The eleventh degree of humility is, that when a monk speaketh, he do so gently and without laughter, humbly, gravely, with few and reasonable words, and that he be not noisy in his speech, as it is written: “A wise man is known by the fewness of his words.”
Having come to the eleventh degree of humility, our father Saint Benedict returns to the subject treated in Chapter VI, that is, silence or, as the Holy Patriarch terms it, taciturnitas, a certain reserve or preference for quietness. The very fact that Saint Benedict says, “when a monk speaketh” indicates clearly that his monks did speak and that he intended that they should speak. Monastic silence is not mutism. It is unfortunate that so much nonsense is written, particularly in news articles, about monks making a vow of silence. Silence has never been the object of a vow in the monastic tradition. It is, rather, what we call an observance, a means to a higher end. Suffice it to say, then, that, for Saint Benedict, it is a given that monks will speak.
How are monks to speak? The first adverb Saint Benedict uses to describe a monk’s speaking is gently. A monk is, always and everywhere, a gentleman. He speaks in a gentle manner avoiding all that is harsh and shrill. Harshness in speech and manners is never becoming of a monk. When Saint Benedict says that a monk is to speak without laughter, he does not exclude the virtue of playfulness (eutrapelia) and good cheer. What Saint Benedict bans from the cloister is obstreperous buffoonery. Saint Benedict would have his monk speak humbly: without seeking to dominate the conversation; without trying to make himself the centre of attention; without trying to demonstrate intellectual, or social, or religious superiority over anyone else. When Saint Benedict alludes to gravitas, he is revealing his own Roman education and sensibility. The Romans admired a man who knew how to contain himself, how to be discreet, circumspect as needed, and decorous — without of course being stuffy and priggish. When I was a novice much was made of la bienséance monastique, a gentlemanly demeanour that radiated calm, reverence, and attention to others.
Saint Benedict would have his monk use few and reasonable words. There is nothing more disedifying and unpleasant than a monk who cranks on, saying whatever pops into his head, and never knowing when he has said enough . . . or too much. As for noisiness in speech, Saint Benedict is referring to the boisterous shouting that in most mediterranean cultures is quite normal. What may be normal in the marketplace, shop, or tavern is excluded from the cloister.
Saint Benedict concludes the eleventh degree by calling the monk a sapiens, a wise man. The Greeks use the same time to designate a monk: he is a kalógeros (καλόγερος), that is a lovely old wise man. Whenever I hear this term used to describe a monk, I think of the Monk of the Eastern Church, Father Lev Gillet (a sometime Benedictine) who was known for his gentleness, spiritual wisdom, and compassion. Such is the Benedictine sapiens: a man who has tasted the sweetness of God, as the psalmist says, and, at the same time, like Saint Thérèse, tasted the bread of bitterness and suffering that is every man’s fare in this valley of tears.