Modification nine years ago of the strict Trappist rule of silence has permitted "the retreat into silences to be more effective and meaningful," two researchers have concluded.
The old discipline, which mandated almost total silence, was dropped in 1969.
Replacing it was a new rule:"Brief oral communication without asking permissions is given to everyone."
James A. Jaksa and Ernest L. Stech, associate professors of communication at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., reported that they had been studying the effect of relaxation of the rule since 1970.
They conducted interviews, made observations and sent questionnaires to seven abbeys, the two researchers reported in the winter issue of the Journal of Communication published by the Annenberg School of Communication of the University of Pennslyvania.
They said that the danger of the old rule was that it could lead to separation, loneliness and misunderstanding.
"According to the responding monks," the researchers wrote "the newly acquired freedom to communicate with others did not impair the experience of silence . . . The majority of the monks found that communicative interaction did indeed enhance the experience of silence."
Before the change in rules, Trappist life was "rugged and lonely," the researchers said. "Silence meant not only lack of oral communication but also the inability of freely convey messages."
One anecdote they cited is about a monk who existed for 10 years communicating with no one except his "Father Master." He finally had a nervous breakdown. They quoted him as recalling the abbot "coming into my sick room the next day - or sometime - looking over my bed - looking at me with utmost concern - and saying, 'I had no idea you were under such tension. What's wrong?" I'll never forget my answer. 'I said, 'I don't know anybody."
The authors stated," when the rule change occurred, the monks found that human relationships were an inherent part of the complex process of meditation and contemplation in their lives."
They concluded that "knowledge of oneself and interpersonal support and acceptance by others can lead to more effective silence. Separation, loneliness and misunderstanding between persons leads to frustration and a diminished ability to lead a truly contemplative life. Working on relationships in oral exchange permits the retreat into silence to be more effective andmeaningful."