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Three Days of Silence

Have you ever been to a particularly boisterous and noisy party, and, perhaps getting a bit weary of the noise, slipped off into a quiet room by yourself for a bit and shut the door behind you? Or maybe out into the garden? You can still hear the racket behind you, but it’s distant and you feel for a moment delightfully alone and separated.

I spent last weekend at a monastery – a very, very monastic monastery, obscure and utterly, utterly silent – in the precise middle of exact nowhere, vaguely in the vicinity of the old Umbrian town of Gubbio, of St. Francis and the Wolf fame. This place was rebuilt on top of a small mountain where an ancient hilltop farming village once was. There is little left of the old village now – a place so small that even locals with old family roots have never heard of it.

Outside the front door of my hermitage.

On Friday morning, I walked out the door and got on a bus, and came after about four hours to the quietest place on earth. Despite my loud and frequent protestations against Modernia, I met with correction of my illusions upon arrival. I asked the extern sister who greets and settles guests if it would be all right to take some pictures of the grounds and buildings for my website. She looked at me quite blankly for a moment and then said, “I’m sorry. I don’t really know what that is. I’m sure it will be OK to take some pictures, but you’ll have to talk to our new sister about the internet. We didn’t have it when I entered.” We were speaking in Italian, which was the first language of neither of us so maybe I simply wasn’t being clear. But I think she simply had no idea what I meant. It was then that I realized that nearly all my objections to Modernia have been voiced on the internet; an irony I was vaguely aware of before, but which may have come completely home to me only at that moment.

Monastery’s main gate.

This little known area is the home now of a surprisingly successful monastic community, founded in 1950, that is based on the Carthusian model. The monastic Family of Bethlehem, of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and St. Bruno, has about 30 monasteries around the world – many more than survive today of the original Carthusian order – and unusually, nearly all of them are houses of nuns. They are mostly in France; there is one women’s monastery near Gubbio and a matching men’s monastery in the same general area, near the town of Bastia Umbra, close to where I now live. Umbria has ever been the “cuore verde,” the green heart of Italy and it seems this is especially true in things religious, monastic and mystical. It is still so; Umbrians know that theirs is a place of saints and mystics.

A row of hermitages, with their high walls. The little mini doors are for the meals that are delivered when there is a nun in residence. Guests have to go up to the main house to fetch their meals.

It’s the best time of year; the summer is not advanced so everything except the wheat fields is still green. The warm air is full of the scent of flowers; this is the season of the Tiglia blossom, and the sound of bees. The June wildflowers are blooming, buddleia, columbine, valerian and the late campanulas, as well as the delicate and precious little pink pyramid orchids that are everywhere the sun is. Dawn is about five am, and the birds wake you up well before your alarm. The sun warms the ground beneath the cypresses and alpine cedars, and the scent of summer pine comes in on the breeze through your hermitage windows.

Pyramid orchids were everywhere.

Guests come for silence and solitude and are housed in the same little three-level wooden hermitages as the nuns, each with its high wall and stout wooden door, and the little hutch with a door on either side in which the claustral sister leaves your meals. Each hermitage is a tiny world, complete; walled garden, private oratory and little wood stove for winter, a bed built into an alcove, a tiny bath and a desk next to the window for your meals. Each of the “eremi” are named: I’m in “San Francesco”.

(Note to self: next time stop at a ferramenta in Gubbio and buy mosquito nets and a packet of thumbtacks. No one really has ever been able to explain to me why Italians never, ever have screens on their windows. They dislike mosquitoes as much as we do.)

At seven in the singing morning, you walk slowly up the hill, up the little stone steps and through the locked wooden door that leads out of the guest cloister, and up to the chapel to hear the nuns chant their morning offices and the Mass. Then the day is yours until 5:45 for Vespers. You are shown where the hidden key is for the adoration chapel, and that is where I have been singing my own Offices in solitude. The nuns use some combination of the western and Byzantine rite of Divine Office that I find flatly incomprehensible, though so beautiful that I’m happy to just be carried along it like a boat on a stream.

You can take your passeggiata around the grounds – the cloistered parts of the monastery are clearly labeled and surrounded by high wooden walls, so there’s no chance of accidentally stumbling into the wrong place. There are paths that take you through woods and past fields and down to one of the older hermitages – a prefab they used when the place was first founded and is now used for occasional married guests – where there is a sun shade set up and chairs like a suburban terrace, but with all the grand vista of the mountains in every direction, noble and wild and empty.

You take your meals as the nuns do, at the little desk in the hermitage; in the drawers are an extra cloth napkin, olive oil, a little jar of salt, packets of tea and a tiny electric kettle. The bells ring throughout the day to tell the nuns when it is time to pray their Offices, work, eat and sleep. When you are here, it is the only indication that you are not totally alone with the birds and trees.

