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Restraint of Speech

Saturday, May 25, 2024
Chapter 6

Let us follow the prophet's counsel:"I said, I have resolved to keep watch over my ways that I may never sin with my tongue. I was silent and was humbled, and I refrained even from good words (Ps 39:2-3)." Here the prophet indicates that there are times when good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence. For all the more reason, then, should evil speech be curbed so that punishment for sin may be avoided. Indeed, so important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk, because it is written: "In a flood of words you will not avoid sin (Prv 10:19);" and elsewhere, "The tongue holds the key to life and death (Prv 18:21)." Speaking and teaching are the teacher's task; the disciple is to be silent and listen.

Therefore, any requests to an abbot or prioress should be made with all humility and respectful submission. We absolutely condemn in all places any vulgarity and gossip and talk leading to laughter, and we do not permit a disciple to engage in words of that kind.

Silence is a cornerstone of Benedictine life and spiritual development but the goal of monastic silence is not non-talking. The goal of monastic silence, and monastic speech, is respect for others, a sense of place, a spirit of peace. The Rule does not call for absolute silence; it calls for thoughtful talk. This chapter provides the principles upon which this "guard upon the tongue" is based. Silence for its own selfish, insulating sake; silence that is passive-aggressive; silence that is insensitive to the present needs of the other is not Benedictine silence.

Benedictine spirituality forms us to listen always for the voice of God. When my own noise is what drowns that word out, the spiritual life becomes a sham. Benedictine spirituality forms us to know our place in the world. When we refuse to give place to others, when we consume all the space of our worlds with our own sounds and our own truths and our own wisdom and our own ideas, there is no room for anyone else's ideas. When a person debates contentiously with anyone, let alone with the teachers and the guides of their life, the ego becomes a majority of one and there is no one left from whom to learn. But Benedictine spirituality is a builder of human community. When talk is unrestrained, when gossip becomes the food of the soul, then the destruction of others can't be far behind. When talk is loud and boisterous, when we make light of everything, when nothing is spared the raillery of a joke, the seriousness of all of life is at stake and our spirits wither from a lack of beauty and substance.

Make no doubt about it, the ability to listen to another, to sit silently in the presence of God, to give sober heed and to ponder is the nucleus of Benedictine spirituality. It may, in fact, be what is most missing in a century saturated with information but short on gospel reflection. The Word we seek is speaking in the silence within us. Blocking it out with the static of nonsense day in and day out, relinquishing the spirit of silence, numbs the Benedictine heart in a noise-polluted world.

The ancients wrote:
Once upon a time a disciple asked the elder, "How shall I experience my oneness with creation?"
And the elder answered, "By listening."
The disciple pressed the point: "But how am I to listen?"
And the elder taught, "Become an ear that pays attention to every single thing the universe is saying. The moment you hear something you yourself are saying, stop."