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.
Just the other day, a friend and I were talking about noise that appears to be unavoidable, the noise of every day life. Benedict doesn’t seem to me to be talking about that sort, does he? Rather he means opening our mouths and talking. Here is another place where he challenges our modern thinking about our “right” to express our opinions even if “it be for good, holy edifying conversation”. What do you make of this? What would happen if we refrained from saying even the good stuff? What would that be like?
What immediately leapt off the page today were the words “the spirit of silence is so important”.
We live in such a noisy world – it’s really difficult to find silence. Even on a remote wooded hilltop ‘far from the madding crowd’, there might still be an aircraft passing overhead – unwelcome noise – or even the song of birds, the crackle of twigs, the wind in the leaves – welcome sounds, but also perhaps distractions.
It’s worse in our crowded towns – traffic noise, radio noise, voices everywhere speaking or shouting, music spilling out of every shop, dogs barking, building work going on with very noisy machinery…
Silence is so elusive.
And yet when we find the perfect spot, where all seems externally still, we find it just as hard to find inner silence – at least, I do. There’s a cacophony of voices rising up inside, finally getting a chance to state their case – one lists things I mustn’t forget to do; one rakes up old worries; another reminds me of current anxieties; yet another insists I must make a thorough confession, complete with sack- cloth and ashes if possible, before I can come into a contemplative silence with God…
‘Be still and know that I am God’
‘Peace, be still…’ (and the wind and the waves obeyed!)
Are the elements more obedient to Christ than we are able to be when it comes to being still?
‘Martha, you are fretting and fussing about many things…’
Martha is a great source of comfort to me… She was a fretter and fusser; she wanted things to be just right; she seemed not to have ‘chosen the better part’ like Mary, to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him. And yet her faith was enormous – she understood all along what he’d been teaching. She was the one who trusted him when Lazarus had fallen ill; she was the one who recognised Jesus as the Messiah and proclaimed as much.
Silence is important; both outer and inner. But what is this **spirit** of silence that the RB refers to? Is it maybe the ‘peace that passes all understanding’ that rests in our hearts despite ourselves? Even when we forget it’s there? Even when we get ourselves into a frantic state of panic or despair or rage?
Jesus continually says, ‘Peace be with you.’ He said it twice in the upper room… perhaps the first time wasn’t enough for his bewildered, emotionally-drenched and drowned disciples. So he said it again, ‘Peace be with you.’ That’s the voice and the words I must try to listen for at the heart of the noise – yes, at the heart, not at the periphery. Whether external or internal, the noise can be stilled by Jesus who blesses us with a ‘SPIRIT of silence’.
Oh Lord, please remind me of this next time my boat is sinking under the storms of noise, exasperation and inner rioting thoughts!
The Lord is my Salvation and my Song – and also my Source of Silence.