For most of the day, apart from Mass and the two Offices, morning and evening, in the monastery chapel, the sisters spend their days, as all Carthusians do, in their hermitages, doing manual and artistic work, reading, praying, resting. They get together once a week for a long walk during which they talk freely – I expect about the things they have read and prayed about the rest of the week. And that is all there is to it.

They make pottery and sacred art, painted and carved icons and statues to sell, and do all their own woodwork, gardening, sewing to make habits, and anything else that is needed. And while they do it, they raise their hearts and minds to the listening God. It is perhaps the quietest life in the world. So much so that when you come to visit, it can be a struggle to relinquish our interior noise – our beloved mental racket – that makes up so much of our daily secular lives and makes us feel important. I read once that the Abbot of La Grande Chartreuse said that it takes a monk ten years to completely “settle into the life.” I can well imagine. What a fight it would be to give up noise.

Outside the adoration chapel.

It is also a place so out of the way that even with my amazing new smarty-smart smart phone I can barely get an intermittent signal. I really had no idea such places still existed in Italy, where the use of “devices” is so universal I’ve begun to wonder if they just issue you a smartphone at birth. Being, essentially, both a modern person and a slacker, I have brought both my phone and my laptop, because… well… because. I can’t help being a writer. The days during which you have only prayer, birdsong, and the book of Renaissance painting you brought with you, can be a bit long, so I’ll admit to occasionally taking a hopeful poke at my phone. Sometimes it flashes to life and, sure enough, there everybody still is, on Facebook and Twitter, still yammering and arguing merrily away, as always. It’s like peeking back into the party from the quiet terrace garden.

I’ve been told that though we aren’t here for life, it really still takes at least a week for guests to lose the rattle and ringing in their minds that the world creates. That frantic sense of being surrounded not only with people but with demands and expectations; and the monastery demonstrates that the expectations are of such little actual moment! One is not only required to do the practical, sensible and necessary things like pay one’s bills, clean the bathroom, dig the weeds and feed the kitties, but to “keep up”. And this means to keep up with everything. With the latest television shows, the jabbering of the late night talks shows, the latest slang and cool-kid, in-crowd internet lingo, the plot details of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, or the Walking Dead, the latest superhero films, the latest memes, the latest running jokes… what Luke Skywalker is saying about Donald Trump on Twitter. And heaven help you if you are a week behind! No Boomerposting!

One must know the latest patter of secular politics (in my case this covers four countries and the EU). One must keep track of the latest Islamic outrages, the bombings, the car-rammings, the stabbings and slashings; the useless and cowardly witterings of politicians and churchmen after each day’s blood-smear is hosed away again, cleared up and ready for the next attack. And who is staging counter demonstrations in Poland, in Britain; and then the counter demonstrations to the counter demonstrations, and what the BBC has to say about it. And one must do it every day, because none of that is likely to end soon.

In the Church one must be up to the minute on the daily outrages and all the posturing, blustering pack of heathens; every disaster, every heresy uttered, every act of  brutal suppression and dissolution and every response by the (pitifully few, weak and diffident) people fighting back, as the forces of anti-Christ slowly crush and suffocate the Faith out of the Church. One must know the names and positions, backgrounds and histories of every news-making cardinal and bishop who make excuses and create space for them. One must be conversant with the editorial positions of all the various news outlets, magazines and writers, Catholic and secular, as well as the blogs, knowing which are enemies and which are friends, and which can’t make up their minds.

And one must watch it all, every day, unable to do anything to stop it. One must be in a constant condition of hyper-awareness of what is happening on the little screen, and be ready in a moment to pick out the noteworthy bits and have something sensible to say about them. One must try to listen to all of them at the same time; some of them sly and manipulative, some curt and sarcastic, some direct and factual, many of them in a frightening, screaming rage, many suffering from Modernian anti-rationality, a few so blatantly and forthrightly evil it is breathtaking. One must, in short, be constantly locked in a small room with hundreds people all talking and shouting and demanding attention at once, perhaps the worst nightmare imaginable for a natural introvert, a veritable vision of some upper circle of hell.

At one point, I glanced at my phone and Steve had posted something about Cardinal Paglia defending his homoerotic mural in the Terni cathedral – not very far from where I was sitting – with some pretty obvious smug, contemptuous lies. I looked up from the little screen and heard the bell begin to ring for the evening Office, a sound like a stone dropped into a deep and still pond, one that somehow merely enhanced the holy silence without breaking it. I realized something at that moment that was difficult to put into words, but which the great English art critic John Ruskin came close to summarizing once: “Nothing can be beautiful which is not true.”

