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“Przekrój” Magazine brings to the English reader some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in such fields as culture, society, ecology and literature. Stand aside from the haste and fierceness of everyday news and join us now!

Sometimes, our modern lives become cluttered with too much psychological noise. That’s when it’s ...
2020-02-23 09:00:00
healthy living
Holy Silence

A long, long time ago, snow would fall one day, covering the world with a fluffy eiderdown, and it would go silent. In the Anthropocene, such luxury is just a matter of dreams. That’s why we sent our reporter in search of silence.

Read in 14 minutes

Beyond Łódź, the forest seems to be getting denser. Pines and birches flickering outside the window give licence to break away from my co-passengers’ blabbing. It was high time to go away in search of silence and distance: tension in my relationship, tension in the country, tension all over our planet. So I look for salvation where silence is one of the basic rules of life – in the Camaldolese nunnery in Złoczew.

Benedictine hospitality

I reach Sieradz in the afternoon, from where I’m supposed to take a coach. I stop a woman in front of the railway station and ask her about the coach stop. Before she manages to give me an answer, some other woman stops by us. “Are you going to Złoczew? I’ll give you a lift,” she offers, and gives me a wide smile.

A moment later I’m in Renata’s car (that’s what my dea ex machina is called), listening to her telling me about her job (she is a nurse), her family (she was born and still lives in Złoczew), her children (her daughter studied in Kraków). Renata giggles and tells me her – indeed quite comical – surname. She is moved when I tell her that I am going to the Camaldolese nuns. Her father used to help the nuns with the work in the fields; with cows and chickens. And she was friends with one of the nuns, deceased by now. She understands my need to get away from the chaos of the world. She can’t afford a few-days in the convent, but whenever she needs to be on her own, she goes to the woods. That also gives her an opportunity to pick some bilberries.

We stop in front of the convent or, to be precise, in front of the Saint Romuald Hermitage. This is a guesthouse for visiting outsiders. “In the spirit of Benedictine hospitality recommended to us by our rule, we also want others to have a chance to learn as much as possible from our Camaldolese way of life and to enjoy its fruits to the extent that it can be accessible to them, to experience the holy silence and blessed solitude which can invite God,” is what the nuns say about the hermitage on the convent’s website.

It’s this ‘holy silence’ that tempted me. And what I was told before I came here by Sister Montini, the custodian of the hermitage: “Participation in mass and prayers is voluntary here. We highly recommend it, but it is not an obligation. We think it is better for it to stem from your own need. We also don’t ask about your faith or religion.”

This openness and Benedictine hospitality seem to me the best remedy, not just for myself, but also for the rest of our society. This is what the Rule of Saint Benedict says: “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, ‘I came as a guest, and you received Me.’ And to all let due honour be shown, especially to the domestics of the faith and to pilgrims. As soon as a guest is announced, therefore, let the Superior or the brethren meet him with all charitable service. And first of all let them pray together, and then exchange the kiss of peace. […] In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing, let all humility be shown. Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons.”

Fortunately, Sister Montini does not prostrate on the ground when I arrive, but welcomes me very warmly, with open arms. She takes me to my room upstairs. Over the phone she joked that it is just a humble cell, but in fact I get a spacious room with windows facing the garden and the fields, a comfortable bed, an electric kettle, tea and coffee, and my own bathroom.

On the bedside table next to the Bible I find a laminated piece of paper that says: “You, who come here! Remember that you have temporarily left behind the world with all its noise, commotion and anxiety, to rebuild your strength, renew your connection with God and with yourself […]. Because God speaks in silence, try to keep silent always and everywhere, especially in the chapel and in corridors. Before you say anything to another resident of this house, make sure you are not disturbing him or her while in prayer, contemplation or internal focus. Sisters are not allowed to talk to guests, do not speak to them or in any other way attempt to make contact. Only the following are allowed to talk: the sister custodian of the retreat house, the extern sister and the gatekeeper.”

