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.
The very first thing that comes to my head is how much I long for silence. There is noise everywhere and it just plain grates. And the world seems to have only gotten noisier since I was born in 1950.
This one of those passages which I would imagine some readers might find archaic. In a society or perhaps it is worldwide which claims that I have as much right to express my opinion as you, it must come as a shock that Benedict is not interested in our opinions, feelings, issues. He would have us get over our fine selves and care only about the opinions, feeling and issues of the Lord.
Note that we are to refrain from “even good speech.” “permission to speak should rarely be granted even to perfect disciples, even though it be for good, holy edifying conversation” Not that I am any example, but what might this mean? We are accustomed to hashing things out with others be it family, friends, therapists, email lists, blogs, facebook… the list could go on. Sometimes I don’t even know what I think until I say it to someone else. Or type it and send it. Do you have that experience?
Communication is ingrained in us. Look at the shelves in the self-help section of the bookstores. All those books about more effective communication. It’s easy to understand why Benedict would place a ban on coarse jests and idle words. “Words that move to laughter” is perhaps harder to understand, because surely laughter is a good thing. Perhaps the question is what or whom do we laugh? And why? Laughter from joy is one thing, laughter at the expense of another or in our own self-aggrandizement is another.
What is the first sentence of the Prologue? “Listen to the precepts of your master.” It takes silence to do that. Benedict would have us communicate with God first and foremost above all.
At least, that’s what I think. What do you think?