This … putrid slime issuing from the mouths of these churchmen cannot be the Truth, whatever their rank. Its very ugliness, the repulsive, sneering twist of their mouths when it comes seething out, is enough to tell you. But at that moment, the utterly sublime beauty of holy stillness where I sat contrasted so perfectly with that horror that there could be no further flicker of doubt – if there had been any. The contrast, indeed, showed me maybe a tiny, dim glimpse of what all this looks like from the perspective of heaven.

The real door to Narnia; this led out of the guests’ cloister back onto the road and up to the chapel.

The Office of Laudes for Saturday:

He found him in the desert
in a place of horror, and vast wilderness.

He led him about and taught him,
and cherished him as the apple of His eye

As the eagle enticeth her young to fly,
and hovereth over them,

So he spread out His wings and too him up
and carried him on His shoulders.

The Lord alone was his leader
and no strange god was at his side.

He brought him into a high land
that he might eat the fruits of the fields…

They sacrificed to demons that are not God,
to gods whom they had not known before;

To new ones that only lately came,
whom their fathers never worshipped.

Thou hast forgotten the God that bore thee,
didst not think of the Lord Who created thee…

Gloria Patri et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto…

I can’t join those nuns and live in that separate world all the time. Haven’t got a vocation to the life, and anyway I’m too old. But I know without the slightest doubt that I want to stay close to them, to visit often and drink the water from that living stream as an antidote to the noxious poisons of the world.

57 thoughts on “Three Days of Silence”

  1. I would like to mention a place not terribly dissimilar to what Miss White has experienced and it is in the States. New York state to be precise, a little ways from Binghamton. It is Mount St. Francis which is still overseen by the Franciscans of the Immaculate. There you can have your own little cabin in the woods. There are over 100 acres with ponds, and paths, and Stations of the Cross to explore and enjoy. There is electricity but you must tote your water. At the ground level is a building with showers and laundry. You bring in your own food. You can stay in your cabin all day if you like. Some cabins have a tabernacle and the Blessed Sacrament may be placed there upon request and approval. The friars have their Office times that you can join with them and also the holy Sacrifice of the Mass every day. There is a wood stove for the cold months and they heat the little cabin wonderfully. As much peace and quiet as you would like! There is also a retreat center building now for some groups with perhaps a dozen little cells and a meeting hall in the basement. A person can come alone or with a group. As far as I know the cost is donation only.

    • I grew up in Binghamton, NY. Those were such happy years in my childhood.

      We moved away when I was about 16 years of age, and I recently returned for a long awaited visit.

      Thank you for your post. I shall look into this.

        • How about that. I was about 5 years old when we moved to Binghamton, from Pittsburgh.
          That was 1963. I went to a wonderful little Catholic School, called St. Catherine of Siena.
          The parish remains, under a different name, but the school has long been closed.
          Our family, lived on the outskirts, in a beautiful rural area. I cannot even begin to describe God’s goodness in my childhood all those years.

          Recently, last year, I returned with my younger children and husband.
          The hills were as beautiful as ever, but the town, seemed more on the decline.
          Of course, as a child, growing up as I did, one would not notice these things much.
          It was so good to revisit though.

          My grandfather, on visiting us, would remark upon his drive to Binghamton,
          ” This is God’s country.”

          • The town has suffered greatly since the collapse of IBM and the loss of the defense industry. It’s a shadow of its former self. I was born there in the 70s, moved away but came back often to visit my grandparents on the south side over the years, then lived there from 1989 to 2002, with breaks for college and other adventures.

            It breaks my heart to go there today. It’s like Steubenville, Ohio, now.

          • Yes. I agree. I went back to the area for my high school reunion two years ago and it had a bit of “rust belt” about it but I still say the southern tier of NY is some of the loveliest scenery you will find anywhere and good solid people with good solid values back in the”old days”–not sure if that part still holds true.

          • Yes. That was my experience two years ago. I too lived in a rural area in the Binghamton area. I hadn’t been back in years. I had been married from a little wooden church on a lovely tree lined street with gracious old homes. Everything was different. The Church building was literally rotting away and the new church outside of town was very modern. They kept some of the old statues but it was Heartbreaking for me.

          • So many Catholic churches gone. And it seems the town has quite become very
            ” Russian” like in appearance, if that makes sense, referring to old photos of communist Russia. It was heartbreaking for me as well.

    • I lived about 18 miles from Binghamton for a good part of my young life. How wonderful this place exists and why oh why didn’t I know about it. Thanks for telling us.

      • Goodness…..yourself, yours truly and Steve are all from the Binghamton area.

        This calls for a donation, which I just did. LOL!