“Fabulous!” I think. “Not to talk to anybody, not to listen to anybody. That’s exactly what I wanted. I’m in heaven.”

Through the open window, I can hear the chirping of crickets and the cawing of rooks. Their huge, black flock is just flying down to the nunnery’s chestnut and linden trees. After all, this is the best place for overnight avian accommodation.

In the garden with a subversive

Dinner needs to be collected from the so-called ‘barrel’. It’s a rotating cabinet fixed into a wall. Sisters hidden on the other side fill it with bowls of egg salad, tomatoes and homemade curd cheese, then guests turn the barrel around and reach for food.

There is a beautiful batik with the Last Supper hanging over the table in the dining room, with Africans as Jesus and the apostles. One of them has put his djembe aside, only for a moment. This fabric is a gift from Father Jan from Złoczew, who spent 20 years on missions in Togo.

Marzena from Racibórz is sitting at the table. She has just done her Bachelor’s in Pedagogy and came here for a few days to figure out what’s next. She says that time for yourself helps you find yourself, reflect on your attitude towards others and the world. “Without all those external distractions,” she stresses.

In the morning I’m woken up by the sun, humming of the wind and the sound of… cars. The convent wall runs along the busy Sieradzka Street that goes between Łódź and Wrocław. But the automotive noise is less now than a few years ago, when there was still no ring road.

The Camaldolese sisters follow the Benedictine rule ora et labora (pray and work). Just like 70 years ago (the Złoczew nunnery was created in 1949), they grow wheat and potatoes, vegetables and fruit. The lush garden is full of apple trees, but also juniper bushes, cypresses, roses and hydrangeas. To get a better feeling of the mood of the convent, immediately after breakfast I report to sister Montini my willingness to work in the garden. I’m a bit uneven when it comes to ora, but labora among the greenery, out in the fresh air, is one of my favourite pastimes. “Oh, perhaps tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,” the nun objects. “Now please enjoy your first day without the world. Think, read. We have a little library for the guests. I’m sure you will find something.”

Indeed I do. First, I get my hands on a small bird atlas – as a beginner birder I should revise the Latin names for finches. But there are also other interesting books. Next to Tomáš Halík’s Patience with God and Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, I find Monograph of Złoczew, a surprisingly thick volume for such a small town of just over 3000 residents. Mostly burned and slaughtered by the Germans (on 4th September 1939), its destroyed centre never rebuilt, and devoid of its pre-war multiculturalism (no trace of the synagogue anymore, the gravestones from the Jewish cemetery were used for building roads), today the town makes a rather sad impression. As such, my favourite chapter in the Monograph is devoted to local legends. Złoczew is surrounded by wetlands and swamp forests, the perfect habitat for will-o’-the-wisps and deceptive water nymphs. These lands are ruled by Wodnik, with a toad face, sticking out ears, and webbed fingers and toes. He drags careless travellers into a swamp, but you can always try to buy your way out. Another local force of darkness is Złoczyń, a little imp with a goatee, horns and a pig’s tail. He lures people into the wetlands, where they drown or, not being able to find their way back, die of exhaustion.

So, just in case, I only take a walk around the town (doable in half an hour), but prefer not to leave the built-up area.

I spend the afternoon in the garden. A green wooden bench quickly becomes my bench and a table next to it – my table. I put my thermos with coffee here and a plate with homemade cake (the sisters bake it every day). I listen to the birds, look at the apple trees. And I read. From home I brought not just any book, but a book by Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk, a hermit in the late years of his life, a fascinating writer looking for similarities between the mysticism of the East and the West. I read his Zen and the Birds of Appetite when I was a student, in an exalted way typical for a young person. I liked to carry this little book in my pocket for the purpose of some intellectual showing off. I was intrigued by Meister Eckhart, who in his times was considered a subversive, but who could impress an angry young woman if not a destroyer of existing order? Now I go back to Zen and I try to read it with better understanding. It isn’t easy. Perhaps the delicious lemon cake baked by the Camaladolese sisters is too much of a distraction?

