Editor’s note: In the early 1960s, Dolores Hart stunned the Hollywood community when she left behind an acting career for the monastic life. She chronicled her story in “The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows” (Ignatius, 2014).
I have been a professed nun of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, for over fifty years.
Our community follows The Rule of St. Benedict, who put a high value on silence, giving a whole chapter to the subject in the work. He believed that every aspect of the life of those following the rule should show a great reverence and preference for silence. But knowing how fallible we human beings are, he designated that, at the very least, certain times of the day and certain places in the monastery should be held in silence. He wanted his monks to have the best possible environment in which to hear the voice of God with the ear of the heart — and he succeeded.
But before I was a nun, I was an actress! As a professional actress — trained for both film and stage — I knew well the power of silence to communicate something beyond words. The memory of Dame Judith Anderson stealing a scene by simply standing in silence and stroking her cat comes to mind. Silence is far more than the absence of noise — it can be full of whatever is not being said, whatever is rumbling around in the heart. That is why silence cannot be imposed or legislated from without. Neither can it be achieved by an act of will. Silence springs from deep within the core of a person, as all primal human instincts and responses do. Silence, like love itself, grows in the hidden depths of the soul. Far from being in opposition to communication and exchange, real silence depends entirely on growth in relationship, both with God and with other people.
Much as we crave silence, we can fear it. For many young people entering monastic life — steeped as they are in contemporary culture — its silence can present itself as a terrible nothingness, and surrendering to it appears like giving into the death of one’s spirit. But the image of silence as emptiness and the absence of life is ultimately a false image, an image promoted by the evil spirit to turn us away from the unique life-giving power silence has to open a place in our hearts for Christ to be born in us.
Because of my training as an actress I understood the need for silence to be released and fostered from within the individual person and knew how to use the principles of acting to do this. Recognizing this as a need within the classical monastic formation program, our abbess, Mother Benedict Duss, O.S.B., appointed me as dean of education. She asked me to work with the community, especially those new to monastic life, to help them recognize and cultivate silence as an organic inner reality.
I have labored to do this for several generations of nuns now and never cease to wonder at the gift and beauty of the process. To capture how this inner transformation takes place requires the language of analogy and metaphor. So, if you will allow me in this brief space, I would like to invite you into a meditation on silence not as a moral virtue or spiritual practice but rather as a creative process of inner growth. Come with me on this journey across the various bridges of silence that mark each threshold, or step of transition, in our movement toward the fullness of our life in Christ.
Begins with Birth
We begin with birth itself, our first experience of separation and division. Before every physical birth, or the birth of any intellectual or artistic expression, we are presented with the silence of expectation — awe before the unknown. Will we cross the bridge? The silence that awaits the cry of a newborn infant seems to be part of what calls the child into being. That helpless newborn creature depends upon an act of maternal care and readiness to receive it, and then answers with its own amazing patterns of sound. We rejoice to know the baby is living, and we cry back “Amen,” “Thank you,” “Thank God” — a universal response of joy found in every language and faith.
But through this first dialogue we are immediately brought into a new kind of silence. It follows from our maternal or paternal longing to ensure we can provide this new life with the environment it needs in order to survive. Silence now belongs to the mother in whatever room or garden or cave the new child cries for nourishment. Our silence now is one of attuned listening for the cry for food, a capacity we might not have previously even known we had. For a mother it can be a new way of prayer as she gives her breast to the murmuring baby in her arms. For a father the prayer may come in the silence of being fully present to this new relationship between two whom he loves. Others may know the mystery of this silent listening as they hold a tiny lamb to the teats of its anxious mother. Or for a young student it could mean holding his or her mind open in a true quiet that allows new thoughts to be born. All these precious moments of silence are not yet even conscious.
Into this inexplicable mystery of birth and nourishing there comes the silence of truth. No matter how much we have been absorbed in caring for the new life up to this point, we become suddenly aware of our own need. We cross the bridge of silence again and are now the one calling for help. As a unique “I,” I need help in a specific way, and perhaps for the first time in my life I know humility as I ask another for what I cannot give myself. “Who is there to help me?” If answered, I move swiftly into the low hum of an age-old silence. I am quieted by a bond with another body, the penetrating silence when a baby nestles into its mother to become one with her.
In the animal world we see this silence in the peace of the “herd,” a cluster of huddled, mooing cows or sheep with their impossibly energetic lambs — active all day, settling into sleep. Yes, at this level of unconscious instinct a new creature at one with itself and its family creates a holy silence that we all desire with the passion of new discovery. Into this silence comes the whisper of new hope, like the first rain in the spring.
But then there is an awakening. Yet another passion — the desire for consciousness — quietly steals into this unconscious silence and demands to be known. Who am I? Where did I come from? What is my name? Zechariah’s silence was released by the naming of St. John the Baptist, and, in turn, St. John’s own voice eventually came to be released — the greatest of the prophets crying in the wilderness. When we claim our identity, then, we, like St. John, can speak with the voice of the heart. Silence is never again for us a place of unconscious being. I enter it now as a being with a conscious name and identity who can help create the silence, who can “stop the noise,” or cry “shut up,” if need be, and quiet the voices of agitation inside and outside.
At this point, I am ready for grace to penetrate my life and help me to allow the Word itself to be made flesh within me. “For when peaceful stillness encompassed everything / and the night in its swift course was half spent, / Your all-powerful word from heaven’s royal throne / leapt into the doomed land” (Wis 18:14-15). We hear this Old Testament text often at Christmas because it foretells the coming of Christ — the Word of God — into the silence of the world at night, into the silent receptivity of Mary’s womb, into the silence of men’s hearts. But we do not always realize that the Word leaps down continuously to penetrate every human being, signing each with a mission. Our work throughout our whole lifetime is to become conscious of the mission that is uniquely our own and to serve Christ and our fellow man through that mission. In this holy silence I am able to hear innocence in all noise. Silence is never broken here; it is always a form of listening more acutely.
Guard the Silence
Listening, like any gift from the Holy Spirit, can be attacked by the violence of an evil spirit. But standing in mission together, we guard the silence. It is now never broken but is shared though the growth of our love. Complementarity exists between us to continuously bring to birth new forms of life. Creativity is a new child that knows only the truth of this complement holding, and silence is a new beloved gift, for it is between the words and silences of love that we see the kingdom of God himself being built.
In the deepest quiet of natural being the supernatural is given Flesh and Blood because there is always a constant call for interpenetration. The passions play out their music, but these passions are elevated constantly to the unbelievable ecstasy of God’s own capacity to create the whole of existence. It is the awakening from the silence of this life into an eternity of love, which we only know now through listening to the voice of a holiness that precedes us and gives knowledge through grace. All the gifts of the Holy Spirit await our listening together to receive them, and so we bond in chapels, in churches, in cathedrals or in whatever places we are awakened to His love, longing for the time of full communion.
And so silence becomes once again a mystery.
But now may we live at peace in the depths where we rise and fall, continually discovering the series of bridges that takes us ever more deeply into the heart of Love. Yes, silent bridges through which we are born and named and wed to the holy flesh of God forever.
Mother Dolores Hart is a nun at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut.