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.