Silence hovers just beyond our noisy lives


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While I savor the silence this week during my annual monastery retreat, here's a column I wrote about the place back in 1996:

Every once in awhile it's healthy to sample an alternative lifestyle. Which is why I head to New Melleray Abbey in Iowa each October. I don't know what it says about a person who has been to Wisconsin Dells and a Trappist monastery for his two vacation jaunts this year, but it certainly covers the breadth of the vacation spectrum.

A monastic retreat isn't for everyone, of course. You have to enjoy the four S's: simplicity, solitude, slowing down, and above all, silence.

Even in relatively serene suburbs like Oak Park and River Forest we take noise for granted. We deliberately surround ourselves with it because silence makes us nervous. You can find quiet places here if you're looking, but the bigger challenge is silencing the many voices raging inside. Which is why we sometimes lie awake at 3 a.m. in a quiet household. External noise merely offsets?#34;or drowns out?#34;the ongoing town meeting within.

A visit to New Melleray removes the external noise, which at first makes the internal racket seem all the louder. But after a couple of days, when the silence outside matches the silence inside, you can do some serious contemplating, which is what the monks here do when they're not working their butts off running a 1,500-acre agribusiness. It's not an easy life. You have to be pretty tough to be a monk, but there are payoffs, and what they lack in worldly pleasure, they more than make up for in silence.

You have to be silent, the monks say, in order to hear God. Or as the poet Rilke put it, "If only for once it were still. If the not quite right and the why this could be muted, and the neighbor's laughter, and the static my senses make?#34;if all of it didn't keep me from coming awake?#34;then in one vast thousandfold of thought, I could think you up to where thinking ends."

Not everyone is looking for God, of course, but those who do frequently lament the supreme being's inarticulate nature. Some Native Americans, however, take a different approach. For them, God is the silence, and standing alone in the middle of Eastern Iowa's rolling hills, surrounded on all sides by farmland to every horizon, one is ill inclined to dispute the notion.

Each evening I walked out to the middle of the soybean and corn fields to watch the sun set. Each was a sailor's delight, filling the blue dome overhead with feathery, pink- and purple-tinged cirrus clouds. The sky, and the silence, were immense, which puts a person in his place?#34;neither too significant, nor too insignificant.

Sunsets don't have that kind of impact in Oak Park. Upon returning home, I walked to the East Avenue bridge over the Eisenhower Expressway at sunset and felt two worlds collide. The setting sun put me right back in the fields of Iowa, but the noise and headlights and the red neon of Ferrara Pan battled the afterglow. Standing in an environment which is rushed and noisy and crowded with motorized humanity, my only thought was that a few minutes later the sun would be setting at the abbey, and for a moment the silence was stronger than the steady stream of traffic below or the screeching of the passing el.

That won't last long. Soon I'll be busy again and fragmented and internally raging because I've chosen to live in this world for all its flaws and comforts and tradeoffs. But it helps knowing that above even the descending aircraft into O'Hare, silence hovers overhead, patient, waiting to be chosen.

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