Beyond Words: A Comparative Analysis of the Symbolic Role of Silence in Two Monastic Communities—Oriental and Occidental

– written by Rukmini Deva, SURF Recipient

Rukmini with Father Kevin in Mepkin Abbey Monastery, SC

Rukmini with Father Kevin in Mepkin Abbey Monastery, SC

Mahatma Gandhi said, “A periodical decree of silence is not a torture, but a blessing.” This summer, I embarked on a quest to understand why “silence is golden” in both eastern and western religious doctrines. Monastic silence is of particular interest to me, since it indicates a lifetime of voluntary commitment to silence and/or “stillness.” In order to explore this topic further, I visited monasteries around the world but selected two monastic communities to study in depth: a Trappist monastery of fourteen Catholic monks in South Carolina, and a Yogoda ashram monastery of Swamis in India. Through an ethnographic characterization of the symbolic role of silence in the spiritual practices of these two groups of monks, I explored how and why silence is used as a vehicle of deeper thought and spiritual experience within their respective communities.

After days of participant observation and interviews*, I understood how meaningful silence is to these monks. Being a medium of thought, exploration and awe, silence is one of the greatest shapers of the monastic experience. Although the techniques of attaining silence differ for occidental Trappist monks and oriental Kriya Yogis, and the understanding of term “silence” differs as well, the ultimate purpose is common: God-contact. Having years of spiritual experience, these monks understand the occasional temptations, spiritual dryness, and distractions which result during silent meditation. Yet, they are adept at maneuvering their minds God-ward despite “inner demons.” They use will-power and persistence to accomplish their highest spiritual aspirations.

I was touched by their eager willingness to verbalize a sacred, inner journey, so honestly with me. One Trappist monk stated, “Monastic silence has not been easy for me. But it’s certainly the most fulfilling, and it allowed my deeper self to come out faster than anything else.”

Rukmini at a Yogoda Ashram Monastery in India (Yogoda Satsanga Society of India)

Rukmini at a Yogoda Ashram Monastery in India (Yogoda Satsanga Society of India)

Each monk I interviewed left me with a different thought to ponder. A Trappist monk, for example, suggested that ideal silence consists of being comfortable with oneself; people often distract themselves with noise so they do not have to face their inner selves. A Kriya Yogi stated that “motion is the death of spirituality.” It is in true stillness that God can be heard and found. Therefore, it is not surprising that the words “silent” and “listen” consist of the same letters!

While silence was not the goal for either community of monks, it was a means to achieve spiritual attainment. The Kriya Yogis understood this silence as mental and physical stillness while the Trappists understood it as a space for contemplative prayer.

These individual monastic narratives have helped me to appreciate silence as something tangible and worth practicing.

*This human participants’ research was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB)