Purposeful Silence: Of Pink Floyd, an Abbot, and a Pop Psychiatrist

(photo: Register Files)

“God can sometimes seem to be absent” (CCC 272).

I was driving around town listening to the radio, and next up was Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)”—the group’s big hit decrying rigid conformity in schooling and elsewhere. Like any self-respecting baby boomer, I know the lyrics by heart—“we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control”—and they make me grin every time. Now that I’ve become a dutiful dad, requiring his kids to both go to school and learn things, there’s a delicious irony in recalling that rebellious anthem of my youth. I cranked the volume and belted out the chorus.

This time was different. As the vocals faded, David Gilmour’s exquisite guitar solo came to the fore and I was riveted—like I was listening to it for the first time. Rock chronicler Neil Cossar calls the solo “a masterpiece of rhythmic precision, a fluid exposition of surefooted interlinked riffing, virtually a masterclass in how to play a solo”—which is all true, no doubt. What really captivated me in this listening, however, was Gilmour’s phrasing—particularly his pauses, his intentional use of silence to drive the solo forward. Unlike the guitar shredding and screaming that frequently shows up in pop music, David Gilmour’s paced interlude invites listeners to trust him. As the artist shifts from complex patterns and picking in one moment to utter stillness in the next, we grow in our confidence that we’re in good hands—that Gilmour’s musical moves between sound and its absence have purpose. That it’ll all make sense in the end.

Purposeful reticence has been on my mind of late, in part due to a couple of Mass readings this month. First there was the prophet Elijah and a divinely orchestrated encounter: “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD,” was the word Elijah received, “the LORD will be passing by.” The LORD, mind you, God almighty, the Creator of the universe! We mortals can be excused for expecting some fuss associated with such an appearance, a bit of hoopla—like the strong, heavy winds with “crushing rocks” that Elijah observed, along with an earthquake and a fire!

Nevertheless, Elijah waited—those phenomena might’ve been precursors, but they weren’t to be the mode of encounter. On the contrary, it turned out to be a virtual negation of fuss that ushered the prophet into the Lord’s presence. “After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound,” reads I Kings. “When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.” That’s when God spoke with him—not like an earthquake, but like a whisper.

Then there was God’s whisper on the Nativity of John the Baptist—less than a whisper, actually. More like a vacuum. “The child grew and became strong in spirit,” Luke relates, “and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.” Here’s the last of the prophets, the forerunner of the Messiah, yet he’s relegated to the hinterlands to wait…and wait. Thirty years he (and Israel) waited for his day; thirty years of oblivion and silence; thirty years of dormancy. Yet it was a dormancy filled with anticipation and vitality—bursting with anticipation, you could say, and a vitality barely contained, as the people came to see firsthand when the man clad in camelhair finally started baptizing, preaching repentance, and making straight “the way of the Lord” (Lk 3.3).

So it was these Scripture readings that primed my musings about silence, but there was also a book: The Less Traveled Road, by Fr. M. Raymond, OCSO. It’s a long out-of-print memoir of Frederic Dunne (1874-1948), the first American Trappist abbot and a largely unknown giant in our nation’s Catholic history. Dunne had a hardscrabble childhood after the death of his mother, but his father saw to it that his son was well formed—both as a man and as a Christian. In pursuit of a monastic vocation, young Frederic persevered as an English-speaking novice among the francophone monks of Kentucky’s Gethsemani Abbey, and even flourished as he took on one challenge after another—sacristan, guest master, college administrator, and then prior for three decades. Following his election as Gethsemani’s Abbot in 1935, Dunne met with great success in drawing large numbers of young men to the Abbey and then sending them on to new foundations in Georgia and Utah.

