Let’s begin this reflection by confronting one of the most common questions asked by those who read the Holy Rule for the first time: Does Benedict really ban laughter, as seems to be the presumption in Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”? (We remember, of course, that the offending book which is so closely guarded in this novel is Aristotle’s lost work on laughter, but the entire, and wonderful, tale, takes place in a medieval Benedictine monastery, and so looks over its shoulder at St Benedict’s required behaviour around laughter). He is very sceptical about it, and in Chapter 7 on humility, he seems to be very doubtful about it being a part of monastic life: the tenth and eleventh steps of humility are less than positively framed, in order that the monk not become some kind of chortling fool! But we should doubt that laughter was entirely banned from Benedict’s monastic enclosures – to be able to laugh is to be able to enjoy and share enjoyment, and it is a sign, if genuine, of real joy, and joy, after all, is an indicator of the presence of the Risen Christ. Rather, we might say, Benedict wants foolish, idiotic, sarcastic, mocking laughter to be outlawed. And this is a laughter which at times reveals immaturity, or cynicism, or anger indeed. Such “laughter” demeans, both those who indulge in it, and those at whom it is, unfortunately, directed. So, Benedict has a valid point in these verses.
But laughter is only one little consideration in Benedict’s teaching. Having considered something of the essence of silence in Picard’s work, we can look in a little more detail at Benedict’s wisdom. It is, of course, to be noted that these verses concerning laughter in Chapter 7 (and the preceding verses of the ninth step of humility) build on and look back to Chapter 6, On Restraint in Speech. So, what does this little chapter teach us?
Silence, as the structure of this part of the Rule indicates, goes hand in hand with the other important aspects of monastic life which are obedience and humility. But silence can never be an end in itself – or can it? It seems that St Benedict thought it could, and that it was such a worthwhile and serious undertaking that it had its own very proper value which stood alone and didn’t depend on other factors for its legitimacy. In Chapter 6 of the Rule we find out why silence should be observed in the monastery:
- Sometimes even good words should be left unsaid out of esteem for silence (out of respect for the gravity and importance of silence);
- Evil speech inevitably brings punishment for sin, and so it is better to remain silent;
- When we speak too much it’s hard to avoid sin
- The disciple, the one who is a learner, should practise silence so that he can listen
As mentioned, these admonitions build on the tools offered previously in Chapter 4, The Tools for Good Works:
- Guard your lips from harmful or deceptive speech
- Prefer moderation in speech
- Speak no foolish chatter, nothing just to provoke laughter
- Do not love immoderate or boisterous laughter.
Above all we can note immediately that these counsels are bookended by two themes which, in many ways, support the entire Rule and which we have, in various guises, alluded to before:
- To yearn for everlasting life with holy desire
- Devote yourself often to prayer.
Perhaps we are coming close to the essential context in which monastic silence truly finds its value (and why simply monastic silence – surely this can have resonance for anyone who takes speech and silence seriously in their lives): Benedict intends that silence be cultivated, valued, guarded and practised because we should be aiming for the goal of eternal life, and that we run toward that goal by building for ourselves a life of prayer. And to do this we need to embrace an understanding and practice of silence.
What is silence for St Benedict? There seems no doubt that it regards, in the first instance, refraining from speech. Silence is at its most fundamental level not speaking, or at least not speaking too much. In this sense St Benedict doesn’t require that silence in the monastery be absolute: monks are allowed, from time to time and for the right reasons to speak to one another. This at least is obvious from the tools above: moderation in speech has to do both with what is being said and how often one resorts to speaking. Moderation always brings with it a sense of balance and discernment – we should think before we open our mouths, and when we do we should speak in a measured fashion. This in fact has profound consequences for the monk when he comes to a community meeting:
“The brothers, for their part, are to express their opinions with all humility, and not presume to defend their own views obstinately”(RB 3, On Summoning the Brothers to Counsel)
In itself, that’s an excellent maxim for any meeting – to present one’s opinion succinctly, simply, without rancour, and to leave it there for everyone’s consideration. Meetings could be shorter, less ill-tempered and a good deal more productive if this simple counsel were adopted! And we all know – if we are not already guilty of it ourselves – that there are those in our communities and workplaces who are all too fond of the sound of their own voices, but rarely have much to say. And it can happen that, even when we do have something to offer, we cover it in so much candy floss that the point is either utterly obscured or our listeners have switched off before we get there. Speaking so that we invite others to listen and hear us is an art which has to be learned, and it is learned in the first instance by listening to others, especially those who have learned how to listen themselves.
The emphasis which St Benedict places upon the danger of speech leading to sin finds it origins in Sacred Scripture, in the Book of Proverbs:
“The lips of just men silence hatred,
He who voices slander is a fool.
