In loco isto dabo pacem. In this place I give peace.
This is the motto of Pluscarden Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in the Highlands of Scotland. At Pluscarden, the peace that God offers a distracted, restless humanity is encountered, above all, in the “noble simplicity” of their liturgy. Their worship, unblemished and beautiful, exhibits a crystalline purity. Making oneself porous before it, allows an encounter with the Triune God that is simultaneously striking and subtle. This is not liturgy that ambushes you with Baroque force and energy. This is liturgy that has been pared and refined in silence.
It was this silence that moved me most of all during my recent retreat at Pluscarden. The tendency to imagine silence as a benign medium needs to be checked. There is a silence that is the deafening absence of sound. Those whose hearing is impaired or lost, experience silence as debilitating – something that profoundly diminishes their experience of life.
There are Pinteresque silences that are threatening and do violence to others. Silencing others is the oldest and bluntest instrument of control. Giving someone the silent treatment, “sending them to Coventry”, seeks to erase their existence by using silence as a weapon of exclusion. In our personal relationships, the words of an enemy may sting, but the silence of a friend kills. “The silence depressed me,” writes Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar, “It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.” In all these different ways, “silence,” in the words of the Simon and Garfunkel song, “like a cancer grows”. Far from being benign, silence can become metastatic and malignant.
The silence one finds or that finds you at Pluscarden is of a different order entirely. It is regenerating and life-giving. Instead of making you hear less, this silence helps you to hear more. Your hearing becomes canine, picking up hidden frequencies that lie beyond the white noise that exists within and outside ourselves. Silence is a sounding board allowing what could not be heard, to be heard so deeply that you become one with it. This silence is a Gloria.
By listening to the silence, a previously hidden reality begins to present itself to you. A rich soundscape emerges. Birdsong: avian semaphore – a flurry of discordant harmonies caught in the branches of trees. Footfalls in a corridor. The moan of a door. Tornado jets from RAF Lossiemouth tearing open the sky. Plainchant, sinuous and restrained, that leaves its own vapour trail on the soul. An antiphon, “Let us listen to the voice of the Lord and enter into his peace”, reverberates in the sound chambers of your being and brings you to your knees in praise.
In this monastic environment, you soon become aware that silence is not a static, singular force. The silence of Vigils and Lauds at 4.30am has a different texture, weave to the silence of Compline, Night Prayer. The breath of the Holy Spirit animates this silence by ventilating it with his own divine life. Thus, the silence becomes a living, creative thing, where “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
Ausculta, listen, is the opening word of The Rule of St Benedict. Developing an ability to listen is an essential element of the spiritual life and without it, we will struggle to tune in to God’s message of redemptive love. Silence is the chosen medium through which the Triune God communicates His desire for us to share in his life. Listening to the silence makes us more sensitive to even the weakest signal of God’s presence. It concentrates our attention and makes us alert to the sound of His voice. The quality of the silence is a reliable indicator of the quality of the prayer.
On my final morning in the Abbey, I had breakfast with a guest who had arrived the night before. He was a university lecturer. Married with three young children. He wasn’t a Catholic. He described himself as “a broken Baptist.” He had never stayed in a monastery before. He was a retreat virgin. “What do you think has brought you here?” I asked. “I dunno,” he replied, “I guess I just needed a safe place where I could lay down my shame…where the silence could make something of me and maybe God could too.” Amen, I say, to that. Amen.