An increasingly common need

The following day, together with Sister Montini, I start working in the garden. The nun wears a white habit with a black veil on an everyday basis, but now she shows up in a pleasant brown working habit and slightly worn-out trainers. She’s been in the convent for almost 50 years, but her age doesn’t show. She vigorously grabs a rake and a wheelbarrow. We each take on a part of the lawn. We need to remove fallen apples and leaves. Rotten fruit will go in the composting pile, the good ones will be peeled and chopped by Mrs Kazia, a quiet, grey-haired little woman. I don’t know if she’d noticed that there is writing on her red apron which says frivolously “I kiss better than I cook”, but I’d feel bad asking about it. The wheelbarrow is filled with leaves, but I can’t take it to the composting site, because it is located inside the enclosed part of the convent. Sister Montini briskly takes care of it on her own.

After lunch, I visit the Złoczew cemetery. The oldest gravestones are from the mid-19th century. There are also several Orthodox crosses. Camaldolese nuns have a separate quarter. That’s where Sister Gemma lies, or Jadwiga Szukiełojć, the first prioress of the local nunnery. I’m surrounded by silence and peace. Everything seems to be so harmonious, everything in its place. “Perhaps this is the first step on my Zen road?” I think with satisfaction.

The whole peaceful feeling goes to hell when I walk back through town. Numerous electoral banners very successfully bring me back to Earth, reminding me how far I am from harmony. I hole up in the nunnery garden for good, and that’s where I spend most of my time in those few days. I don’t use my phone or internet; at lunchtime I sometimes exchange a few words with some art restorers who are also staying with the Camaldolese sisters. They come to the local St Andrew’s Church every year. They have renovated the side altars and are now working on the pipe organ. I watch rooks and my internal birds of appetite; in the evening, I fall asleep like a child.

They say that other convents also offer holidays with silence and contemplation. It’s enough to type in a browser ‘where to find silence’, and there is a barrage of websites and articles describing peaceful places. There is, of course, the famous and popular Benedictine convent in Tyniec near Kraków where you can take part in, for example, a few-days-long retreat with the desert fathers (Merton recalled them in his book The Wisdom of the Desert); there is a former Benedictine monastery, today run by the Oblates, on Łysa Góra; there is also the Golden Forest Hermitage in the Świętokrzyskie Province where in the former Camaldolese convent the SpeS Therapeutic Centre operates (SpeS is an abbreviation of salus per silentium, ‘health through silence’). You can stay for either a reclusive turn, a therapeutic one, or a cleansing-slimming one. I am more interested in the lesser-known Monastery of the Blessed Virgin in the Desert in Grabowiec near Wejherowo. Unfortunately, they have no free spaces in August or September. The sister I speak to over the phone tells me that there is a huge interest in a silent stay. In summertime, they get as many as 10 phone calls a day to ask about it.

To see things the way they are

My need for silence gets more and more radical. And since absolute silence is one of the rules of vipassana, I decide to enlist myself on a 10-day-long course in this Buddhist meditation technique. On the website of the Dhamma Pallava Centre, I read that: “Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are […] is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.”

According to the code of conduct, “All students must observe Noble Silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow student, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited.”

All contact with the outside world is also forbidden. Concentration should not be disturbed, even by books. The daily routine is equally uncompromising: morning call at 4am, meditation until 6.30am, breakfast and then meditation again until the evening (with a break for lunch at 11am). Delighted with this extremism, I apply over the internet. No chance. No places for beginner women for many weeks in advance.

Instead, I find out about vipassana from Paweł Gutral, who has been practising meditation and yoga for years. “When you go on a course for the first time, you start with a three-day-long preparation process. They give you instructions on how to clear your mind. So you focus on the inside of your nostrils, or on the little rectangle between the nose and lips. You wait for sensations in those places. It can be tingling, itching, numbing, a feeling of warmth or cold. You observe it, you do nothing. This is supposed to make you more aware of the sensations that can appear during the vipassana meditation.”

