Silence of Monks

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“For it becomes the master to speak and to teach, but it beseems the disciple to be silent and to listen.” The Rule of St. Benedict

Fall break. I am spending a week with fourteen college students, plus my son, living the life—as near as we can—of the Benedictine monks of Clear Creek in Oklahoma. It is truly an experience of another life. A life that has the power to change the world. Indeed, once upon a time it did. A life from which we—even though most of us must live a different life—can learn much.

Perhaps the most striking feature is the silence. St. Benedict both commands silence and forbids idleness. Silence with a purpose. Silence with urgency, but peace. Silence because something needs to be done, which can only be done in silence. Silence because something needs to be learned. Through listening.

Upon seeing and hearing such silence one is struck by how strange it is. How can they do this?

Then light begins to dawn. How can the rest of us not emulate this? Somehow. For the sake of human life.

St. Benedict (480-543) is considered the father of western monasticism.

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Discussing Virtue, Daily

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“It is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others…” Socrates, The Apology

Philosophers can get a bad rap—among other things for discussing issues far removed from the exigencies of daily life. This is not surprising, given that many recent philosophers have given up the project of addressing life’s fundamental questions.

Not so with Socrates. He had an uncanny focus on the essential, and a striking combination of boldness and humility. Confident that the fundamental questions can be answered, he was never satisfied with the answers he had. So he kept looking and considering, and this especially by discussing.

Socrates’ discussion of virtue was not academic. It had the urgency of a discussion about how to earn a daily wage, or how to find the way home when lost. All else paled in face of the challenge of how to become the man he knew he should be. And he knew he couldn’t figure it out on his own; or if he ever stopped asking the same questions.

We could expect no more of Socrates than this fidelity in making inquiry into the most burning questions. And even if our daily schedules are more challenging than his, perhaps we should expect no less of ourselves.

The thought of Socrates (c. 469 B.C.-399 B.C.) is known primarily through the writings of his great student Plato. Plato’s Apology gives an account of the trial in which Socrates was condemned to death by an Athenian jury.

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Who’s Hiding from Whom

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“The real nature of things is accustomed to hide itself.” Heraclitus

Heraclitus seems to imply that reality strives to veil itself. Is there a latent cruelty in reality—that it recedes from our comprehension?

Maybe we should make a distinction: there is a difference between something hiding itself, and something being visible only to those who grow capable of seeing. In Plato’s story of the cave, the higher realities are not hiding themselves; it just takes much discipline, and help, in order to discover them. And indeed, many are not willing to make the effort to do so. In that case it is more we who are the cause of the disconnect between ourselves and reality. Not reality itself.

Perhaps the effort required to come to see things as they are, is itself revelatory of the way things are. Maybe the hiddenness of the nature of things—could it be called a modest reserve?—is a kind of prod, even an invitation, to look deeper.

Aristotle seems to suggest an answer to this Heraclitan riddle. He says that to the upright character, things appear as they really are. Perhaps the real nature of things often eludes my grasp, because I have not disposed myself well, that I might see.

Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher from the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor, predated Socrates by almost a century (flourished circa 500 B.C.). His works survive only in fragments.

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To Text, or Not to Text

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I share some thoughts on this question at Front Porch Republic, following my attending a conference with Wendell Berry this past weekend.
Texting: Why I Resolve to Avoid It

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Discipline and Silence

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“And when it comes to action, put your trust in discipline and silence; in every kind of warfare they count a lot, and particularly in naval engagement.”
Phormio, Athenian naval commander,
in Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War.

The parallels between warfare and life are many. In this speech Phormio seeks to encourage his men, whose spirits are low in the face of superior numbers of the Spartan fleet.

Soldiers spend much time training, trying to achieve ‘discipline,’ so that finally ‘when it comes to action’ they’ll be ready to go into battle. Is there a parallel between battle and daily life? It seems that the whole day is action-time for me. It is hard to be training when you’re already in the middle of things. Somehow we have to figure out how to become disciplined, through daily practices, so that our daily life—which may well have more significance than the battle of Naupactus—bears the fruit that it should.

