The Voice of Trappist Silence (1941)

Fred L. Holmes presents a lovely meditation on Trappist life in his book The Voice of Trappist Silence. In it, he chronicles his visits to monasteries as well as his interactions with some of the monks he finds in them.

He begins with his arrival at Gethsemani, in Kentucky. He notes the foreboding sense the place conjures up, until one sees the large letters emblazoned over the entryway: “‘Pax Intratibus’—Peace to those who enter!” (1). Upon entering, he says that he feels as though he has stepped back in time to the Middle Ages. And he is struck by the then-complete prohibition against women guests, but he does find the lone woman buried behind Trappist walls, Ann Miles, interesting; she had donated money to the Abbey and subsequently requested her grave be “among those of the departed Trappists” (5). Quoting Michael Williams, he says, “I think that the spirit of that charitable, hospitable Kentucky lady of long ago must still be ministering to the spirits of the new arrivals in that cloistered cemetery” (6).

After a brief history of the Trappists—which provides insight into the monastic excesses of the 13th century and thus the need for “strict observance” of Benedict’s Rule—Holmes begins his second chapter.

To join a monastery is to be misunderstood. Especially does the average person look askance upon one who embraces the stern routine of the Trappists. By the skeptic such an individual is thoughtlessly regarded as a simple, harmless fanatic, or else an escapist who cannot face the ordeals of ordinary life (17).

Holmes though says that these two alternatives are inaccurate. The monk must be one of upstanding character. He observes that the rigors of Trappist life are often too much to bear—”Fewer than one out of ten provisionally admitted [into the Order] are able to survive that burden” (20). From the time someone enters, “the probationer is called upon to preserve chastity by the weapons of vigilance and prayer….Spiritual comfort follows self-denial. So long as he remains, the polishing goes on, that his armor may be kept bright and his life untarnished” (21). Chastity, “freedom from all habits, even innocent ones” (32), is further increased through work, and each brother has a job in the monastery. Through focused prayer and work (ora et labora), Trappists fine tune their chastity and character.

Holmes says he meditates on this work aspect one night, and I found his words on economy most helpful and worth quoting at length.

At times we may be tempted to believe that life is wholly subject to purely economic forces. We are of an age that is busy with a thousand and one plans, mechanism, devices. We endeavor to make our sciences, our technical skills, our whirring machines, vast productive power serve material needs without having regard for the higher needs of the individual members of our social structure.

Even when we do not put our trust in plans, mechanisms, devices, we put our faith in power, in bigness, in sweeping organization. We need to come back to a realization that character in each man is what counts. Character! Truth! These are the forces that count in the long run (39).

He continues,

Some historians would have it that the economic collapse of 1929 was the breakdown of a system…But my grasp of moral realities and more mature observation of events lead me to believe that the breakdown of 1929 sprang more from a breakdown of men than it did from the breakdown of a system….

And so, I come back to the elemental truth, dramatized for me by the simple, austere, and chaste life of the Trappist. Character is central in the lives of individual men, central in the building of a great nation, and central in the management of any economic order which is to serve the many as well as the few (40).

The third chapter continues the theme of economy, focusing on Trappist poverty. In an interview with his guestmaster, Holmes gets at the heart poverty’s value. The guestmaster said, when asked why he’d entered the monastery,

Were you ever in Chicago attempting to walk on State Street on a Saturday noon?…You have been stepped upon, squeezed, crushed, pushed, and crowded about. That’s the spirit of the mob. It is the spirit of business in Chicago. Men are greedy; they grasp all they can; they crush others without conscience. Money and profits are all they think about; all they live for. I grew tired of it all. I came out here seeking peace. I have found it. I would never go back. I am happy (42).

Holmes discusses how the Trappists raise crops to feed themselves and their hired hands, but that the monks themselves have no possessions. He muses, “Sometimes I have thought that it is their renunciations which give such sweetness of character to the Trappists. May it not be that the simpler we keep our lives, the richer our lives can be?” (52).

Chapter 4 is about obedience in Cistercian life. He begins with a Good Thursday foot-washing service, which he was able to attend and during which the abbot washed feet. Humbly washing the brothers’ feet turns out to be the metaphor for all Trappist obedience. “Obedience is taught by humility,” Holmes observes. “If a brother working in the kitchen carelessly breaks a dish, he may be found at the door of the refectory, as the brothers enter for the next meal, kneeling humbly with the broken vessel in his hand.” Holmes admits that “in the world outside [this] would appear ludicrous. In the monastery they are serious” (70). It all comes down to living as Jesus lived and as he called his disciples to live: he who loses his life will find it. As one monk told the author, “Fasting, watching, humiliation, and obedience detach the soul from lower things, disengage it from the sway of the senses, and enable it to wing its flight to God without impediment” (76).

Having seen the monk’s austerity, Holmes nonetheless concludes that “the monks are happy. I realize that toil and silence and meditation have made them humble. I am confident that they have no moments of troubled faith. For they have conquered self” (80). The notion of conquering self is important, and Holmes contrasts government of self with self-government. To illustrate the point, Holmes tells the following story:

“Gentlemen of Harvard, said Sir Edwin Arnold, addressing the students of Harvard University, “in 1776 and in 1812 you conquered your fathers; and in the years from 1861 to 1865 you conquered your brothers. Will you permit an Englishman to say that your next victory must be over yourselves?” (81–82).

Holmes finds such victory among the Trappist monks, who practice humble obedience, having found a sort of renunciation that is “a dramatization of that self-discipline without which self-government is impossible” (84).

Next, Holmes turns to silence. Trappist silence is odd in a world filled with noise. Holmes notes that “[i]f Christ’s Twelve were to preach their message of righteousness today, a captious public would brand them as dangerous [as these “fanatical” silent monks]” (86). But, Holmes rightly observes that “Silence is as deep as eternity; speech is shallow as time” (quoting Carlyle, 86). According to Holmes, the monks have a simple method of sign language that covers the various requests and needs one might have inside the monastery walls, and, as one monk reminded him, the monks are not totally silent because they sing their prayers seven times a day, thereby using their voices only in praise to God. Of this silence and solitude, Holmes writes

Out of my visits to the Trappist monasteries one conclusion stands out sun-clear. Over-busy Americans need to cultivate solitude as an absolute necessity to the achievement and perpetuation in our time of the ideals of democracy of the founding fathers. These ideals are now repulsed by the incongruous noises of a luxury-mad and unthinking age (94).

Thoughout his book, Holmes reveals himself to trust a bit too much in democracy—perhaps a by-product of the fervor of the early 1940s in which he writes—but he is right to call ours “a luxury-mad and unthinking age.” He does seem to miss the wider critique that Cistercians, indeed all desert types, provide, for they are witnesses to a sort of anarchy that seeks God Alone (cf. 76). Again, the notion is government of self, and that can only be achieved only in kenotic renunciation that seeks the betterment of others. Thus Trappist silence. And obedience. And chastity. And stability.

Holmes concludes his book with a reflection on the nightly Compline service, which concludes with the abbot sprinkling holy water on the monks as they enter the great silence—a time when even those monks allowed to converse must remain silent. “God alone now watched” (108). Again, Holmes says that the monks could be models for American reform (110). But I suspect that the monks are too focused on God Alone to be concerned with whether or not America appreciates them. They are more focused on the body of Christ, fulfilling their allotted duties so that their member is healthy and ready for service to the world.

May all members of Christ’s body be so devoted.

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