Preferring Nothing Whatever to Christ


If there is anything in the popular imagination that is associated with the monastic and contemplative life it is probably silence. But the type of silence which people imagine reigns in monasteries and hermitages is really only a very pale reflection of reality. That said, the practice or discipline of silence, especially in a monastery which belongs to the Benedictine tradition, is one of the pillars of monastic life, and it certainly is given a very particular prominence in St Benedict’s Rule.

But as with so many other matters which the Rule presents, silence is not and should not be the preserve of contemplatives. Perhaps more than ever today some degree of silence in all our lives is worth reclaiming and its practice worth acquiring and sharing. So in these fews thoughts we hope to share something of the vast richness which the presence of silence can reveal and suggest that it needs to be part of your life if you are to live in a way which is respectful, open and deep.

St Benedict devotes an entire chapter in the Rule – Chapter 6 – to the observance of silence, and so accords it an importance on a par with the other monastic disciplines which define this type of life. Indeed, it is part of a run of chapters which, in one sense, lay the bedrock upon which monastic observance must be erected: Chapter 4 – the tools for good works; Chapter 5 – on obedience; Chapter 6 – on silence; Chapter 7 – on humility. Only then, when he has unfurled the great tapestry upon which our lives will be woven does Benedict proceed to lay down the norms for that most important work of all, the Work of God, or divine office.

But the teaching which he offers on silence is by no means confined to this one chapter. Throughout the course of the Rule, and in different ways and for different purposes, St Benedict reminds us about what it means to practice restraint in speech, and why it is important to do so. Sometimes, indeed, he leaves off specifying the reason, and for one good purpose – he wishes the monastic to consider for themselves why silence is knit into the fabric of our lives and practice. He doesn’t spoon feed us everything, and, as a good teacher, wants us to be able to draw conclusions from ourselves so that our own lives are lived both richly and with an every greater degree of maturity.

Silence hangs over the Rule from the very first word – Obsculta: Listen. We cannot overemphasize the defining value of being able to listen and make listening a defining part of who we are. Listening involves a turning towards a source from which a word is spoken. It implies that we stop what we are doing, that we give our attention to the word addressed to us, that we have a disposition which is open to receiving what is being shared. Good listening allows the one who is speaking to know that we are attending to them, and so it brings with it a degree of affirmation for the other. One Bible concordance (Strong’s) shows us that the word “listen”, or an equivalent “hear”, depending which translation you follow, in some form, appears some 550 times, and is frequently found on Christ’s lips. This isn’t to mention its derivatives, like hearer, heard, hearing, and so forth. The behaviour associated with listening is part of our relationship with God’s presence already, even if we do not acknowledge it to be so.

Then in Chapter 4, the tools for good works, St Benedict prepares us, as it were, for Chapter 6, by offering a little run of tools which concern speaking and not speaking:

“Guard your lips from harmful or deceptive speech. Prefer moderation in speech and speak no foolish chatter, nothing just to provoke laughter; do not love immoderate or boisterous laughter. Listen readily to holy reading, and devote yourself often to prayer. Every day with tears and sighs confess your past sins to God in prayer”

Already here we have an outline of the seriousness with which St Benedict treats both speech and silence – he asks that both be treated in a grave and considered way. Both should be subject to discernment, and both should serve purposes which are good, and lead, it would seem, to other good things and ways of living. And the responsibility is very much with the person themselves – who is going to guard my lips and tongue and what I say and how I withhold speech, if not myself?

To begin our consideration of silence and our practice of silence we would like to offer some brief extracts from a remarkable work by the French writer Max Picard, The World of Silence. Picard asks us to consider the nature of silence as an essential expression of our human personhood and its intimate relationship with language and our use of language. So often, silence seems like a threatening emptiness rather than a space in which encounter is already taking place because the faculties of hearing, listening, expectation and acceptance are activated.

We have arranged the extracts into the form of four reflections which, taken slowly, will hopefully allow you to reflect not only on the presence and purpose of silence in your own life, but how you use language (and nowadays all other sorts of communication) and if there exists a relationship between the two for you.

