That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. (Mark 4: 35-36)
In a city that never sleeps, spaces of silence are rare luxuries. Obviously, interior silence is always available to those who seek it; and there are few things more refreshing than popping into a church off a busy avenue, and finding that the Eucharist is exposed on the altar, just like it was waiting for you to arrive. Surprise Eucharistic Adoration is a great delight to the heart, it’s true. But it becomes exhausting to keep constant vigilance over the interior silence.
So it becomes necessary to find spaces where the interior silence inside of us is not fighting the noisy world around us, but can bask in the peace of the exterior world.
One Saturday, I found such a place, a little oasis of peace and quiet in the desert of New York’s constant soundscape. I traveled up to the Cloisters, which is the magical little mock-monastery in upper Manhattan. That morning, armed with my journal (to take notes on the artwork. Pro-tip: going to a museum with a journal makes you feel more intellectual. Even if you never open it once.), a cupcake, and a book for the train (currently reading: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Trying to read up on my new home.)
I stepped off the second-to-the-last-stop on the A train, and found myself on a street corner that looked similar to any other corner on any other block in upper Manhattan. But then, I looked slightly south down the road, and saw a wall of trees rising out of the park, like a thicket surrounding a fairy-tale castle. So I set off into the woods; and, already, my feet felt lighter as I found myself surrounded in brilliant fall colors, the particular sort of sunlight that is made out of sun shining through trees, blue sky, and the sweet smell of mulch and fallen leaves decomposing. I followed the winding paths and stone stairs up to the top of the hill, and sitting in radiant splendor was this recreation of a beautiful Benedictine Monastery.
As I wandered through the different cloisters, courtyards that had been constructed out of fragments of medieval French monasteries, I was awed by the stillness that suffused the hallways. I felt refreshed, renewed in my mind, heart, and body. As I was wandering through the museum, and basking in the autumn sun over the Hudson river, I kept thinking of how “like Europe” this was.
But, what I think I was feeling was a similar feeling that many Notre Dame undergraduates first experience while studying abroad: finding the other side.
Studying abroad is the first time that many students spend their time actively seeking beauty. Although this is far too often warped into a competition to see who can get the most notches on their “I Saw All the Seven Hundred Wonders of Europe According to Rick Steves” belts, the driving force behind many students’ study-abroad careers is an active pursuit of the beautiful. Time that would have been spent maybe playing video games is now spent wandering through small Catalan villages or time that may have been wasted at a kegger or a day party is spent wandering Paris side-streets. Even time that is well-spent in studying is often put aside in favor of pursuing the beauty in the students’ new environment. The understanding that travel is part of their education, and an explicit time limit lead the students to sense that their time ought not to be wasted, that every moment is precious, and that every day one should see a sight worthy of note. A lack of routine and a set friend group or community lead students to explore. Exploration of new territory generally tends toward a search for the beautiful: Find the most charming café, the most awe-inspiring painting, the most beautiful sunset, the quaintest bridge, the most authentic pub, the sweetest cannoli.
And one does this, for the most part, alone. Although there are many friendships made, nourished, and sustained while studying abroad through Notre Dame, there is necessarily a certain amount of loneliness that comes with a search for beauty. You are in a new country, without the creature comforts of home, family, and friends, which leads to a sense of solitude. Perhaps the words of the psalmist: “My one companion is darkness” have new meaning to a globe-trotting student stuck alone in the Zurich airport for the night. And even in our lighter moments, there is a new sense of loneliness. Beauty, especially the visual arts, but all beauty, demands our attention. In order to see it, we have to stop seeing everything else around us. We have to stop focusing on a multiplicity of things, and focus on the one thing right in front of us. The processing of beauty is necessarily an interior process. We find that it is just us and the Cathedral around us, or the mountain scene, or the Pieta. We encounter all this beauty not just with our eyes, but with our selves, in an interior way.
Once we have given our attention to the piece of art, once we receive something, it necessarily draws a response from us. It is a conversation that occurs in private, even when we are in a crowd. Although we may be surrounded by a great crowd of people snapping photos on their phones, and we are all perceiving the same object, we are alone in our perceptions. There is a raw honesty in this sort of solitary encounter with beauty, which occurs, even in a loud, crowded physical geography, in silence. One does not walk through an art museum, talking on the cell phone the entire time. Anyone who encounters the David will necessarily stop talking with whoever is next to them (at least for a moment or two): and actually behold at the beauty that is in front of them. Even in that split second, there will be a moment of silence, of solitude in beholding the beauty in front of us.
Timothy Husband, the curator of the Cloisters, spoke to Richard Preston of The New Yorker, about his experience with the Unicorn tapestries. The Unicorn tapestries are astounding. They line the walls of a small gallery on the Cloisters’ main floor. Their presence on the unassuming gallery walls transforms the small room into a forest of color. One could spend weeks looking at these mysterious tapestries, and find eternities of beauty in their depths. Mr. Husband, as On Mondays, when the the museum is closed, he will dedicate spent looking at the Unicorn tapestries:
“Sometimes I come in here and try to pretend I have never read anything about them, never heard anything about them, and I just try to look at them, . . . then there is a solace in their beauty, and one can stare at them in pure amazement.” (“Capturing the Unicorn” The New Yorker, April 11, 2005)
As I walked through the stillness of the Cloisters, stared at the Unicorn tapestries, and basked in the beauty of the fall day, I felt the interior wells of stillness inside of me replenished.
The pursuit of beauty teaches us to cultivate silence in a positive, constructive way. Solitude is no longer just an escape from the overload of activity all around us, but an activity worth pursuing for its own sake.
As we seek what is beautiful, spending our time searching for the beauty in our environment, we find ourselves drawn at the same time inward and outward. We are drawn out of ourselves, out of the hamster wheel of daily concerns that we constantly run over and over in our minds. And we are drawn inward, into the still, small space inside of ourselves, where we can find that silence that Christ sought on the other side of the lake.