A flood of words is never without its fault,
He who has his lips controlled is a prudent man.
The virtuous man’s tongue is purest silver,
The heart of the wicked is of trumpery value.
The lips of the virtuous man nourish a multitude,
But fools die in poverty”(Proverbs 10:18-21)
It is particularly that line which indicates that a flood of words is never without fault – for Benedict, “in a flood of words you will not avoid sin” – which has particular relevance. When we open our mouths to speak there is always the risk that we will sail too close to the wind and by our speech show a lack of love. Sin ultimately separates us from God, and from one another, and so breaks down that essential communion which defines the cenobitic nature of Benedict’s monastery – we are here together, leading one another and being led by one another, to eternal life, and anything which fractures that delicate but essential union is to be avoided, and sometimes, indeed, condemned. And Benedict will have seen this witnessed in other parts of the wisdom literature which the Rule shows he knew so well:
“The tongue holds the keys of life and death”(Proverbs 18:21, which Benedict quotes immediately here in Chapter 6)
“Who will set a guard on my mouth
And a seal of prudence on my lips,
To keep me from falling,
And my tongue from causing my ruin?”(Ecclesiasticus 22:27)
So, now we see that we are not dealing merely with silence per se, but with that gift which grows out of silence: speech. A word doesn’t come from nothing – it has a preparation in thought and finds clothing in speech and language, in nuance and inflection. This is something which, for a very great part, our modern world has done so much to forget, convinced as it is that communication comes only with continuous speaking and language interaction, be that now articulated by sound, text or image. We have all but forgotten that silence speaks also, and eloquently when we wish it so.
The value of silence in and of itself is central to the Rule. It is never a thing which is immediately evident to us, and indeed can cause immense confusion for those who are unfamiliar with its practice. But it remains the case that in silence we have the possibility of being able to experience tranquillity and rest. The monastic wisdom phrase vacare se Deo – to empty oneself for God – begins precisely in this emptiness which is framed in silence. It is not an emptiness which is a lifeless void. On the contrary, it consists in being a very active turning towards another and becoming aware of another, since in silence I cease to be preoccupied with thoughts and words and plans and become preoccupied with another who is completely present to me. In silence I have the possibility of being this – completely present, to myself, to the other, and to The Other who is always Present. Perhaps it is true that no silence is ever absolute – we are never not conscious of some sound or noise which vies for our attention. But the silence which the monastic wishes to cultivate is actively centred on listening, and is therefore a silence which is wholly expectant. It waits for a word to be spoken, or the rustle of a presence, or the breath of a still voice, barely perceptible but entirely recognisable. Perhaps this is why the excommunicated in the Rule – the one who suffers the gravest punishment for offences – is not to be addressed or spoken to (RB 25 and 26): he must be retrained in the art of silence, to listen for the presence of God, rather than listen only to himself. In the silence which he experiences in the life of the community he hears once again a different melody and the invitation which brought him to the monastery in the first place:
“Seeking his workman in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out to him and lifts his voice again: Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days? If you hear this and your answer is “I do”….”(RB Prologue)
Undoubtedly, silence must prevail so that the monastery is a place in which the Work of God is carried out. The centrality of prayer should not come as a surprise – the monastic enters the monastery so that he can avail of the extraordinary privilege that the Church offers him: to devote himself entirely to prayer. There is really no other point in monastic living: the monastic exists to pray, and everything else must take a very far distant second place when compared to this. The oratory – literally the place for prayer – is set aside for this purpose alone, and when the community prayer is done the brethren should leave quickly and quietly so that anyone else who has a mind to remain in silence for their own prayer can do so (RB 52). And indeed the common prayer itself should be characterised by its succinctness and economy of words:
“God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words. Prayer, therefore, should be short and pure”(RB 20)
Only in silence and with the attitude of silence can God’s creativeness and closeness surprise us, otherwise our attention is given to other things and his presence goes by unheeded. Perhaps this is the most devastating aspect of our life today – silence seems to be bought at a very great premium, and that price begins not with our physical interaction and communication, but with our virtual and electronic reaching out and communication. We seem to be unaware that the noise which robs us of silence in these instances is an internal one, a noise which demands, louder than shouting, our engagement, as we text, instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and Tik Tok one another. We have, in many ways, dispensed with the need for our tongue, teeth, lips, soft and hard palates – our thumbs and fingers have effortlessly replaced them.
This is an altogether more difficult noise to move aside and silence at this level can be seen to have an almost ontological character – it belongs to our very being, our having been made by God in his image and likeness, but it has been banished from our being, which has become rewired by social media and umpteen platforms. The God who is within is squeezed into the wrong sort of silence – he speaks, but is virtually unheard.