The First Reflection:
Silence is not simply what happens when we stop talking. It is more than the mere negative renunciation of language; it is more than simply a condition that we can produce at will.
When language ceases, silence begins. But it does not begin because language ceases. The absence of language makes the presence of Silence more apparent.
Silence is an autonomous phenomenon. It is therefore not identical with the suspension of language. It is not merely the negative condition that sets in when the positive is removed; it is rather an independent whole, subsisting in and through itself. It is creative, as language is creative; and it is formative of human beings as language is formative, but not in the same degree.
Silence belongs to the basic structure of the human being. It is language and not silence that makes the person truly human. The word has supremacy over silence. But language becomes emaciated if it loses its connection with silence.
Language and silence belong together: language has knowledge of silence as silence has knowledge of language.

The Second Reflection:
Speech came out of silence, out of the fullness of silence. The fullness of silence would have exploded if it had not been able to flow out into speech.
The speech that comes out of silence is, as it were, justified by the silence that precedes it. It is the spirit that legitimizes silence, but the silence that precedes speech is the pregnant mother who is delivered of speech by the creative activity of the spirit. The sign of this creative activity of the spirit is the silence that precedes speech.
There is something silent in every word, as an abiding token of the origin of speech. And in every silence there is something of the spoken word, as an abiding token of the power of silence to create speech.
Speech therefore is essentially related to silence. Not until one person speaks to another does he learn that speech no longer belongs to silence but to the human person.
When two people are conversing with one another a third is always present: Silence is listening. That is what gives breadth to a conversation: when the words are not moving merely within the narrow space occupied by two speakers, but come from afar, from the place where silence is listening. That gives the words a new fullness.
But not only that: the words are spoken as it were from the silence, from the third person, and the listener receives more than the speaker alone is able to give. Silence is the third speaker in such a conversation. At the end of the Platonic dialogues it is always as though silence itself were speaking. The persons who were speaking seem to have become listeners to silence.

The Third Reflection:
There is radiance surrounding truth, and this radiance is a sign that truth has an impulse to expand in all directions. The radiance surrounding truth is beauty. In this way truth is able to penetrate far and wide; the radiance of beauty prepares the way for truth; it occupies all space in advance of truth and for truth. The truth is already present everywhere.
Beauty is also present in silence; it is primarily in silence. Silence would sink weighted down into its own darkness, down to the abyss,dragging down with it much that belongs to the brightness of the earth, if beauty were not also present in silence. Beauty gives a lightness and airiness to silence, so that it, too, becomes a part of the brightness of earth. Beauty relieves silence of its heaviness, brings it up into the light of the earth and brings it to the human person. The radiance of the beauty which rests on silence is a premonition of the radiance inhering in the word of truth.
In the God-Man the Word, the Truth, and the radiance of Perfect Beauty are a unity. One is not behind the other or even beside the other, but all are one in a perfect unity. And in this unity all history meets in one Person: the beginning of man, his sin, and his redemption.

The Fourth Reflection:
Man lives between the world of silence from which he comes and the world of the other silence to which he goes – the world of death. Human language also lives between these two worlds of silence and is upheld by them. That is why language has a double echo: from the place whence it came and from the place of death.
Language receives innocence, simplicity, and originality from the silence whence it came, but its short duration, its fragility, and the fact that language never exactly corresponds to the things it is describing, come from the second silence, from death.
In the modern world language is far from both worlds of silence. It springs from noise and vanishes in noise. Silence is no longer today an autonomous world of its own; it is simply the place into which noise has not yet penetrated. It is a mere interruption of the continuity of noise, like a technical hitch in the noise-machine – that is what silence is today: the momentary breakdown of noise. We no longer have definite language and definite silence, but simply words that are spoken and words that have not yet been spoken – but these are present, too, standing around like tools that are not being used; they stand waiting there menacingly or boringly.
When language is no longer related to silence it loses its source of refreshment and renewal and therefore something of its substance. Language today seems to talk automatically, out of its own strength, and, emptying and scattering itself, it seems to be hastening to an end. There is something hard and obstinate in language today, as though it were making a great effort to remain alive in spite of its emptiness.
By taking language away from silence we have made it an orphan.

-Part of our ‘Holy Rule of St Benedict’ series-

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