It beseemeth the disciple 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.

For our father Saint Benedict, the practice of taciturnitas, the practice of keeping silent, is, first of all, a means of avoiding sins of the tongue. For this reason does he invite us to follow the example of the prophet, that is, David, who said:

Dixi: Custodiam vias meas: ut non delinquam in lingua mea. Posui ori meo custodiam. . . . Obmutui, et humiliatus sum, et silui a bonis. (Psalm 38:2-3)

It was my resolve to live watchfully, and never use my tongue amiss . . . . I made myself speechless, and I was brought low. . . . letting even good things flow by quietly.

Saint Benedict says that the abbot ought not give leave to speak too often or too readily, even to disciples of impeccable observance. He knows that a man may lose all that he has gained from years of good observance by falling into unbridled conversation. In multiloquio non effugies peccatum (Proverbs 10:19). One might translate this as, “Where there is much talking, you will not escape sin.”

What follows, however, suggests that the practice of silence does more than simply keep a man free of sins of the tongue. Nam loqui et docere magistrum condecet, tacere et audire discipulum convenit. “For it becometh the master to speak and to teach, but it beseemeth the disciple to be silent and to listen.” One cannot read of her this sentence of Chapter V without recognising in it something of Saint Luke’s description of Mary of Bethany:

She [Martha] had a sister called Mary; and Mary took her place at the Lord’s feet, and listened to his words. (Luke 10:39)

Our Lord so appreciated Mary’s silence and humility that He extolled it above Martha’s solicitude, competence, and organisational skills. “Martha, Martha, how many cares and troubles thou hast! But only one thing is necessary; and Mary has chosen for herself the best part of all, that which shall never be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42). Saint Luke gives a parallel figure to Mary of Bethany when he describes the state of the Gerasene demoniac after his exorcism:

And they went out to see what was done; and they came to Jesus, and found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at his feet, clothed, and in his right mind; and they were afraid. (Luke 8:35)

Like Mary of Bethany, this man, formerly in the grip of demons, finds himself enthralled by the presence and teaching of Jesus. He takes the lowly position of the disciple at the feet of the Master and, a few verses later, asks that he be allowed to remain with Him. Our Lord does not grant this request; instead He makes the man a messenger of the mercies of Jesus. The former demoniac’s silence overflows into a confession of praise.

Return to thy house, and tell how great things God hath done to thee. And he went through the whole city, publishing how great things Jesus had done to him. (Luke 8:39)

The Gerasene passes from the chaotic ranting of a man not in possession of himself to the jubilant thanksgiving of one who can say: “Bless the Lord, O my soul: and let all that is within me bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and never forget all he hath done for thee” (Psalm 102:1-2). To each of us, Our Lord would say:

For this have I brought you to this place, not to become preoccupied with your own interests and cares, but to abide in My presence, entering into My own prayer and into the fire of love that burns in My Heart. Your part is to be silent before Me. Give Me all that you hold in your heart and, then, be silent, confident that I will look after all that you make over to Me. Lay down your burdens here, and attend to Me. The abandonment of your cares into My providence disposes you to receive My gifts.

When you are tempted to worry, when you are on the point of succumbing to fear, when you are haunted by anxiety and by the spectre of misfortunes, come to Me, quiet your soul in My presence, renounce every preoccupation, and adore Me in silence. This is the remedy for the fears that emerge from your past and darken your present. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 45:11). Silence in My presence can be a perfect act of abandonment to My providence and of submission to all My designs upon your life.

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