Let’s conclude this reflection by noting for a moment St Benedict’s insistence that all observe silence after the Office of Compline, the last office of the day, sometimes referred to as Night Prayer. RB 42 tells us:
“When all have assembled, they should pray Compline; and on leaving Compline, no one will be permitted to speak further. If anyone is found to transgress this rule of silence, he must be subjected to severe punishment, except on occasions when guests require attention or the abbot wishes to give a command, but even this is to be done with the utmost seriousness and proper restraint.”(RB 42.8-10)
We are faced here with a very direct prohibition on any kind of talking whatsoever, and the warning that accompanies it emphasises the nature of the night silence: a severe punishment awaits the foolish offender! The night time is a period set aside after a busy day of toil and work, carried out in community and alone, and so receives its own special quality – a consecration, almost – which allows it to be the time above all for rest. And we shouldn’t forget that Benedict expects his monks to rise for the Office of Vigils – in the Rule around the eighth hour of the night (about 2am), or, as he says, sleeping until a little past the middle of the night (RB 8, The Divine Office at Night), so they need to get their sleep as soon as they retire. We in the Cistercians have slightly modified this by retiring to bed a little later (for most monasteries, Compline is now sometime between 7pm and 8pm), and so rising for Vigils now sometime between 3.15am and 4am, depending on the location and the time of Compline.
The time of the night is also, traditionally, a time of temptation, a time when the light of day, so much a reminder of the presence of God who enlightens all, and of the resurrection, fades. Benedict knows this well and so prescribes that at Compline we should pray, each night, the blessings and yearnings which are sounded forth by Psalm 90. The whole psalm is one which recognises the safety of sheltering beneath God’s protection, but in doing so it recognises the dangers which lurk, ready to ensnare the unprotected and wanderer:
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
And abides in the shade of the Almighty
Says to the Lord, ‘My refuge,
My stronghold, my God in whom I trust!’
You will not fear the terror of the night
Nor the arrow that flies by day,
Nor the plague that prowls in the darkness
Nor the scourge that lays waste at noon”.
But, of course, the whole psalm needs to be read and considered – Benedict consigns the tired monastic to God’s care, knowing that anger, frustration, anxiety, sadness, which often walk with someone at this hour, can rob us of our tranquillity and open the door to the devil:
“Be calm but vigilant, because your enemy the devil is prowling round like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat. Stand up to him, strong in faith”.(1 Peter 5:8-9)
The night time, of course, is also a time for prayer: perhaps, with the world still, inside and outside the monastery, there can be a heightened awareness that God has made his home among us and invites us in this darkness to know him. It is also a time to reflect, slowly and gently, on the day which has gone before us, on all encounters, the persons whom we have met and received, or ignored, the words spoken in comfort and encouragement, and those which should have remained unspoken, and above all for the good things which God has given us in the day, how he has graced us, the little moments of consolation which passed us in the very moment but which can now be recalled, acknowledged, and offered back to the Giver.
The night time, thus accepted, does not have to be a time of worry or temptation or fear, but rather is a time for new communion and contemplation: in the dark we see him whom the darkness can never overcome.
And it is, above all for the monastic, the time to watch. The darkness will not last because Christ, in his death and resurrection, has banished that permanent darkness for ever. Perhaps here, too, there is a moment to recall one of the tools of good works, since the night and darkness are a daily reminder of our own deaths, a last falling asleep which only gives way to a new and beyond our imagining wakefulness: life and light in the deification which comes in the Kingdom:
“Live in fear of judgement day and have a great horror of hell. Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire. Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die”.(RB 4.44-47, On the Tools of Good Works)
The little death of sleep is already a daily reminder of the fact that we will die according to our perishable nature. But that daily recalling is not meant to be a means of frightening us: Benedict means us to seize each moment and live it as God’s presence. Nevertheless, death, as a reality for each of us, confronts us day on day:
“Through death, man in principle attains his final condition. Death for him is neither the end of his existence, nor is it a mere passage from one form of existence to another, which continues to share with the preceding its essential characteristic of indefinite temporal sequence. Death is the beginning of eternity, if and so far as we may use the term “beginning” at all in regard to eternity. The total, created reality of the world grows in and through incarnate spiritual persons and the world is, in a certain sense, the body of those persons. Their death slowly brings the universe to its own final stage. This immanent maturing of the world toward its consummation, like that of the individual human being, is, at the same time, in a mysterious dialectical unity, a rupture, an ending from without, through an unpredictable intervention of God through his coming in judgment, no one knows the day.”(Karl Rahner, On the Theology of Death)