  2. All I can say is a hearty thanks for writing this. It was almost painful reading this over lunch here at the office…but I’m glad places like this still exist. Bah, I need to find a living stream of my own.

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  3. Don’t be too hard on those who fight the fight with daily immersion. I wonder how the dear nuns would react if Cardinal Paglia showed up and told them that the Pope wants them to change this and that. Would they naively obey the good father?

    • I think they would be ill equipped to cope with such a vile onslaught because they have been preserved from such offal. but the Holy Spirit would give them discernment surely if it did come to that.

    • AMEN!!! The only time I have peace and quiet is either in church before Liturgy, adoration or in my car. Otherwise, I’m bombarded by noise.

  4. What an absolutely glorious/ lovely place. Come away from the noise and the chaos of the world. From your photos, heaven really does seem to touch the earth. Given the mountain setting, it is likely there are some pure, cool, refreshing springs on the grounds — living water for body, soul and spirit.

  5. I can’t hear silence. Not for over 20 years now, since I damaged my ears and got tinnitus. Silence is such a beautiful thing! I remember sitting in a monastery waiting room one time. It was so crisply quiet. The sound of my tinnitus filled the room. Because of my tinnitus I now like my silence to be a little bit noisy. Crickets, the rustle of trees, any pleasant sounding little noise to block my internal noise. And then I can hear my version of quiet.

    Your retreat sounds wonderful!

    “I read once that the Abbot of La Grande Chartreuse said that it takes a monk ten years to completely “settle into the life.”

    Make you wonder doesn’t it. I have several books by Carthusians on my wish list. I’m looking forward to reading them.

    Thank you for this article! I enjoy reading what you write as a fellow Benedictine who also has a love for Corvids 😉

    • It must be dreadful to have it all the time. I have it whenever I’ve been travelling; planes, buses trains or cars. It took several hours for it to recede after I arrived.

      • It took a long time to get used to. I was about 19 when I got it. I cried a lot at night that first year.

        If you are having it after travel be sure to take good care of your hearing. Protect your ears from loud sounds (and for others reading this just plain protect your ears too. Hearing is precious!). People will recognise a rock concert as being too loud but not worry about a classical music concert. Beethoven had tinnitus. The thing to think of is ‘is this too loud?’
        Earphones are something to watch out for too. You have to watch to keep them low.

        Enjoy hearing silent silence for me won’t you! I miss it so much!

          • Patience. Many of these communities are attracting vocations with strongly traditionalist leanings. The older generation knows nothing of this conflict, but the younger ones who are seeking authenticity will be taking the reins eventually.

      • Yes – and they have like 6 or Seven hermitages that overlook a lake – it is definitely a piece of heaven on earth- all events here are just like Hillary described for there – same prayers- adoration – picking up your meal – they require you stay at 3 overnights

    • And when you are there, pray for the people of Livingston Manor. I do not know about today, but for a very long time, the child sexual abuse rate in that town was extremely high. It is one of “those towns.” I will spare you the jokes.

  6. Was that your copy of the Vladimir Icon in the photo? A must have for any journey. Is there any way to see an example of the nuns’ office? I would be greatly interested in how they mix Byzantine and Roman since I am pretty much trying to do that now.

  7. I recall reading, many years ago, that some, at least, of the Apollo astronauts had great difficulty re-adjusting to ‘normality’ after their lunar experiences. These men had been ‘closer to the infinite’, (figuratively speaking), than any humans had ever been before, and to have to resign themselves to the mundane and the often trivial or even inane realities of everyday life in contemporary Western society was no easy process.

    I wonder if Hilary finds that a brief retreat into a such heavenly tranquility and sanity makes it easier to cope with the stupidities of the modern world? Or does she find that modernity disturbs her spirit post – retreat more than was the case beforehand?

    • Steve will attest that I was more than usually cranky and cantankerous when I came away. One knows the world has become a monstrous, hellish place, but constant exposure increases one’s defences.

  8. So very beautiful. Imagine if each of us could go to a place like this every so often and spend our time in absolute quiet? What a much better world it would be.

  9. I am glad you were able to experience this way of life for a few days. All Catholics should do this periodically – at least a few times a year. Martha’s ought not to be Martha’s all the time.

  10. Thank you for this thought provoking article, Ms. White. I loved seeing the pictures of this beautiful place, too.
    God bless

  11. Thanks for taking us along. I so relate to that challenge with silence. I realize too well how internally driven I am now, even though I’m aware of it and wish it weren’t so, I’m self-imposing things-to-do and what must get done today, and only a day where I accomplish something, is a really good day. This is madness, how does one stop.

  12. If you don’t mind me asking what do you use to pray the office? I thought that the passage from Saturday Lauds was really beautiful.


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