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.
Many years ago, I think it was in the early 1970s, I read a review of a book that, at the time, had been published not long before in England. The title of the book, the biography of an intrepid French Carmelite in England, was In the Silence of Mary. I never forgot the book, so struck was I by the title. The book, with its mysterious and compelling title, came back into my life again, not long ago, through my correspondence with the Carmel of Birkenhead in England. There are in every man’s life books, paragraphs, and even mere phrases that touch a chord deep within and draw forth resonances of grace. A monk of Silverstream is a man called into the silence of Mary and into the silence of the Host. If there is anything I desire for each of you, it is that you may enter into the silence of Mary and of the Host.
At first, one reading Chapter VI of the Holy Rule is struck by what one might call Saint Benedict’s negative presentation of silence. For Saint Benedict, silence is, first of all, a way of avoiding sin. “If we ought at times to refrain even from good words for the sake of silence”, says Saint Benedict, “how much more ought we to abstain from evil words, on account of the punishment due to sin”. Benedictine silence begins very humbly. A novice must learn to keep silence before he can love it. A novice must learn to restrain his speech and to rein in his impulse to hold forth. Some of you were great talkers before entering the monastery. Others of you are, by nature, more taciturn; this is not to say that such taciturn men do not hold conversations in their heads. The man eager to blurt out whatever thought comes into his head must learn one kind of silence; the man accustomed to holding everything in must learn another kind of silence. Every man who enters the monastery has to adjust to the silence that at certain hours and in certain places is inviolable. This ascetical pratice of silence is but the beginning. It is not yet the silence of Mary and of the Host.
A novice must learn to move quietly and to do things without making noise. Silence of action does not come easily to everyone. There is a monastic way of walking quietly, of closing doors and shutters quietly, of placing a book down quietly, of laying the table in the refectory quietly, and of putting one’s choir stall up and down quietly! This silence of action is also but the beginning. It is not yet the silence of Mary and of the Host.
There are brothers who, in the world, thrived on stimulating conversation, debate, and lively exchange. Other brothers found their outlet in the use of the social media; the quiet click–click–click of the computer keyboard gives one access to a world of noise. The finger on the keyboard can be in every way as harmful to a monk as the wagging tongue. It is necessary that a novice break with any dependence on electronic devices of communication and the social media. This renunciation of mediatic noise is still a mere beginning. It is not yet the silence of Mary and of the Host.
When a novice has begun to practice all these ascetical forms of silence — and this may take months or, in some cases, years — he will begin to desire a deeper silence. This deeper silence is at once the fruit and the condition of hearing the Word of God. Have you never noticed how the Word of God produces silence within you? I am thinking of the silence that follows close upon a well–executed chant in choir or the silence that crowns each Hour of the Divine Office. Such a silence is, even when experienced fleetingly, the beginning of a participation in the silence of Mary.
But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)
And his mother kept all these words in her heart. (Luke 2:51)
Saint John shows us Our Lady in silence at the foot of the Cross; even when Jesus addresses her from the Cross, she remains silent. It is enough for her to receive His word into her maternal Heart pierced by a sword of sorrow. Mary’s silence at the foot of the Cross was the purest expression of her compassion; it was her actual participation in the immolation of the Lamb. Saint Luke tells us nothing of Our Lady’s silence after the Ascension of her Son. He does tell us, however, that in the Cenacle the Mother of Jesus persevered in prayer. Had Our Lady used in the Cenacle some memorable form of words, the Evangelist who faithfully transmitted the words of her Magnificat would, I think, have preserved for us the words of whatever prayer rose from her heart. Instead, with the sureness of a skilled literary artist, Saint Luke evokes only the silence of Mary.
It is certain that the prayer of the Rosary is an initiation into the silence of Mary. My heavenly Dominican friend, Père Vayssière, entered into the silence of Mary through the Rosary. Père Vayssière discovered the power of the beads to still his thoughts, to quiet his imagination, and to enclose in silence all his senses. Brothers sometimes come to me to say that as soon as they set about praying they are assaulted by disquieting thoughts. This sort of thing is not uncommon when a man goes before the Blessed Sacrament resolved to adore; no sooner does he enter the presence of the Host than unwanted thoughts fill his head, making him want to bolt for the door and to do something, anything, to subdue the din within. This is where the Rosary can be an immense help. I heartily approve of telling one’s beads before the Most Blessed Sacrament: the repetition of the words, “and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus” can most effectively quiet one’s unwanted thoughts and sustain one’s adoration. The distinction that some authors make between so–called “vocal prayer” and “silent prayer” is artificial and not very helpful. Silent prayer needs to be anchored in some form of words, lest our minds wander into daydreaming or suffer the invasion of the foreign legions of our thoughts.
The Rosary can be, for ordinary chaps like you and me, a point of entry into the silence of Mary, into the prayer of Mary, into the grace of Mary. A monk should never be without his beads. Eastern monks wear their prayer rope wrapped around the wrist or hold it continuously; they call it the sword of the Spirit because it is a monk’s most precious weapon in spiritual combat. The prayer rope of the West is the rosary. It is attested that Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759–1833) prayed a form of the Rosary; he called it the Rule of the Theotokos, and claimed that Our Lady herself gave it to a monk of Egypt in the 8th century. The holy New Martyr Bishop Saint Seraphim (Zvezdinsky) of Dmitrov, murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1937, prayed daily fifteen decades of the Angelic Salutation, each beginning with an Our Father, while meditating on fifteen mysteries of the Mother of God drawn from the Gospels and the liturgy. For him, the Rule of the Theotokos, or daily Rosary, was a source of strength and consolation in suffering. I have known monks for whom the rosary was not only the sword of the Spirit, but also a lifeline. Many a monk has been saved from spiritual shipwreck because in the worst of the tempest he held fast to his rosary until, as the psalm says, “the storms of destruction passed him by” (cf. Psalm 56:2). What remains after the tempest is the silence of Mary.
The silence of Mary leads one into the silence of the Host. Of this silence of the Host I have spoke to you before. Friends and lovers speak one to the other to express what they hold in their hearts; once these things have been expressed, it is enough for them to remain united one to the other in the silence that is the more perfect expression of their love. So many souls are afraid of the silence into which Our Lord would lead them if only they would let Him. Fear is what causes souls to hide behind a barrage of words and concepts. Our Lord’s desire is to unite us directly to Himself by means of faith, hope, and especially, of love. The theological virtues do not require words. Words, in fact, can impede the pure expression of the theological virtues in a prayer that seeks to rise above them.
There are, of course, times when words are useful and necessary to one’s human weakness and to the need one has to be reassured of Our Lord’s love, but in the end, silence is the purest expression of Our Lord’s love for us and of our love for Him. Little by little, Our Lord sets about leading a monk into the silence of unitive love. Words remain to some degree necessary, but they come to occupy a relative place in one’s adoration. Silence, after a while, no longer provokes a kind of panic. One begins to find contentment in the silence of the Host.
We are Benedictine Monks of Perpetual Adoration. Our Lord’s desire is that you and I should, without forcing or trying to make anything happen, imitate Saint John, the beloved disciple, by resting our noisy heads— so full of thoughts, and cares, and fears, and words—upon His Most Sacred Heart. There we will learn to find peace and perfect happiness in listening only to the steady eternal rhythm of the divine heartbeat. It is not the length of these moments that matters but, rather, the intensity of divine love that fills them. The man who has learned to rest in sinu Jesu, on the Heart of Jesus, will discover one day that he has entered altogether into the silence of the Host, and that the silence of the Host has entered into him.