“And the vipassana itself,” Paweł continues, “is working with energy. You move with your awareness from the tip of your head through your whole body, down to the toes, and back, trying to observe sensations. It’s a kind of a wave that goes through you and you follow it. One important rule: you don’t try to trigger anything by force, and you don’t expect anything particular to happen. You accept whatever comes and you don’t try to name it. Because when you name something, you are in your mind and not in your meditative state.”

After a few days of meditation during the first course Paweł, when lying in bed, realized that he could trigger tingling in different points of his body; furthermore, he could move it about. “I was so excited,” he recalls with laughter. “I felt like a real master! That was the only time in my life. A lesson is that such achievements are a trap. You get excited and you want to return to it, which means returning to the past. And the only thing that matters is the present.”

I can’t take it anymore

Despite expectations, it is not the Noble Silence and being cut off from the world that is the most acute. The hardest thing is sitting for hours on end. “Even though I had previous experience with meditation, on the first day I was at my wits’ end, physically. I already started thinking that I would pack my bags and go home. Because I couldn’t take it anymore! And when I yelled it to myself in my head, suddenly it flicked! The whole pain was gone. True, only until the end of this particular session, but it was enough. It was the most beautiful sitting in my life. I realized that it’s my mind that creates my discomfort, pain, unease. And only when I let go, when I stopped focusing on my body, on the fact that it hurts here and it’s numb somewhere else, something switched in the sphere of energy or spirituality, and I stopped resisting what started forming inside me. I started observing and therefore – if possible – looking from a distance. I was not all pain anymore, I could look at it from the sidelines.”

Vipassana is not just experiments with your body, but also an eruption of emotions. Of course, everybody experiences meditation differently, but emotions appear quite often.

For example, you think you have very decent relations with your ex-wife. While in fact it is not like that at all. “In Buddhism you talk about sankharas, deep determinations of the mind: traumas, patterns, experiences swept under the carpet,” Paweł explains. “When you meditate, sometimes what is under the carpet suddenly starts flowing out in a big wave: rage, remorse, knowing that you didn’t forgive her after all. What then? Nothing. Observe. In my case, it took two days. Bit by bit, the wave subsided. When I came back home after the course, I arranged to see my ex-wife. We were talking and I could feel that the energy flow on my side was now really pure. This was the biggest success in my vipassana.”

Online vipassana accounts are full of elation. Those who lasted until the end of the course talk about a euphoria that continues for as long as several months.

“Yes, there is something about it,” Paweł confirms. “The kind of feeling that you have the ability; that you managed. At the end of the course, the teachers suggest continuing meditation for one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. And, as far as I know, most people do that. For two weeks, maybe a month. Then, as you would expect, some journey is planned, or there are… children. But it’s true that some kind of high remains. I have managed to settle deeper into myself. It is easier to practice meditation now, to remain in the internal silence.”

Kashubia, or life in the woods

When I can’t go away to a monastery or a meditation course, I go to the forest. Two, three days on my own in a cabin in Kashubia is my favourite act of seclusion (it is important that it is outside of the season, when nobody in the neighbourhood is mowing the lawn, using a saw, renovating their cabin). Instead of convent walls, there is the cathedral of nature, if you allow me to be grandiloquent. No television, no internet, no telephones. If I say anything, it’s only to my cat. I light a fire in the fireplace, I go for long walks, I look at the sky – both in the day and at night, when it is a truly dark sky. I read – but of course – Thoreau’s Walden, or life in the Woods. It’s amazing how, despite the passage of time, the author still hits the nail on the head: “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labours of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. […] Actually, the labouring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labour would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine.”

I don’t want to be a machine. I prefer to ‘pick the finer fruits of life’, so I go to my garden to pick quince fruit. There will be a great liqueur for the winter.


Translated from the Polish by Anna Błasiak

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