CHAPTER VI. Of the Practice of Silence
24 Jan. 25 May. 24 Sept.
Let us do as saith the prophet: “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue, I have placed a watch over my mouth; I became dumb and was silent, and held my peace even from good things.” Here the prophet sheweth that if we ought at times to refrain even from good words for the sake of silence, how much more ought we to abstain from evil words, on account of the punishment due to sin.
Therefore, on account of the importance of silence, let leave to speak be seldom granted even to perfect disciples,* although their conversation be good and holy and tending to edification; because it is written: “In much speaking thou shalt not avoid sin”; and elsewhere: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” For it becometh the master to speak and to teach, but it beseemeth the disciple to be silent and to listen. And therefore, if anything has to be asked of the Superior, let it be done with all humility and subjection of reverence. But as for buffoonery or idle words, such as move to laughter, we utterly condemn them in every place, nor do we allow the disciple to open his mouth in such discourse.
We consider today the second of the essential elements of the Benedictine way: silence, or as Saint Benedict calls it taciturnitas, meaning the habit of holding one’s tongue, or remaining quiet. There are two aspects to our silence; the first is ascetical, that is, silence as a means of avoiding sin; and the second is mystical, that is, silence as a participation in the life of God.
Saint Benedict is explicit concerning the first aspect. He quotes Psalm 38:2–3:
I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue, I have placed a watch over my mouth; I became dumb and was silent, and held my peace even from good things. I was dumb, and was humbled, and kept silence from good things.
The story is well known how Abba Pambo, a Father of the Egyptian desert, at the very outset of his monastic life, betook himself to an aged monk, and asked direction of him. The old monk opened his Psalter, and began to read the opening verse of Psalm 38, “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue”. The young Pambo said, “Stop there. That is enough. Let me go home now and practice this verse”. Long years after, a brother asked Abba Pambo if he was yet perfect in the practice of this first lesson of his monastic life. The dear saint, now a venerable elder, replied, ” Forty and nine years have I dwelt in this desert, and am only just beginning to learn how to obey this commandment”. Do not, then, become discouraged if, in the practice of holy silence, you still have progress to make.
No one of us is better than Abba Pambo. A monk must grow into silence. One begins by observing silence strictly in all the places and at all the times that our Declarations and Statutes prescribe, especially the following articles:
47. Every member of the community is responsible for the observance of silence
in the monastery, especially in the oratory, sacristy, chapter room, and
refectory. The monks will avoid speaking immediately before or after the
Divine Office; if, however, it should be necessary to say something, they will
do it quietly in a place apart and not in the presence of others.
48. Outside the hours of Great Silence, the monks will express themselves
modestly, and in a subdued tone of voice, limiting themselves to exchanges that
are cordial and brief. Although they may communicate with one another as
needed in the context of the work assigned them, they will strive to do so
briefly and with sobriety. When obliged to speak, they will do so in a quiet and
gentle tone of voice, such as to be heard only by the person whom they are
addressing. They will request the permission of the Prior before engaging in
any prolonged private conversation, and will avoid all such subjects of
conversation as may wound charity, lead to foolish levity, or foment dissension.
At first, the observance of silence can be a struggle; to some brothers, at certain seasons and hours, silence may seem oppressive, confining, and negative. This kind of silence is, however, absolutely necessary. Without it a man will never become a monk. It is one of the “the hard and rugged things by which we make our way towards God” (Chapter LVIII). When tempted against the observance of silence, recall Saint Benedict’s wise words in the Prologue:
If anything be somewhat strictly laid down, according to the dictates of sound reason, for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not therefore fly in dismay from the way of salvation, whose beginning cannot but be strait and difficult.
It is told that a monk in Egypt, who lived in the same house with others, asked Abba Bessarion, “What should I do?” The old man replied, “Keep silence and do not compare yourself with others”. This is wise counsel. It corresponds to the words spoken to Abba Arsenius:
While still living in the palace, Abba Arsenius prayed to God in these words, ‘Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.’ And a voice came saying to him, ‘Arsenius, flee from men and you will be saved.’
I delight in this simple account because it tells us so much about Arsenius’ prayer while he lived in the imperial palace as a tutor to the sons of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I. This was a comfortable and prestigious position. All the same, it left Arsenius unsatisfied and restless. He began to pray in words reminiscent of Psalm 24: Vias tuas, Domine, demonstra mihi, et semitas tuas edoce me, “Direct my way, Lord, as thou wilt, teach me thy own paths” (Psalm 24:4). A voice came to Arsenius. Did it strike his ears or was it a voice that struck the heart? The answer came, “Arsenius, flee from men and you will be saved.” This answer corresponds to what a man does when he enters the monastery — he flees from men, that is from worldly society and its blandishments — but it is nought but the first step. It is but the beginning of a life–long journey into the silence of God. Listen again to the life of Arsenius:
Having withdrawn to the solitary life he made the same prayer again and he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the source of sinlessness.’
Fuge, tace, quiesce. It is not enough to flee from the society of men, if one continues noisily to entertain the world in one’s heart. After fuga, the flight from the world, there comes taciturnitas, an acquired preference for silence over speech; then comes quies, that is quiet, rest, and peace. The quies of the word spoken to Abba Arsenius corresponds to the ἡσυχία of the Greek Fathers: it is quiet repose in God, but a quiet repose purchased dearly by all the abnegations of flight from the world, and the habitual practice of silence.
The mystical aspect of silence radiates from the Sacred Host. The Word, silent in His bitter Passion, according to the word of the evangelist — Jesus autem tacebat (Matthew 26:63) — remains silent still in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. One who tarries in the presence of the Sacred Host will, over time, or sometimes, by a special grace, in the twinkling of an eye, be drawn into the silence of the Word in the bosom of the Father.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. (John 1:1–2)