might be a nice get-away sometime. Looks like they are down to like only three members (but there are those from the community that are associates who join them regularly in the prayers and the Holy Eucharist).