A conversation with Francesca Sbardella

“Toujours l’existence palpite et

fait entendre sa rumeur…”

.David Le Breton

 Physical and symbolic dimension can’t be separated by humans. Life is a mixture of multifaceted experiences and feelings but individuals sometimes are not able to perceive them because their minds are full of thoughts or busy from their everyday routine. The only way to “listen” is to decide to be quiet and choose the silence.

Silence is living inside us and we can drown in it or find something different, ground-breaking in its majesty; a wilderness or a monastery, silence can live everywhere.

We have had a moment of reflection thanks to  the special conversation with Mrs. Francesca Sbardella.

maxresdefaultShe is an Associate Professor of History and Religious Studies and Demo-Ethno-Anthropological Studies at the University of Bologna, she served also as coordinator of the program in Anthropology, Religions, Oriental Civilizations (ARCO) from 2015 to 2018. Together with M. Turci she is director of LECuMa,Laboratorio permanente di Etnografia della cultura materiale(Permanent workshop on the ethnography of material culture), and is member of the Laboratoired’Anthropologieetd’Histoirede l’Institution de la Culture(LAHIC), Paris.

The core of her presentation was focused on her experience in a catholic cloistered monastery as a postulant, in other words as a “limbo” or a trial period before the choice to live there. During that  period she lived with her “spiritual sisters” in order to understand their way of life, the strict organization of the daily routine and the extreme rules that they have to respect; everything is under control, also words or sounds  that come out from their mouths.

The typical structure of a Carmelite day begins  at 5.30a.m with the rise and ends up at 22.30p.m with the rest.

The most important actions of the everyday life are: work, without verbal emissions it is considered as a kind of pray, Oratio, intimate dialogue with the divinity in silence and reading.

Voice and silence give the daily organization, time and space are submitted to the emission of sounds. Time is also divided on the basis of the so-called “liturgy of the hours”, series of hymns, readings; the absence of words and the communication for praying in devotional activities give the rhythm for nuns actions. There isn’t the possibility to choose, “accept” and “do” are the key words for life in a monastery. The 7.4% of time is for the free period imposition and 75 minutes are available for communication with free sounds, the rest of the day they have to pray, work and eat.

The goal of doing always the same activities is linked to the ambition of perfection and the attention to details.

In this cold and empty background, Mrs. Francesca Sbardella didn’t play the part of a researcher, so she had to accept this daily division and it wasn’t so easy to break her routine with a normal breakfast, fun, free laugh and a dinner with her family.

According to the establishment of  relationships among nuns, it is important to underline that “the word creates  connections”: sounds and words can tell who you are to others and the silence is interpreted as the shape of the self.

The researcher F. Sbardella, in this case, found lots of problems because she felt so irritated when someone else could establish some rules about her freedom of speech. She told us three episodes that she experienced in the monastery with a deeper explanation of “negated words” and “imposed words”.

In the first one, she found a flash memory in a room and then she shared it with her sisters. Then she was told that her words were a sign of “vaineglory” and indirectly she criticised the person who lost that object. She used wrong words.

Consequently, she  understood, after a rich lunch, that the concept of have  eaten too much or not can’t be subjects of a  conversation: you have to be able to distinguish when you can speakoutwardor inward or the mouth as a door.

The last episode is linked to a wonderful sunny day: Mrs. Sbardella decided to go out in the garden to declaim the “oratio”. Anyone knew her choice, so she was reprimanded because the requests must be made with real words.

Thanks to these episodes she underlined two aspects of the use of words in a silent way: the passive-unsaid, the cut of an horizontal level of communication in order to silencing the desire and the will of people who is forced to say a thing in a particular moment, and the active-unsaid, in context well explained.

After the first days, Mrs. Sbardella, stopped to ask herself the reason why people could choose to live in that way and she began tolive, nothing more. She discovered a new culture and she understood the importance ofthe meaning,better than the causes.

Women live in a community, but in real words, they live alone speaking with God. The positionthat you occupy is important too: we are aware of it and our place in a cultural background mustn’t be underestimated.

The system that we create is linked with our mindset; an example could be the Christian religion and our ideas beyond life: “why we cannot deny we are Christians” (Benedetto Croce). Every day we follow a path, a method, so we don’t have only to fill the void or forget our position.

We have only to understand and respect the sense of peace and reflection that silence can give us.


All in all, Mrs. Francesca Sbardella understood that nuns don’t pass the rest of their life staying in the traditional “religious silence”. They  use the best words ever to speak with the Divine, they choose the purest terms to explain their love, to declaim their dreams and fears with the smallest chance to be heard.

Silence can be imagined as a veil, a polyhedral  geometric shape  that can contain multiple aims and meanings. A safe-place where our souls can breathe in a crowded time.






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