My best friends are monks of the type that don’t talk much. So we don’t talk much. I visit them a couple of times a year in their monastery in the Scottish Highlands. There are other monks even stricter in terms of silence, but this Catholic Benedictine community, still leaves room for some talking.
I asked one of the monks, a friend of many years, about silence, a theme I have been in full research mode for the last 5 years. I am looking for a magic formula to inject it permanently into leadership programmes. Yes, I am trying to sell silence to leaders.
I don’t expect the monks to find that formula for me, in my area of organizational consulting and business. But, something they are, is world experts on silence. They started that corporate competence around the 6th Century and they are still here, silent. Kind of.
In the middle of an always engaging and, as ever, beautiful, if short, conversation, I asked him, ‘so, how much more silence do you think you need?
I was trying to be a bit cheeky, provocative, by my friend didn’t get it. He paused for a few seconds and said, ‘well, I suppose, we have the asterisks’. Of course, the asterisks! What? Ok, I needed some explanation. It turns out that I had seen these asterisks thousand times, but never paid attention.
The monks go from their quarters to their monastery’s church for prayers seven times per day, for anything between 15 minutes to 60 minutes at a time. The sit in layers, facing each other, 50-50. Half of them on the right, half on the left. The Abbot in the middle. It’s like the British Parliament (House of Commons) but civilised. They sing the ancient Psalms. My friends do so in Gregorian Latin. The valley around beautifully amplifies it.
The texts are divided in phrases. One phrase sang by those on the left, the next phrase sang by those in front of them, on the right of the church. This Latin ping-pong has been going on for centuries. If you look carefully in the books, there is an asterisk in each of the phrases. That asterisk means that you have to pause for about 1 second, so not to rush to the next phrase. This mini pause is really 1 second, a noticeable 1 second. It has nothing to do with breathing, because the length of the phrase is very diverse. It’s about one second silence, letting the mind ponder.
They sing the entire collection of 150 Psalms in a week. And repeat it over 52 weeks. My calculation is that there is an average of 50 asterisks per service, give or take. That means 350 pauses of 1 second a day. Or 2450 pauses a week. Or 127400 seconds a year. That’s about 40 minutes extra silence a week. Or 35 hours extra of silence a year. Or a full extra week of silence.
Of course these calculations are silly! The total amount is not the point. But the asterisk is a constant sign to stop and listen. Producing that artificial stop in a repetitive way creates a habit of the mind. Speaking about habit-making, this is an ancestral one! Do that many times a day and your brain will function in a different way. Perhaps pausing to think!?
They also have what they call ‘Lectio Divina’ (Divine Reading) which is a way of reading spiritual texts very slowly, stopping sometimes on words, as if asking the word or the phrase to talk back to you. It is the antithesis of intellectual reading, the anti-study. This is another little gem invented by Benedict of Nursia, or Saint Benedict, (480 –547), the founder of a monastic tradition, who had a knack for Regulations and wrote one of the oldest Rules (for monks). Not surprisingly, the first word of the Rule of Saint Benedict is ‘Listen!’
1. I need to patent the asterisk. Not sure I will succeed!
2. I want leadership with tons of asterisks. Tons.
3. Can we inject asterisks in our corporate narratives?
4. Buy yourself a box of asterisks
5. What if we scatter asterisks in mission statements?