Daily Meditations on the Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter 6

To be read: January 25, May 25, September 25

Let us do what the Prophet says: “I said, I will take heed of my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I have set a guard over my mouth, I was dumb, and was humbled, and kept silence even from good things”(Ps 38[39]:2-3). 2Here the prophet indicates that there are times we ought to refrain even from useful speech for the sake of silence.  How much more ought we to abstain from evil words on account of the punishment due to sin.  3Therefore, because of the importance of silence, let permission to speak be seldom given even to the mature disciples, no matter how good and holy and edifying their discourse, 4for it is written: “In much talk you shall not escape sin”(Prov 10:19). 5And elsewhere: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”(Prov 18:21). 6For speaking and teaching are the master’s responsibility; the disciple is to be silent and listen. 7If, therefore, anything must be asked of the Superior, let it be asked with all humility and respectful submission. 8But coarse jests, and idle words, or speech provoking laughter we condemn everywhere; and we do not permit the disciple to engage in speech of that kind. 

In this chapter, Benedict implies that it is a human tendency to regularly engage in unnecessary conversation.  Our insistence upon filling the vacuum of silence with speech is, or certainly can be, distracting from the greater communication taking place in the silence of the heart in both the speaker and the hearer.  “We ought to refrain even from useful speech for the sake of silence,” Benedict declares.  There are better words to be heard from God in the silence of the heart.  Let me offer two examples.  When I was a postulant for holy orders, my bishop was trying to help me understand the art of spiritual contemplation.  He told the story of his meeting the Metropolitan of Constantinople at Kennedy airport as the latter arrived for a conference at the Trinity Institute in New York.  My bishop was the conference organizer and he had a number of questions for the Metropolitan who was the featured speaker.  But when his guest got in the car, the two men sat together in silence until they arrived at the venue.  At that point the Metropolitan turned to Bishop Terwilliger and said, “Thank you for that intimate communication.  I feel I know you better, now that we have shared this spiritual union.”  The conference went forward smoothly from there.  The second example is personal.  I am losing my hearing.  I have been prayed over many times for healing, but the prophetic word I have received in those healings is that God is allowing me to lose my physical hearing so that I can spiritually hear more clearly.  My hearing loss has given me a greater appreciation for silence.

Shutting out unnecessary noise and confusing voices allows me to concentrate more fully on the voice of God, and I believe that is true for all of us whether in the monastery or outside.  We would all do well to talk less and listen more.  But Benedict goes further.  He also commands a prohibition against vulgarity and gossip.  This should be an obvious restraint for the Christian, however, the reason for the prohibition against “speech provoking laughter” seems less obvious.  We spoke of this in the meditation on chapter 4:44-54.  What Benedict is seeking to guard against in placing this restriction is distracting behavior.  A pun, a play on words, or even a humorous aside can distract the hearer from the import of the current conversation.  Any significant points that are being made in the conversation can be lost in the distracting asides or humorous twists of language.  This can lead to wandering minds and unnecessary digressions, and the conversation can become hijacked to less edifying thoughts.

Our lives are filled with noise and confusion.  Any discipline which helps brings order out of the chaos common in secular living is worthy to be employed.  Silence has become a lost art in modern society, and sadly, it is often denigrated as “wasted time” by those who neither understand it nor respect it.  As Christians seeking the heart of God, we need to make time in our confusing days to listen carefully for the still small voice of God and actively carve moments out of our busy days for silent contemplation.  Make time for silence, and consciously seek to develop and perfect that precious gift of holding one’s tongue and listening.

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