By Karol Jackowski
“Silence becomes our roommate when we’re forced to stay in and not go out. When the outside world is silenced, the inside world begs us to listen. May the silence we discover within be the silence we keep when we can go out again. The Universe is begging us to listen. It’s a matter of life or death.”—Karol Jackowski
I never knew what silence was until the day I entered the convent and was told we couldn’t talk. I grew up with two sisters, two brothers, and constant background noise of TV, radio, and stereo. Volume loud on all. I even slept with a transistor radio playing greatest hits. But silence ruled convents everywhere in 1964, and sisters refrained from talking except at times appointed for recreation—“legitimate leisure” —usually 45 minutes after lunch and dinner. “Personal duty and courtesy” were rare exceptions to the rule, as was talking during meals. We ate in silence. Not disturbing each other unnecessarily was the point of not talking, enforced further by the directive to cultivate a noiseless way of moving and acting. Our whole life was silenced, astonishing to 18-year-olds fresh out of high school.
No one had told us about the “no talking” rule before we arrived, nor was it mentioned in the recruitment brochure. I suspect the founders feared no one would join if they knew. I found it seriously shocking, and it looked like everyone else did too. There were 50 new nuns in my class from all over the country, none of whom I knew, moving me to raise my hand and question how we’d get to know one another if we couldn’t talk. The stern-looking Superior with steely-blue eyes stared me down with a long moment of silence before announcing to all, Sisters, you already know how to talk. What you don’t know how to do is listen. Welcome to sisterhood.
Listen to what? was the follow-up question I didn’t dare ask, thinking I’d find out soon enough, and I did. Part of me felt it made sense to have a general rule of silence in a big house with 50 teenagers, imagining constant chatter and foolishness otherwise, like a college sorority. Even the community rule book noted “conversational powers are no common gift, especially among women meeting daily in the same circle.” We were taught silence was our right as sisters, essential in preventing distraction and keeping us mindful. A quiet house was revered in sisterhood, and the rule of silence kept it that way. Wherever we lived, whatever we did, our lives were wrapped in silence. Living in peace and quiet was guaranteed.
The first thing I noticed in sudden silence were sounds I never would have thought of or remembered otherwise. Hearing intensifies in almost miraculous ways when we stop talking. I knew who walked into the chapel by the sound of the footsteps, who had a cold by the cough and sneeze, and we all knew when the Superior was coming by the rattling of her beads, unlike other bead-rattlings we recognized. Mourning doves woke us at sunrise and cooed “goodnight” at sunset. Whenever I hear mourning doves now, I’m taken back into the memory of lying awake before nightfall on summer nights, with mourning doves the last voice of the day we heard. It is comforting still.
For two years we lived in dorms with eight to twelve others, getting to know snorers, talkers, and sleepwalkers; we heard them get up. I know the whistling sound of cast iron radiators when they spit steam. I know the screech of bats in the middle of the night, sounding the alarm to grab the tennis racquet (under the bed), stun the bat, scoop it into a trash basket, and release it outside, mission accomplished in total silence. Sound becomes magnified in silence, revealing what we wouldn’t notice in a life full of background noise. When I stopped talking and wrapped my life in silence, I started discovering what it’s like to listen to the worlds—inner and outer—in which I lived.
The daily practice of silence eventually quieted all voices but mine, and another voice that was mine and not mine. It was a voice within and beyond me, leading the way. Only when I was forced to shut up and listen did I discover my mind had a more reflective mind of its own, and I had a more reflective voice of my own. Only when I stopped talking and began to listen to inner voices did I meet my Muses, and only then did I begin writing in silence what I couldn’t say out loud. In silencing all other voices, I began to hear the still, small voice of the writer in me looking for pen and paper, needing to talk anyhow. Ask me how I became a writer, and I can pinpoint the day.
I became a writer the day I entered the convent and was told I couldn’t talk.