Having visited Gethsemani a couple times, I thoroughly enjoyed father Raymond’s evocative prose which brought me back to my days on retreat there—the pregnant quiet that imbues the atmosphere, the rhythm between prayer and silence, activity and repose. It’s in part Abbot Dunne’s legacy, for he was well known for doubling down on the rigorous Cistercian tradition—even as Gethsemani appeared to be heading toward obscurity as a faltering European relic. “Devotion to duty to the utter disregard of self is the safest, surest, shortest way to sanctity,” was how Fr. Raymond summarized Dunne’s monastic philosophy. Whereas others in his position might’ve relaxed disciplines of taxing physical labor, prayerful mortification, and silence, Dunne called on his community to pursue an exacting embrace of Trappist interpretation of Benedictine rule. And, although the humble Abbot would fiercely object, it’s clear he was largely responsible for transforming Gethsemani into a thriving 20th-century magnet for a new generation of seekers—including, perhaps most notably, a young Thomas Merton.

In our own day, filled as it is with distraction, frenzy, and religious indifference, it seems that we could learn a lot from Abbot Dunne—that the way to attract disaffected Catholics back to the practice of their faith is not by watering things down, but rather tightening them up. Like the liturgy, for instance: Instead of attempting to make it more palatable by adding ever more musical instruments and contemporary frills, we might try accentuating the balance found in the rubrics between noiseless calm and vigorous voice. By elevating attentiveness and contemplation in church over diversion, perhaps we’ll have greater success in elucidating the Faith’s complexity and inherent beauty.

OK, maybe it’s obvious that we should diligently cultivate an appreciation for silence in our noisy times—that, like the Trappists and Elijah, we can sometimes better meet God in the hush and the stillness, and it’s in those places that we ought to seek him out. Yet there’s another side to spiritual quiet, and it’s the quiet of apparent deprivation—when it seems like God is missing in action, when he withdraws any palpable sense of his presence. Many of the saints experienced this painful absence—St. Therese and St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, even Mother Teresa—and Jesus himself gave it expression by quoting Psalm 22 from the Cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

That brings me back to Fr. Raymond’s book, and the reason I picked it up off the shelf in the first place: its title: The Less Traveled Road—like Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” right? It’s a connection that Fr. Raymond himself acknowledged by including the entire poem on the first page. But there’s another connection, and if you’re of a certain age, you’ve probably already thought of it. If not, here’s a hint: “Life is difficult”—remember those words? It’s the opening line of M. Scott Peck’s 1978 runaway bestseller, The Road Less Traveled.

Unlike most self-help books from that era (and beyond), Peck mixed in a healthy dose of realism and austerity with his empathy and encouragement. While acknowledging that life can be hard, for example, he insisted that a commitment to truth is “more important, more vital to our self-interest, than our comfort.” In fact, Peck insisted that such a commitment, as painful as it might be at times, is the very essence of sanity. “Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.”

These words had a gargantuan impact on me at a pivotal moment in my own struggles. I can remember clearly sitting on the grass of a Colorado park as a young man, reading the opening chapters of Peck’s book and wondering if I’d ever be happy again. The sun was shining, children were laughing and playing, yet I could not shake the wet Army blanket of depression that had enveloped me for months—and which had precipitated a move back home from my do-gooder Catholic Worker life in Chicago. “Why, God, why?” was ever on my lips at the time. “Why should I suffer like this when I was doing so much for love of you?”

That’s precisely where Peck’s plainspoken wisdom brought me up short: “The principal form that the work of love takes is attention,” Peck instructed me—as did my counselor. “By far the most common and important way in which we can exercise our attention is by listening.” I’d been conflating “doing” with “loving” in Chicago when I should’ve been paying heed. Far from divine abandonment, my emotional distress led to a more profound intimacy borne of listening—listening to a God who wanted me healed and whole, who wanted me more than my deeds. It’s the essence of the monastic “less traveled road” of Abbot Dunne as well. “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions,” reads the Prologue of the Benedictine Rule, “and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”

That’s a lifelong prescription, for monks and all of us. All it takes is patience—and quiet.