The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.
The command of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eye.
More desirable than gold, than a hoard of purest gold,
Sweeter also than honey or drippings from the comb.
– Ps. 19:9, 11
From my earliest days, silence and darkness went together. Growing up in a house with six kids and a dog, the only time everything was quiet was when we were asleep. After years in the classroom and a few more as the mother of sons, I still view midday silence as a rare and wonderful gift from God.
Last Saturday, such a gift of sacred stillness appeared as if from nowhere. First Mike, then Chris, rode off on their bikes to see friends and Victor left to grocery shop – with a stop for 18 holes of golf “since it’s on the way.” Even the cat was asleep.
I grabbed the chance to turn the collection of apples occupying the bottom shelf of my refrigerator into applesauce without losing half my work to grazing guys before it ever reached the stove.
I pulled up the kitchen stool and began to peel and chop. Thin strips of peel dappled green and red twirled onto the wooden table; translucent slices of apple gradually filled the bowl at my side. In the silent, sunlit space I had time to wonder at how uniquely beautiful each apple was – and how ephemeral. In a short while, the whole would be cooked down into a fragrant sauce.
Wringing honey from a comb to sweeten the apples, I realized I was singing a line from Psalm 19 under my breath, “sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.”
Centuries ago, St. Athanasius drew such a connection between psalm prayers and contemplation of the ways the tangible world is entwined into the sacred. He succinctly enjoined the faithful, “As you wonder at the order of creation, the grace of providence and the sacred prescriptions of the Law, sing Psalm 19.” At that moment, it seemed the obvious thing to do.
A few years ago two filmmakers spent a year living in a Carthusian monastery documenting the lives of its monks. “Into Great Silence” has no soundtrack, no voice over, just the ambient sounds of a silent monastic life – and the chanting of the psalms.
The scenes that struck me most deeply were not those of the monks processing into the church to sing the Office, but those of the monks doing ordinary tasks, much like those that occupy my day: a brother wearing an apron chopping celery in a sun-warmed kitchen, a monk chopping wood in the garden to heat his cell. I could almost hear the psalms in their heads as they worked.
Contemplative prayer tends to evoke images of monasteries hidden behind high stone walls and of monks chanting the psalms – not blue-jean clad, second-soprano mothers slicing apples in a suburban kitchen. But contemplation isn’t the sole province of the cloistered monk or nun. As St. Gregory the Great pointed out, “We ascend to the heights of contemplation by the steps of the active life.”
My contemplative afternoon may have been spanine providence, but it reminded me to make more silent spaces in my life – to create a temporary monastic enclosure. I can turn off the radio, ignore my email and silence the phone, so that even while my hands are occupied, my heart might have room to contemplate the precepts of the Lord.
The only difference? Here the Great Silence ends not with a bell announcing lauds, but with Chris whooping, “fresh bread!” as he crashes through the front door.
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.” -Ps. 19:15. A traditional closing prayer for a time of silent meditation.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr.