Ordered by a doctor to rest her voice, a Sandy Springs rabbi retreated into the silent world of a Christian monastery, a religious experience she recounts in a new book called “The Voice of Silence.”
Rabbi Dr. Analia Bortz of Congregation Or Hadash said her experience three years ago not only regained her voice, but was “revelation” of the power of meditation in an era of noise and distraction.
“We live in a very cacophonic world now, invaded every single moment of our day,” Bortz said. “Our creative mind is going into filling spaces and time instead of [following] what the Greeks said, which was to admire the world.”
Diagnosed with vocal cord strain and polyps, Bortz was advised to go many days without speaking.
“It’s like a bird that their wings are cut,” Bortz said of being a rabbi, a professional communicator and counselor, receiving that order of silence. And in the monastery, she said, she found “a rescuer that restores the wings.”
The Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga., is a regionally famous complex run by Trappist monks who live under a vow of silence and operate popular silent retreats where anyone can share in the contemplation.
Bortz learned of it only by searching for retreats on the internet. A Christian monastery might not seem like a natural fit for a Jewish rabbi, and Bortz writes in her book that she was a bit anxious about some “conversion” references in its literature, but she is involved in interfaith programs and found the retreat appealing.
“So I was curious. I was excited. I was not afraid,” she said. “I took it as an opportunity, a great opportunity, to learn.”
On retreats, guests are given a room and basic supplies, then keep silent as they are free to wander the grounds or join the monks in five daily prayers.
Bortz says she avoided the Christian rite of communion, but joined those prayers and some classes that were “very much about humanity and universal values and living an ethical life.” She also enjoyed one sound: the monks’ chanting from the Psalms, a section of the Bible sacred in both religions.
“They never even knew I was Jewish,” said Bortz, as the many retreat participants naturally do not speak to each other about their identities or motivations. “I was surprised and very curious about, ‘Where are all these people coming from?’” she said, but instead focused on seeing “the divine spark in every human being, regardless of any religion.”
“I found a lot of sound in silence,” said Bortz. “There is so much music that can go through your mind as you remain silent.”
She does not mean literal music, but a realization of “the presence of God through nature” and in other people.
Bortz has since returned to the monastery for a second retreat after experiencing the personal crisis of her mother falling ill, and says she would like to return again with a group of women for a special retreat.
In her book, published in August by WestBow Press and available on Amazon.com, Bortz combines journal-like memories of her experience with advice on how others can experience and benefit from silence and meditation.
“Silence may disguise loneliness or solitude,” she writes in her book, “or it can open the endless possibilities of an encounter with God, self, a fellow human, the world. Silence is an invitation to contemplate.”