Then there’s silence. It seems that Phormio counseled silence in battle so that the men would be able to hear the commands of their officers. I wonder what commands—or other important words—I’m not hearing because I don’t maintain enough silence, daily.

Phormio’s men had been trained, and were now reminded, of what they need to do—‘when it comes to action.’ And they won that battle.

Thucydides (460-395 B.C.) was a great Athenian historian and general. Phormio, victor in several battles of the Peloponnesian War, is considered one of the first great naval commanders.

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Remembering a Deceased Parent: One Year Later

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I had been told. Now I know for myself. Life will not be the same anymore.

Today it has been one year since my father passed away as Mom and we children kept vigil by his side. We had suffered with him through Alzheimer’s for several years. I was very grateful that right up to when he lost consciousness—or I should say the ability actively to interact with us, which was about a day before he died—Dad always recognized me. Never a hesitation. No matter how his day was going, how confused he might have been, when I walked through the door, “Hi John.” Followed by a pucker to give me a kiss.

Now I have the rest of my life on this earth to hold him in memory; though not in my hands. There are many things I’ll fondly remember—too many to mention, or count. I’m especially grateful that I can still hear his voice. Saying my name.

It is remarkable how a parent remains with us in ways hard to put a finger on. I sense my father’s presence in how I think, feel, and act. His phrases on my lips; his world-view in my eyes. Not all the memories are bright—to say otherwise would be untrue. But the not-so-good are softened, and even suffused with the good.

Just a few weeks ago we celebrated my first birthday since Dad’s death. Mom wrote to me in a birthday card that she knows how happy Dad was when I was born. I wish I could remember that for myself.

But maybe I can. Perhaps we recall, or in some sense retain, more than we think we recall from our early life. They say that those born with the umbilical cord around their neck have a fear of being strangled. If so, then it seems that things can indeed ‘come through’ from very early in life, can be held in a sort of sub-conscious memory. And surely this means the good things too. Especially the good things.

I know that my father held me, just as in the photo above he is holding my second son. Neither I nor Raphael have, or ever will have, a conscious memory of being cradled in his arms. But neither one of us, I am convinced, would be the same, had he not.

Photo: Christie N. Cuddeback (December 21, 1933-September 16, 2013) holding Raphael Christie Cuddeback, the day after birth. We miss you, Grandpa; and we’ll be holding you, in our hearts, until the day we hold each other again.

Here is the eulogy that I gave, and posted, a year ago.
Here is an article I posted at Front Porch Republic reflecting on how we buried my father.
Here is a gallery of photos of the funeral and burial, courtesy of Spiering Photography.

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A Good Boy at Heart

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A Good Boy
By Robert Louis Stevenson

“I woke before the morning, I was happy all the day,
I never said an ugly word, but smiled and stuck to play.”

Can a man be like a boy again? The boy’s business is to stick to play; my business is to stick to business. And still avoid ugly words. And smile.

“And now at last the sun is going down behind the wood,
And I am very happy, for I know that I’ve been good.”

How many of my days end in the knowledge that I’ve been really good? Happy indeed would be such a confidence.

“My bed is waiting cool and fresh, with linen smooth and fair,
And I must off to sleepsin-by, and not forget my prayer.”

Forgetting prayer is not the worry. Making the time to do it, and kneeling down even when exhausted and discouraged—that is the challenge.

“I know that, till tomorrow I shall see the sun arise,
No ugly dream shall fright my mind, no ugly sight my eyes,”

Days are punctuated with ugly sights; dreams too not immune to such encroachment. Can I but preserve my children?

“But slumber hold me tightly till I waken in the dawn,
And hear the thrushes singing in the lilacs round the lawn.”

Slumber rarely holds me tightly, or even till the dawn.
But when the sun arises, birds will indeed be singing; and if there’s enough of a good-boy’s heart in a man, he will hear them even still.

R.L Stevenson (1850-1894) is the great Scottish author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, A Child’s Garden of Verses, and other classics.

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