Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book review of The Language of Silence

One of the deep themes in Celtic spirituality is the desert tradition from Egypt which includes such towering figures as Antony and the desert fathers and mothers. Follow this rustic path and envitably one discovers the Camaldolese tradition, a strict form of the Benedictines which emphasizes solitude and separation. Peter-Damian Belisle's The Language of Silence (2003) provides an excellent starting point for anyone interested in learning more about the Camaldonese tradition. The book is part of the Traditions of Chrisitan Spirituality Series, a series which has a wonderful volume on Celtic Spirituality entitled Journeys on the Edges: The Celtic Tradition featured earlier on this blog. A warning. These books are like candy. Eat one, and you will want to devour them all. These are well written and provide wonderful snapshots of great Christian spiritual traditions. To my surprize, I've already read five other volumes including ones on the Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines and Cistercians. 

Belisle's book is focused around the theme of "the monk within", a theme I might add that we also encountered in Ed Sellner's book Finding the Monk Within (2008). Belisle writes: "We are all drawn inward, towards the centre of existence. We come to know ourselves as drawn into a presence. Solitude ushers us into presence, towards which the language of silence is most attentive. If we find ourselves in relation that presence at the centre of our being, we will move our hearts, indeed, our lives, outwardly in solidarity with all our brothers and sisters througout the world" (pgs. 171-2.)

The book outlines how solitude is a longstanding theme in God's holy history-since forever. Solitude has always been an important ingredient of the spiritual  life, featured in Old and New Testaments and throughout the history of the Christian Church. Belisle seems to be tapping the modern reader on the shoulder saying "listen up to this ancient Christian practice, you might just learn something"!

A survey of Old and New Testament figures includes Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus and Mary and stresses the solitary in each. A pivital chapter on Athanasius's Life of Anthony is a must for all Protestant leaning readers, followed by a section on the desert solitaries. The tour of solitude moves then to several of the great Patristic writers including Basil the Great and John Cassian. There are also chapters on Benedict of Nursia and notably writers in the Camaldolese, Carthusian and Cistercian traditions. A final chapter includes fascinating portrayals of contemporary solitudes including Charles de Foucauld, Dorothy Day and others. This is an impressive list of folks, all weaned in the school of silence. We would do well to listen.

The Language of Silence provides an excellent starting point for anyone interested in contemplation, and monastic solitude. Lets face it, we live in an age which features a noisy, wordy world, and noisy, wordy Christianity. And with all this noise, when does one really have the time to listen for that still, small voice? This book makes the convincing case that a different way, perhaps even a better way can be found within the walls of quiet reflection and solitude. This is how God has worked in the past, and this is how God works today. It is a compelling challenge to our noisy and gadgety culture. Another case of addition by subtraction.

On the negative side, The Language of Silence may try to cover too much ground in one swoop-there are a ton of personalities presented here, too many in fact. I think it would have been more effective to have longer chapters on fewer individuals. Yet even so, along the way, one may find a hermit that one can relate to.

We all have a "monk within" and this book helps us to answer how we can nurture and develop that important side to our spiritual personality.


  1. Sounds good. I think I may have to add it to my list.

  2. Fr. Sean, I think you will enjoy reading this book and anything about the Camaldolese.