Learning to Shut. Up. from a Benedictine Monk

It was 5:50 AM on Friday morning when I started my drive from Evanston towards the south side of Chicago. I wanted to start on the right foot, so I clicked OFF my car stereo that was blaring a Rihanna club dance-mix as started the engine. I drove all forty minutes in complete silence. It’s what a monk would do, right? *CLICK-CLICK-CLICK-CLICK* The first sound of my blinker was deafening as I made my first turn from Sherman Ave. onto Clark Street. Had I really gone that long without any music rumbling through my car speakers? Maybe the better question was: had I really gone that long without sound period? That’s what I would try to figure out over the next three days at the Monastery of the Holy Cross.

As a part of the graduation requirement at Garrett-Evangelical, each student must participate in a cross-cultural experience in which they steep themselves in a cultural environment unfamiliar to their own. Many folks base that cultural shift on terms of ethnic differences, such as a white student who has spent their entire life in a traditional, suburban United Methodist community to devote time at, for example, Trinity United Church of Christ, a predominantly African-American charismatic congregation on the in the trenches of urban Chicago. Other students attend Jewish Shabbat Services, Eastern-Orthodox Masses, or join hands at a worship gathering at the Baha’i Temple which, lucky for us, is not only the oldest Baha’i Temple in the world, but it exists a mere mile from our campus. However, when my academic adviser sat me down about six months ago to discuss my options, he had other plans in mind for my experience. “Michael,” he said frankly, “you need some quiet in your life.”

“Umm, thanks?” I was not sure how to respond.

“You thrive in a culture of chaos,” he continued to say. “Your ministry setting in the city (Urban Village Church) has you zooming on trains, hopping buses for appointments, and always on the go-go-go with e-mail responses, Facebook updates, and other forms of online communication with your web savvy congregation.”

He had a point.

“I think for your cross-cultural experience you need to experience a culture that revolves around silence and contemplation. You need to search within the depths of your soul and begin to become familiar with your inner divine. God’s Spirit is a might wind, you know that to be true Michael, but She can also come as a still, soft voice.”

Damn. It was the first word I exhaled in response to his accurate accusation. The reality of my adviser’s words had swelled so deeply in a place of doubt and wonder that I had nothing better to say. Eventually, but reluctantly, I agreed to see his charge through.


an icon of St. Benedict of Nursia

Arriving at Monastery of the Holy Cross and enduring the excruciating 40 minutes of silence, I knew I could accomplish anything. Bring it on. I whispered the words to myself as I climbed the steep stairs into the sanctuary for my first 6:30 AM Mass. The smell of incense permeated the air, mixed with the stench of old cold wood that oddly quieted my anxious soul. Only two people were were in attendance as I entered (in a space that easily could have filled 500 or more), but no lack of numbers would delay the monks from entering on time. A loud clang from a sharp bell signaled the start of the monastic march as 12 hooded men chanted throughout their somber entrance. Ky-ri-e E-lei-son, Ky-ri-e E-lei-son. Over and over again, their words translated from Greek to English, Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy. It was exactly the prayer I needed to hear. Lord, have mercy… that I can get through these next few painful day days.

The first line from the Daily Office almost had me falling out of my seat. Spawning directly from Psalm 51, the Monks chanted in unison:

O Lord, open my lips; and my mouth will proclaim your praise.

What? What did they just say? I came to this place to SHUT my mouth, not keep it open and give forth any kind of praise! Why the hell did I come all the way down here if the first thing we’re going to evoke God to do for us is to open up our traps? I can do that anywhere!

To be honest, those first words truly questioned my whole decision. Why did I travel away from my wife for the weekend to spend it with a motley crew of hypocrites. As the service ended, Brother Ezekiel, one of the 12 monks and my contact at the monastery, came over to greet me as I made my way into the sanctuary’s narthex. At just above a whisper he directed me to the guest house where I would be living and sleeping the next few days. Following the grand tour, Brother Ezekiel asked if I had any questions about the guest house amenities.

“No, Brother, but I do have a question about Mass this morning. I’m… I’m just so confused about the reading of Psalm 51 at the beginning of the first service. How does a monk, who has taken a vow of silence, give praise to God with their mouth?”

He smiled briefly, and with a deep breath he responded: “Just because we as monks have taken a vow of silence, does not negate the fact we all have voices. The prayer asks God that if we are called forth to speak to some degree, that each sound uttered might be words that glorify God’s name.”

With that he handed me the key, wished me Christ’s peace (Pax Christi), and walked out of the room leaving me standing in awe.

Over the next 72 hours I would spend much of my time silently pondering those two sentences Brother Ezekiel so graciously shared with me. I had come to the Monastery of the Holy Cross for a chance to purge the existence of sound, noise, and distraction from my cultural milieu, only to realize what I needed was a reconfiguration of how my I use my voice. It is so easy to open our lips and not only curse and criticize our neighbors, but to miss an opportunity to celebrate God’s goodness. Maybe it is less about shutting up completely and more about being precise with words of encouragement in every opportunity we have to communicate.

The final guideline of the Cross-Cultural requirement at our seminary asks that each proposed experience might “incorporate into ministry a broadened view of what it means to be human and Christian.” I learned a lot about what it means to be a human within the confined walls of the monastery these past three days, but I can’t help to imagine the possibilities as Christians we might have to embody Brother Ezekiel’s calm reminder to convey God’s love in every breathe we take. Although I may not have the radio off in my car every time I hop in the driver’s seat (Rihanna’s club beats withstanding), my view of what it means to be human and Christian certainly has been stretched through the God glorifying voices of these south side monks.


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