Plough Logo

Shopping Cart

  View Cart

Subtotal:

Checkout
A world of silence: Grande Chartreuse Monastery, Grenoble, France

Saving Silence

Unlearning the Sin of Curiosity

Nathaniel Peters

4 Comments
4 Comments
4 Comments
    Submit
  • Valerie Van Selous, Pennington, NJ

    As a enthusiastic subscriber to Plough, I apologize for the harsh comment that lies in my heart. I feel compelled to write because the unspoken word I hear in this article, and in the pews of my own church is to me well-meaning, but an injustice to our faith: the word is fear. Why do so many fear curiosity? In short, I think it's because, as the article points out, curiosity can lead you down the wrong path Curiosity did kill the cat. However, curiosity can also lead to scientific break throughs and new ways of understanding our world. I believe that the faithful should embrace curiosity and be the ones who can thoughtfully and prayfully discern the difference between healthy questioning verses destuctive wandering. Christians have a brave history that I want to embrace, not cower from, as we know, no matter what, we are already forgiven.

  • Mark Jabusch

    Thank you for the article, "Saving Silence." Curiosity is a constant threat to my soul. Over the years, I have learned to enjoy and benefit from periods of solitude. A person can hear more in a quiet environment than in the noise and scuffles of high-tech living.

  • Jenni Ho-Huan

    This gives me insight. I have been wondering about why I love knowing stuff. There is of course a degree of healthy curiosity. I thought too of how Adam was tasked to name, and so together with the knowledge economy, we are all geared towards information-gathering. But to what end is all the information gathered? With the smartphone and internet, it has certainly become a disordered and inordinate thing! Curiosity can kill the cat, it seems. Thank you.

  • kathleen ward

    wow~ tackled so much and did it so well~Thank You! "The noise of curiosity is one strain of the broader cacophony in our culture." again ~ wow!

“Silence is not the exile of speech. It is the love of the one Word.” —Robert Cardinal Sarah 

I go to look up a newspaper article on a dispute between a high-ranking judge and a popular journalist. In the middle of the article, I find some unexpected headlines inviting me to click. The frankness of this would-be enticement makes it laughable, and gives me little pause as I continue on with my article. But it serves as a reminder of the noise that characterizes our present age. Sin is not only easy to find, but it comes after you. We are prompted and guided to distraction, coaxed into desiring things we never thought we needed or needed to know.

Earlier Christians had a word for this: curiosity. Curiosity might be the besetting sin of our time. On the face of it, such a statement seems absurd, or perhaps it belongs to a more legalistic period of Christian life that modern believers have happily outgrown. Curiosity is the desire to understand, which we consider a good thing; schools and responsible parents encourage it, and our economy rewards it. But earlier Christians recognized that the desire for knowledge is not necessarily pure. This should not surprise us, since we recognize that our other appetites can go astray in a number of ways. In his Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar, Paul Griffiths notes that all Latin Christians from Tertullian through Bossuet in the seventeenth century recognized curiosity as a disordered appetite for knowledge that we do not have or need to know. This they distinguished from studiousness, an eager and rightly ordered pursuit of the truth.

In On the Trinity, Saint Augustine of Hippo makes the distinction this way: The studious are prompted by a love of what they know. The curious hate what they do not know with “anxious hatred,” wanting to reduce the number of unknowns to zero, to extinguish them. Curiosity wants new knowledge or intimacy with something so it can use that knowledge to control and dominate. It is the appetite for the ownership of new knowledge. It is concerned with novelty and knowing what others do not know.

The studious want to participate lovingly in what they know and respond to it as a gift, with intimacy. Saint Thomas Aquinas calls studiousness a kind of temperance, a moder­ation of our natural desires, like chastity or moderation in our food and drink. By contrast, the philos­opher Hans Blumenberg notes, the curious seek their enjoyment not in the objects of their knowledge or study, but ultimately only in themselves.

