The Silence of the Monks

A tiny group of Benedictine monks is resurrecting a ruined abbey in the small Umbrian town of Norcia, about 3 hours from Rome. They may also be providing a model for resurrecting a Catholic Church in crisis

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Norcia

“Soli Deo Honor et Gloria”

The only sound in the monastery refectory is the high metallic sound of forks clinking against plates.

“Clink…. clink clink…”

No, wait… I’m wrong.

As I sit listening, I can also hear the sound of water pouring into glasses, the sound of robes swooshing as the monks move about, the sound of chair legs scraping the floor as the monks rise to get a second helping (it is a buffet meal, of soup, pasta in tomato sauce with red and green olives, lettuce, and rough-cut bread, with the monks serving themselves in silence) and the sound of glasses thumping softly down against the table cloth after the monks take a drink.

“Clink…clink clink… thump… clink… scrape…. swooosh… clink, clink…”

The monks don’t say a word.

Not even a whisper.


I sit and wonder if this discipline is excessive.

Why not talk about the weather, about tomorrow’s plans, about anything at all?

I’m uneasy with this silence.

“Clink clink.”

I don’t know whether to smile, to look at the others across the room, or to sit sternly, gazing directly ahead in solitary isolation.

I don’t know much about being a monk.

But as the minutes pass, I feel more comfortable.

In fact, I’m happy not to talk.

Who wants to talk about the weather anyway?

The silence deepens and starts to thicken with my thoughts.

Who are we? There is Father Cassian, my old friend, who is recovering from a bout with cancer. I respect his suffering, and feel compassion for it. There is Brother Ignatius, from Indonesia, who knew he wanted to become a monk, so he searched on the internet and found his way to this monastery in Norcia. He leads the chant, sometimes sounding a note on his round pitch pipe. His voice in choir is clear and melodious, with perfect pitch. There is Brother Evagrius, 24, who comes from Montana. Yesterday we drove to the ruined monastery up the hill which the monks intend to rebuild. The road was narrow and there was no place to turn around, so when we headed back, Evagrius simply shifted into reverse and backed up at about 30 miles per hour, down a narrow path, leaving me with white knuckles. “I’ve been driving since I was six years old,” he chuckled. He’s the guestmaster here. “I will stay here until I die,” he told me.

There are nine other monks, and a guest, like myself, from the Roman Curia. Thirteen in all.

Why are we here? It is to seek Christ. To draw close to Christ. To live the minutes and hours of our lives with Christ as the focus of those minutes and hours. To live, as it were, in an attitude of openness toward eternity. And for this reason, silence seems to be the courtyard by means of which we can enter that great mystery, which surpasses human understanding.

The lack of conversation starts to seem pleasant. No need for chit-chat!

We are together, and there is no need to say anything at all. It is reassuring, in a way, to know that we have a common purpose which doesn’t need to be spoken. We are here to “be” not to “say.”

I embrace the silence.

“Clink…. clink clink.”

The Crisis in the Church

“Fratres, sobrii estote, et vigilate: quia adversarius vester diabolus, tamquam leo rugiens circuit, quaerens quem devoret, cui resistite fortes in fide. Tu autem, Domine, miserere nobis…” (1 Peter 5:8-9)

“Brothers, be sober and watch, because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, strong in faith. But you, Lord, have mercy on us.”

This is the first reading of the prayer of Compline in the evening, which the monks and religious around the world chant every night. This is the beauty of our Church, which we need to keep in mind.

It is a prayer which applies to all in the Church in these times.

Outside the door of the monastery, I look up. Above the lintel are carved in Latin these words: “Soli Deo Honor et Gloria.”

“To God Alone Be Honor and Glory.”

This is true.

We all know it.

We may give a certain reflected glory to men and women, because of their virtue and great works of charity and courage, but ultimately it is only to God that honor and glory are due, not to presidents, not to princes, not to rich men or great athletes, not to movie stars or rock stars or “beautiful people,” but only to God.

And not even to priests, or bishops, or cardinals, or even the Pope.

And this is why the Pope is called “Servus servorum Dei” — “The Servant of the Servants of God.”

And this is what is at the center of the life of these Benedictine monks.

They are witnesses to the glory of God.

They are witnesses, in their silence and in their song, to the fact that God alone is worthy of honor and glory.

This is the point: we are a fallen race, and human sin afflicts all mortal men and women, and the remedy is not in us, in our pride, but in Him, in His glory, which condescends to come toward us, and embrace us, and heal us, and make us partakers with Him in His glory.

And so the monks chant the words of King David from 3,000 years ago, here in Norcia, in the crypt of the church of St. Benedict, where St. Benedict was born.

“He that dwelleth in the shelter of the Most High, and abideth in the shadow of the Almighty, shall say to the Lord: ‘Thou art my protector and my refuge!… He will rescue thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the sharp word…

“Like a shield, His truth shall guard thee; thou shalt not fear the terrors of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day…”

If you wish to visit Norcia, you are welcome. Write to me, or to Brother Evagrius, the guestmaster ([email protected]). You too can experience the silence, and the song.
“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” —Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, physicist and writer, 1623-1662)

Special note: Three years ago, we participated in a concert in Rome (on March 29, 2007) in which a Russian choir and orchestra, flying in from Moscow, performed a new version of The Passion According to St. Matthew composed a few months before by the young Russian Orthodox bishop (now archbishop and “foreign minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church, Hilarion Alfeyev).

That moving concert, in which one or two of the exhausted women singers fainted on stage and had to be carried off, was broadcast live worldwide via a Vatican Television Center feed by EWTN.
No DVD or CD was ever made of that concert — until a few days ago. After nearly three years, we have finally produced the DVD and CD of that historic concert, and they aqre now available for sale.
I believe the sound of this music, and the sight of the performance, especially duing Holy Week, when we recall Christ’s Passion, will bring tears to your eyes.
The DVD and CD of this historic concert are now available on at website at the following link:

Further Note: We are now beginning to take preliminary requests for our Fall 2010 pilgrimage, which will include a visit to Assisi, Norcia, and Rome. If you would like information about this trip, please email us at: [email protected].

Other Gift Ideas:

(1) Christmas Oratorio (Russian Concert) on DVD 

On December 17, 2007, a leading Russian orchestra performed an exceptional “world premiere” concert of Russian Christmas music at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. Now you can order your copy of the concert on DVD, which includes English sub-titles.

The music is a completely new composition by a young Russian Orthodox Archbishop, Hilarion Alfeyev, 43. At the time, he was the Russian Orthodox bishop for all of central Europe, based in Vienna, Austria. He is now the head of the External Relations Department of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Makes a wonderful gift. Order one for yourself, one for a loved one and one for a friend… at three copies, the price is less! Click here to order
(2) A Talk by Dr. Robert Moynihan on CD

“The Motu Proprio: Why the Latin Mass? Why Now?”

To understand the motu proprio, one must know the history of the Mass. Dr. Moynihan gives a 2000-year history of the Mass in 60 minutes which is clear and easy to understand. Dr. Moynihan’s explanation covers questions like:

— How does the motu proprio overcome some of the confusion since Vatican II?
— Is this the start of the Benedictine Reform?
— The mind of Pope Benedict: How can the Church restore the sense of the presence of God in the liturgy?

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