Following my post from a couple of days ago, which discussed Thomas Merton’s examination of how it is that love fulfils the Law, I came across a poem by the Irish Augustinian poet, Padraig J. Daly, about Merton and his retreat into solitude during the last 18 years of his life. During these years at Gethsemani Monastery he began to spend more and more time in a small hut in the woods of the monastic grounds, deepening his experience of silence, self, and God. Daly’s poem uses this experience as a background for expressing the value of silence in a busy world:
What is to be said about silence
Except that it is;
And you sought it with your books,
In the company of birds;
Walking to morning prayer on a snow carpet,
Nothing there before you
But the marks of the monastery cat
On the white ground;
Or the form where deer slept
Close to your window,
Rhythmically heaving with your sleep’s heaving?
And there is little you can send us out of your silence
Except to say that it is;
And it cries out louder than our clamour.
Daly’s poem contains a wonderful simplicity that echoes its subject matter, and the imagery he uses creates a sense of spare, open spaces, spaces where silence is allowed to breath – snow carpets, deer sleeping near cabin windows. But the imagery itself is used sparingly, and this enables the sense of silence to be mediated more through what is unsaid – it is in the distance between the few images chosen, and the all-pervading theme of silence that moves between them, that the essence of the poem is communicated.
As Daly points towards in the poem, Thomas Merton continued to attend the daily monastic offices, holding this observance in tandem with his new-found solitude; a solitude which was only allowed to him after a long period of requests to his superior, and perseverance despite initial refusals. The reason he was so keen to spend more time in silence alone was that he felt a continual urge to unmask himself, to strip away the layers of self-deception that all of us have, and so better meet the Reality behind all things. He felt that the daily routine of Trappist life was not helping him go further in this process, and sought out more time alone, to be still and silent before the Lord.
For Merton, this unmasking process could only be fully achieved in such conditions. For the rest of us, who are not called to the monastic life and/or do not have time to dedicate so much of life to silent contemplation, it is still important to remember that it is a practice we can share in part. No matter how small a part of the day we give over to this kind of prayer (whether it be fifteen minutes, an hour, two hours, whatever fits into individual schedules), simply being before God in silent contemplation, and letting Him get behind and underneath all the layers of self-justification we have built up, is a vital, though at times difficult (as most worthwhile things are) part of the spiritual life.
This sort of silence is not an empty one at all – as Daly says in the poem’s concluding lines, it ‘cries out louder than our clamour’; in silence God speaks to the deepest parts of us, and if we give Him part of each day in this way, He can and will burrow down into our innermost selves, calling us out so that we may be drawn up into His way of being, His way of thinking, His way of loving. Silence is the best way of opening ourselves up to God, and letting Love in; it is the best way of letting Him change us, of allowing ourselves to be sanctified.