This may seem like splitting hairs, but we see it all the time when on the internet or even as we wait to pay for our groceries in the supermarket. The headlines we see appeal to our propensity to gossip, lust, and anger. They call us to look at beautiful bodies, read the juicy news of the downfall of others, and fuel our rage at the triumph of our political enemies. But the handmaiden to all these sins is that small desire to know more when we have no good reason for knowing it. Our study of our faith and the information proper to our vocations have a gathering effect. They concentrate the mind and, with effort, create clarity. Curiosity, by contrast, scatters and produces noise, not fruit.

A world of silence: Grande Chartreuse Monastery, Grenoble, France A world of silence: Grande Chartreuse Monastery, Grenoble, France Reproduced by permission of Christelle Jouvel

The noise of curiosity is one strain of the broader cacophony in our culture. Even people with little concern for the virtue of studiousness or the health of the soul have begun to take notice. There are now TED talks and popular articles on the ways in which internet pornography physically changes the brain. Just using a smartphone shapes your intellectual habits, albeit with less grave consequences. The Atlantic reported recently on the way in which silence has become a luxury good, especially for those who upgrade to the luxury lounges in airports and purchase expensive noise-canceling headphones. The latter are perhaps the best symbol of our environment: canceling out the world around us the better to fill ourselves with the pure sound of our own choice.

Christian authors such as James K. A. Smith and Rod Dreher have called attention to our need for weaning from our devices, a practice Dreher calls “technological asceticism.” Now Robert Cardinal Sarah, the former Catholic archbishop of the Guinean capital Conakry and current prefect for the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, offers a strong antidote with The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, an extended interview with the French journalist Nicolas Diat. The book is not a theological argument, but distilled, searing wisdom drawn from patristic writers such as Isaac the Syrian and Gregory the Great as well as modern authors such as Thomas Merton and Maurice Zundel. It should be read slowly and deliberately.

For Sarah, silence is an open space in which encounter with God is possible, and is therefore the nexus of many aspects of the spiritual life. We tend to think of silence as the absence of noise, in which case silence is a primarily negative attribute. However, Sarah writes, “Silence is not an absence. On the contrary, it is the manifestation of a presence, the most intense of all presences.” The silence of God is the simple and quiet expression of his being, the eternal movement of the persons of the Trinity in their relations. Hence Sarah writes: “The silence of God is a form of speech. His Word is solitude. The solitude of God is not an absence, it is his very being, his silent transcendence.” Or in the words of Saint John of the Cross: “The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word he always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence it must be heard by the soul.”

Creation itself, Sarah writes, is a kind of silent word God speaks, and by creating men and women in his image and likeness, he invites them into a silent encounter. Thus from the human standpoint, silence is, as Diat puts it, “above all the attitude of someone who listens.” The French word disponibilité captures this well. It means availability, receptivity, the “Here I am” of Samuel called before the Lord in the temple in the darkness of the night. It is reminiscent as well of Solomon’s request for a heart that listens to God, for the silence that is the beginning of wisdom.

This silence at the heart of our being is an important aspect of the likeness of God in us, the place where we become more like him. Sarah writes:

When he drapes himself in silence, as God himself dwells in a great silence, man is close to heaven, or, rather, he allows God to manifest himself in him… At the heart of man there is an innate silence, for God abides in the innermost part of every person. God is silence, and this divine silence dwells in man.

The task of the spiritual life, then, is to cultivate that silent receptivity to God and to those we meet. Though Sarah does not map out a program for doing this, he points toward three things. First, he says, it is absurd to talk about interior silence without exterior silence. We need to follow Christ’s example and spend time alone with God, minimizing exterior distractions. Second, Sarah recommends the kind of close study of scripture that Christians have undertaken for centuries, commonly called lectio divina. This is not an academic study of the text, but rather a way of meditating on the text that uses verses and themes as spurs toward prayer.

