The Silence of Snowmass
by Paula Pryce
“Silence is God’s first language”
~St. John of the Cross~
We in the Centering Prayer community are mourning this month’s closure of St. Benedict’s guesthouse, and the apparent dissolution of the monastery. The universe found a vital heart at Snowmass during her few decades among us. Like a sheltering mother, she gathered us in. She encouraged us to see with wonder, find our centre, and give ourselves back to the world. There, we were nurtured and challenged by Fr. Thomas Keating, Abbot Joseph Boyle, Fr. William Meninger, Fr. Basil Pennington, and other teachers, including Cynthia Bourgeault. At Snowmass, we encountered others who could really see us for who we are – those who listen for God’s first language, those who seek God’s glory in an acorn or a frosty blade of grass. Snowmass helped us to find our feet, the stars, and true companions of the way.
During my years of anthropological research with the Centering Prayer network, the Trappist monks of St. Benedict’s welcomed me as a guest. I have written about the monastery’s exquisite stillness, both inner and outer, and the silence of the Rocky Mountain valley where the community has made its home. Here is a memory of the silence of Snowmass in winter, adapted from a passage of my book, The Monk’s Cell.
I woke at 3:30 in the morning, just before the alarm was to sound. I quickly switched it off, bleary but grateful not to have disturbed my roommate, who wasn’t interested in quite so early a start. There was no time to lose for me, however. I threw the pile of blankets off the guesthouse bed, dressed in layers of wool and down as quietly as I could, then headed out the door to make my way across the mountain valley and down the lonely mile to St. Benedict’s Monastery for the office of Vigils.
Stepping into the frosty air, I gasped. The stars! At this altitude, in this cold, the stars really did have points – five crisp points just like a child’s drawing. Except for the faint starlight, the earth rested silent in deep moonless dark. Periodic flashes from my light helped me keep to the unplowed gravel road. The beams caught the hoary frost, glittering, almost magical, on the sagebrush, grasses, and fence posts.
Entering the austere Trappist chapel, then edging my way to a side bench up against the brick wall, I moved into another variety of silence. It was dark except for a few starry votives at the tabernacle and icons. The monks, in hooded, ivory-coloured habits, sat motionless on wooden benches in the antechapel. Their quiet seemed to blossom through space. A “pungent silence,” our retreat leader, Cynthia Bourgeault, had called it on a previous visit. It had a kind of density, not accidental but filled with intention and potency.
With their initiation of the Vigil office, the monks approached the conclusion of that night’s Great Silence. A clock chimed from the cloister walk outside. The monks rose and the cantor toned,
The community used their thumbs to make the sign of the cross over their mouths, then responded,
Then bowing, the monks chanted together,
They again stood upright, singing,
The plainsong seemed to greet the silence rather than diminish it. Their words were inward, muted, and perfectly synchronized; the unified sound emerged from them effortlessly. It was not beautiful in the way of a stunning, magnetic performance of an accomplished concert choir, but was arresting in its simplicity and ease and inter-corporeality. Their sound inhabited the silence as from a single body. White robes glowing in the votive candlelight, the monks then swept into the chapel choir, weaving light into darkness and sound into silence. Together we observed the office of Vigils and a lengthy period of meditation.
Illustration © John O’Brien from Tales of a Magic Monastery
by Theophane the Monk (1981). Reprinted with permission
After our collective practice, I walked back to the guesthouse. The monks’ intentional silence and sound made the quiet of the valley seem even more apparent. I heard not the slightest rustle in the frozen grasses. These two hours later, the air was colder and the stars had shifted, some constellations having set, others risen. My eyes adjusted to find that the sky had just perceptibly lightened. I could make out the edges of snowbanks along the gravel road and discern the slightly darker mass of mountains against the retreating night. I stopped to listen to the extraordinary lack of sound.
Just then, a lonely call cast itself across the valley from a high ridge. An interlude. Moments later, yips, howls, and yaps came bounding from an opposite hillside. I laughed at their versicle and responsory, cantor and choir Rocky Mountain style. A shooting star burst across the night sky as if in silent appreciation of the coyotes’ early morning office.
~Photo by John De Bord~
Later that day, dressed in jeans and a plaid flannel work shirt, the bearded, greying abbot of the Cistercian Trappist monastery greeted his visitors at the hillside guesthouse before our evening Centering Prayer session. Abbot Joseph Boyle sat within the circle of retreatants in the high-vaulted meditation room overlooking a panoramic view of Mount Sopris.
Abbot Joseph said, “The monastery and guesthouse are like a jewelry setting, but what good is a setting without gems?” He went on to say that we, the guests, were the jewels. “God is the raw force of nature that created the rough gemstones,” he continued, “as well as the jeweller who picks and polishes the stones.” He looked around the circle, saying emphatically, “God has placed you in this setting and therefore you are most welcome. Abolish any thought that you are intruding upon a rarefied Cistercian world. You are not only welcome, you are wanted!” Indeed, he said, the monastery’s guests are companions in the monks’ endeavour to enter deepening silence and prayer; we are their partners in the way.
“This particular monastery has the deepest silence you may ever experience,” the abbot continued. “I have been to every Cistercian monastery in the United States, and many overseas. They all have their sound backdrops: if it’s not the flight path going into Atlanta, it’s the frogs and crickets in North Carolina!” He laughed, then added more seriously, “You won’t get a deeper silence than that of this valley.”
Abbot Joseph thus encouraged us to appreciate the silence that the reclusive mountain setting offered, a silence that is fostered, perpetuated, and cherished by the Trappists, who are among the most silent of Christian orders. By helping us to perceive the beauty in austerity, the abbot encouraged us to keep silence ourselves, without ever suggesting renunciation or restriction. Abbot Joseph and his fellow monks lived their rule of hospitality by welcoming us to share the warm, silent embrace of their Trappist home.
Next day, on a walk in the hills that shelter the jewel of St. Benedict’s, I listened ever more closely. In the depth of that quiet, I could hear the muscular flapping of a high-flying raven and the whistle of wind in closely shorn fields. All was still, within and without. Slowly, I began awakening to how the Beloved infuses all creation, and how she enters us too, those who come with open hands and open hearts.
The silence of Snowmass ripples off the land and the monks who have dwelled there. The silence has flowed into us and circles back to the world again.
Snowmass recedes and Snowmass expands.
~Photo by Eilen deVerteuil~
Paula Pryce is a cultural anthropologist and writer who has explored silence, ritual, and concepts of death, time, and space around the world. She is the author of two books, including The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018). She lives in Vancouver, BC Canada and is a former member of the TCS Board of Directors.