Last spring, my wife and I got to spend a lovely weekend in the guesthouse of a Cistercian monastery nestled deep in the Shenandoah Valley. Commonly known as Trappists, Cistercians are perhaps most famous for their rule of silence. In the old days, a Cistercian monk almost never spoke aloud (always excepting when he sang in choir), communicating instead, when necessary, via sign language. Even today, “the great silence” is an important part of the daily life of any Cistercian monk or nun.
Retreats at Holy Cross Abbey are self-directed (which means you can attend the daily Office, or ignore it altogether and go hiking), but retreatants are asked to respect the rule of silence, even at meals. You would be surprised how pleasing this can be. Every day you sit in the dining room with fifteen or twenty other retreatants—people you've never met before—and you never say a word! It's a little awkward at first, but then something interesting happens. With the need to make polite conversation now, paradoxically, become impolite, you begin to focus on what is, of course, in fact, the reason you sat down in this dining room in the first place: the food. They serve good country fare at the abbey, and eating it in silence you find yourself really appreciating the give and crunch of the green beans, the savory aromas of a perfect roast. By the end of the weekend, you will have discovered that pretty much everything—clouds, a walk with your wife, a flight of sparrows scattering like leaves over the ground—is similarly intensified and enhanced by the practice of silence.
There's an old Latin saying common among monks: Age quod agis. It means “Do what you are doing.” That's what living for a while in silence's bell jar does for you, it forces you—allows you—to be present to yourself, present to what you are doing, the actual moment you are living through, in a way that nothing else can. If we could, Melissa and I would visit Holy Cross at least three or four times a year. We always say that two days spent at the abbey leaves one feeling as relaxed and refreshed as two full weeks of vacation. But the place is almost a three-hour drive from Talbot County (including a half hour on the Washington Beltway—“Abandon all hope ye who enter here ...”). But, thankfully, there is another place, a place much closer to home, where you can also experience the rare and perfect sanctum afforded by silence.
Libraries are, in a very real sense, a creation of monasteries. It was the monks, after all, who recorded and preserved the works of antiquity that today undergird all modern library collections. And in the noisy hustle and bustle of today's world, libraries remain one of the few public buildings where one can expect to find one's need for a little peace and quiet respected and maintained. On any given day I can sit at the reference desk in our library and look out over twenty or so patrons, each locked away in his or her own private little bubble of thought and concentration. This is the gift that silence offers: the space and refuge to hear and attend to what you—and you alone—think.
In popular culture, librarians are often depicted as frumpy old ladies with their hair up in a bun and a finger raised to their lips, hushing the world. Most librarians, understandably, don't particularly care for the stereotype, but I like to think of it as something of an icon, a guardian angel. For it is the steady, unassuming presence of librarians who, generation after generation, have protected and preserved not just the accumulated wisdom of civilization, but the silence required to fully appreciate that wisdom as well. Blessings upon them all.