Third, Sarah says that we must be ready to encounter and quiet “the interior turmoil” we find within ourselves: “the agitations, the busyness, the easy pleasures,” the noise of our own ego and memories of our past sins. In the final chapter of the book, Cardinal Sarah speaks with Dom Dysmus de Lassus, the Minister General of the Carthusian Order, the Catholic Church’s most strictly contemplative monks. Lassus notes that the disquiet we feel in silence comes not from the silence, but from what it reveals. We have to learn how to tame “the menagerie that lives inside us if we want the wild animals to be able to leave us in silence someday.” This, he says, is not so much a matter of struggling against our unwanted thoughts, “but rather of unceasingly returning to God.”

The refusal to do this lies at the heart of the culture of noise Cardinal Sarah decries. Our culture’s aversion to silence is an aversion to the real questions of life and the things with which we must wrestle as part of the human condition, chief among these the question of God. Here is where curiosity leads us into dissipated internal noise instead of deepening the knowledge that leads us to God. The cardinal writes:

For someone who is far from God, silence is a difficult confrontation with his own self and with the rather dismal realities that are at the bottom of our soul. Hence, man enters a ­mentality that resembles a denial of reality. He gets drunk on all sorts of noises so as to forget who he is. Postmodern man seeks to anesthetize his own atheism.

Noise thus becomes “a whirlwind that avoids facing itself” and a kind of tranquilizer that keeps many from confronting wonder, God, and the demands of their own emptiness.

In response, Sarah urges Christians to cultivate silence in their corporate piety and worship. He echoes Thomas Merton’s call to form communities where homes and classrooms – despite their activity – become sanctuaries of silence. We need not think we have to share the intimate details of our spiritual lives with groups or pump ourselves with feelings to worship God.

Some of the most silent Christians to worship God are the Carthusian monks. They live as a community of hermits, praying together daily but spending most of their remaining time in solitude. Their motto: “The cross stands while the world turns.” In over nine hundred years they have never undergone a major reform of their congregation, because it has never been necessary. Their motherhouse lies in a valley in the Chartreuse Mountains next to the French Alps, which gave the order its name. The heart of Carthusian life is the Night Office, their midnight service of psalms and readings that lasts more than two hours and is conducted in darkness. Its soul, Dom de Lassus writes, is the thirst for God. Carthusian silence is pregnant with desire:

The contemplative soul that has learned the language of the divine Bridegroom, although it never hears it as one hears human speech, still learns gradually to notice its traces everywhere. This soul then resembles a loving woman who knows that she is deeply loved, waiting to meet in the evening the man whom she loves.

I experienced something of this some years ago when I visited the Grande Chartreuse. The bus dropped me off at the foot of a steep road. As I climbed, the air was sweet and thick enough to cut. I came to a small complex that used to serve as an infirmary, office, and residence for some of the monks. Now it is a museum in which visitors can experience a taste of Carthusian life, since they are not admitted into the main building. Every cell is made with rich wood and looks out at the soaring mountains. When I climbed further up, past cows pastured before the crags, I saw the Grande Chartreuse itself. I put my eye to a keyhole and spied a Carthusian practicing chant in a chapel. The only opening for visitors was in the outer wall. I entered and discovered a chapel with the Blessed Sacrament and a sign inviting me to encounter God, who waited for me here in the great silence.

maple seeds David Lorenz Winston, Mapleseeds

Insight on Silence
“The greatest things are accomplished in silence – not in the clamor and display of superficial eventfulness, but in the deep clarity of inner vision; in the almost imperceptible start of decision, in quiet overcoming and hidden sacrifice. Spiritual conception happens when the heart is quickened by love, and the free will stirs to action. The silent forces are the strong forces.”
Romano Guardini, The Lord
Contributed By Nathaniel Peters Nathaniel Peters

Nathaniel Peters is the executive director of the Morningside Institute and a lecturer at Columbia University.

Learn More
4 Comments