SALT LAKE CITY — Brother James Michael Dowd is not your typical monk.
At times he comes off as more of a comedian than one who observes 12 hours of silence per day and spends the other 12 in near silence.
Brother James is a portly man, who spoke to a crowd of nearly 50 gathered for a Lenten meal Wednesday at The Cathedral Church of St. Mark, 231 E. 100 South. He talked about early monks and their self-denial, mentioning in a tongue-in-cheek moment that obviously the self-denial is not observed in full force anymore.
Silence is something Brother James says many people crave and something he hopes to teach people during his weeklong stay at the church that houses an Episcopal parish in Salt Lake City. Achieving meaningful silence is something he will focus on during a culminating retreat at The Cathedral Church of St. Mark on Saturday from 11-2.
"What they are desperate for is to learn how to be silent and that is much harder to do than it sounds in today's modern world," he said.
The 25 years he spent in the theater business shows in his ease in front of a crowd. His lectures are peppered with humor, as well as references to pop culture, current events and technology. The other monks let him visit congregations because he is more extroverted, he said.
His visits are geared toward helping people "reclaim (their) humanity" and their relationship with God.
"It's liberation from others, but more importantly, it is liberation from yourself," he said.
Brother James is a Benedictine monk who comes from the Holy Cross Episcopal Monastery in upstate New York.
Monks struggle with imperfections, too, he said. He and 16 other men "live, work, pray and play" together and share all their property — "except for this cross," he said, holding up a large black cross that hangs around his neck. Some monks complain and some are difficult to be around. The community acts in a way that will "wear you down so you open your eyes unto God," he said.
"There is a brotherhood there that should rise above personal likes and dislikes."
He helps people find ways to incorporate aspects of Benedictine practice into their lives outside of a monastery.
"We don't try to make little monks and nuns out of people," he said.
Many people in today's world have become detached from who they are as well as from their relationship with God because they do not make time for silence, Brother Jim said.
"When we fill every moment with noise, the one bit of sound we have assured ourselves to block out is God," he said.
He helps people work through negative connotations with silence, which include fear, punishment or apathy, to find "a silence that is totally liberating. It's totally opening up ourselves to God so we can hear how much God loves us, how much mercy God bestows upon us."
In addition to the spiritual benefits of turning down life's noise, research shows that there may be physical benefits as well. Environmental noise pollution — including sounds from traffic, neighbors and machinery — is responsible for the loss of more than 1 million healthy life years through cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment in children and sleep disruption, according to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization.
However, escape from life's noise takes effort and even the most practiced monks find it difficult to create meaningful silence, Brother James said.
He led those gathered to hear him through an exercise to illustrate this point. The group was silent for five minutes, after which they wrote down everything that came to their minds during that time. Those who shared their thoughts named subjects that ranged from mundane (DVR settings) to serious (the plane that went missing near Malaysia).
He then talked of Centering Prayer, where one chooses a one-syllable word to return to when thoughts intrude. Thoughts will find ways of creeping in even with this practice, but the intentional silence teaches people to "learn to listen for God throughout your day."
Parish member Tom Melton, who attended Wednesday's meeting, said he is looking forward to Saturday's retreat.
He is passionate about his work as an attorney and finds it easy to get caught up in the daily problems. Melton hopes to gain "perspective and distance" by participating in a weekend retreat with Brother James.
"The bottom line for all of it is a deepened relationship with Jesus Christ," he said. That's something he hopes he can gain by learning from the experiences of Brother James, a man who has "dedicated his life to a conversation with God."
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