To be silent and to listen (VI)

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.

Sins of the tongue begin with one’s thoughts. If the memory and imagination are filled with the din of unwholesome soliloquies, or with the noise of discussions and debates with oneself or with an imagined interlocutor, one has already begun to sin against silence. Sins against silence occur in the memory when one returns to troubling and unwholesome events and exchanges in one’s past and begins to brood over them. Sins against silence occur in the imagination when one frets over the future, or predicts to oneself what one thinks may happen, or gives into anxiety over things that have not and may never come to pass. The devil seeks always either to drag a man into his past or to project him into an unreal future. What the devil hates above all else is the present moment, because the present moment represents the actual will of God. Souls can torture themselves with anxiety by allowing themselves to be pulled into the opposite directions of a past that cannot be changed and a future that has not happened.

Sins against silence in the mind lead to sins against silence with the tongue, or with instant messaging by telephone, or with fingers flying over the computer keyboard. The technology of communications has made it possible to sin against silence in a variety of ways that former generations were spared. You will recall that last year at this time I wrote a letter to our oblates on this very question. Father Subprior composed a prayer for this intention:

O God, who hast taught us to make use of the things of this life as if we used them not (1 Cor 7), grant me wisdom and discernment in my use of the tools of knowledge and communication, for the form of this world is passing away (ibid.). Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth (Ps 140); preserve thou my mind from aimless curiosity; turn away my eyes from beholding vanity, and pierce thou my flesh with thy fear (Ps 118). Chasten thou all my discourse, lest any word of mine bring harm to me or to my neighbour. Make my heart like unto a fortified city, that filled with thy loving mercy, I may praise thee with pure lips: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come (Apoc 4), who in perfect Trinity livest and reignest, throughout all ages of ages. Amen.

A most effective means of quieting unwanted thoughts and of reducing the pollution of noise that so easily infiltrates the memory and imagination is by repeating the last verse of the Psalm 150: Omnis spiritus laudet Dominum, “Let every spirit praise the Lord.” This is the simple exorcism recommended by a wise old Dominican Father with a long experience of spiritual combat. The Roman Missal also gives us, among the various collects that a priest may draw upon for special needs, orations Against Evil Thoughts. Personally, I make use of these orations frequently, both for myself and for others, and I can attest to their efficacy.

O almighty and most gentle Lord, graciously regard our prayers, and deliver our hearts from the temptations of evil thoughts; that we may deserve to become dwelling–places worthy of the Holy Ghost.

To thee, O Lord, we offer these sacrificial gifts for our health; that purging our souls of unclean thoughts, thou mayest keep them unsullied, and deign to illumine them with the grace of the Holy Ghost.

O God who enlightenest every man that cometh into this world, illumine our hearts, we beseech thee, with the splendour of thy grace, that our thoughts may ever be worthy and pleasing to thy divine majesty, and that we may able to love thee sincerely.

For us, Benedictine Monks of Perpetual Adoration, our silence begins from the Host and takes us to the Host. One who frequents the divine school of silence that is the Sacred Host will find that silence becomes not only easier, but also sweeter. It becomes not a burden imposed from without, but a necessity that springs up from deep within the soul. Even five minutes of adoring silence before the silence of the Host can be enough to quiet the turmoil within and open the soul to the peace that Our Lord desires to give:

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, do I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be afraid. (John 14:27)

Silence is as a much a corporate task as it is a personal one. As cenobites, we choose silence together. We are, in effect, helped by each other’s silence. The silence of the monastery thus becomes an indwelt silence: a silence inhabited by the Word to whom we incline the ear of our heart, and whom we adore hidden in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.