'I can't believe I sat through a three-hour movie without a sound track," a friend mused over a glass of wine.
His wife had dragged him to see Into Great Silence, the movie about the lives of Carthusian monks.
"It was oddly compelling, though," he said.
That's when I admitted that I sometimes spent days in silence, and that it can be strangely irresistible. After a moment of (what else?) dead silence, someone blurted out: "You don't mean in a monastery, like those monks?"
The questions tumbled out: What is it like? Is it hard to be quiet all the time? Why do you go?
Surprisingly, silence isn't all that silent. Freight trains howl in the night; dishes clatter in the rectory; shoes squeak down the halls; fans hum.
The difference is that I no longer control the sound. I can't hit the mute button and silence the train at 1 a.m. I have to listen to how my desire for things rattles places I don't even live in. I can't talk over the conversations in the kitchen; instead, I listen to the voices of those who, day in and day out, see to the basic necessities of the world.
Silence turns out to be less about blocking out the world and more about hearing the things that the world has tried to muffle.
Silence in a monastery is both easy and hard (and no, your vocal cords don't atrophy). Easy when signs point you toward an extra pillow and remind you when the exercise room is open. Hard because we are accustomed to a social sound track with a driving beat, where ring tones alert you to your middle schooler's need to be picked up, and Muzak keeps you moving through the aisles in the grocery store after work. Suddenly you are transported to a place where you have to see the people you are living with, and not rely on artificial cues to tell you that you are lingering overlong in the shower before breakfast.
It is harder still, in a society that values independence, to be deprived of the words that let us hold on to our autonomy.
A few years ago, on a sweltering July day, I returned from a four-mile walk, looking forward to a long, cool swim, only to find the last person walking out the pool gate. Unwilling to transgress by swimming alone, I resigned myself to a shower. The woman at the gate took in my soggy state in a single glance, turned around, sat down under a tree and began to read. Outside the monastery walls, I would never have asked her to stay, but in the silence, I couldn't refuse what was to me unnecessary kindness. She stayed, so I swam.
Hard as it can be at the time to surrender control, silence makes it clear we can and must care for each other in the small, everyday crises, not just when hurricanes tear through our lives.
Five years ago, as I headed out to spend a silent week at a monastery, a friend laughingly asked whether I could bring back a bucket of silence to share. This fall, a group of chemistry students and I will try to do just that, reaching into the varied richness of contemplative traditions to enable students to be more attentive to their work, to themselves and to each other. Our companions along the way include not only centuries of monastics, but fifth graders at Oakland's Piedmont Avenue Elementary School and music students at the University of Michigan.
Why do I keep returning to silent places? I imagine for the same reason people go down the Shore: to let silence lap over my feet, to dive into its coolness, to listen to the world crash on the sand. Most of all, I go to stand at the edge of a vastness I cannot fully comprehend.