January 24, May 25, September 24
Chapter 6: On the Spirit of Silence
Let us do what the Prophet says:
“I said, ‘I will guard my ways,
that I may not sin with my tongue.
I have set a guard to my mouth.’
I was mute and was humbled,
and kept silence even from good things” (Ps. 38:2-3).
Here the Prophet shows
that if the spirit of silence ought to lead us at times
to refrain even from good speech,
so much the more ought the punishment for sin
make us avoid evil words.
Therefore, since the spirit of silence is so important,
permission to speak should rarely be granted
even to perfect disciples,
even though it be for good, holy edifying conversation;
for it is written,
“In much speaking you will not escape sin” (Prov. 10:19),
and in another place,
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21).
For speaking and teaching belong to the mistress;
the disciple’s part is to be silent and to listen.
And for that reason
if anything has to be asked of the Superior,
it should be asked
with all the humility and submission inspired by reverence.
But as for coarse jests and idle words
or words that move to laughter,
these we condemn everywhere with a perpetual ban,
and for such conversation
we do not permit a disciple to open her mouth.
There is an unfortunate translation in this passage, I believe. The word “mistress” does not mean what we first might think of when we see this word. Married women used to be addressed as “mistress.” Mrs. is the abbreviation of “mistress.” Here it refers to Abbess. The translation used switches genders from one chapter to the next to be egalitarian. So in this case “mistress” refers to the Abbess.
Silence. Have you ever noticed how little there is of silence? Grocery stores, the pharmacy, restaurants, when we are on hold, elevators, other people’s cars… everywhere we go we are assaulted by music. People can barely remain silent during church services. I live in an apartment fifty feet from a busy freeway, even double-paned glass doesn’t block the sound of the traffic.
How very hard it is to block out all distractions to prayer in the first place and then on top of that, we have all the distractions of modern life.
In Benedictine communal living situations, there is silence at all times except for designated times of the day. Hand signals have been developed for the occasions when it is absolutely necessary for the members to communicate something of importance because Benedict says that we should refrain from speaking even “good speech.” Therefore permission to speak must be given by the monastic superior. We are to listen to teaching and absorb it, internalize it and translate it into our behavior.
I mentioned yesterday that Benedict hated grumbling, murmuring, ridicule, sarcasm, and now we see that he also hated coarse jests and idle words. These could be sources of more ridicule and gossip. Which is not fixing one’s heart and mind on God. Which is the purpose of silence.