Good Zeal

Letting Silence Speak

View of the yard and lake behind the main monastery buildingIn preparing a talk for a retreat group on the topic of Benedictine silence, I was led to reconsider St. Benedict’s perspective on silence. In the fifth century there were no electronic gadgets or internal combustion engines to fill his environment with sights and sounds to distract or attract one’s attention. Out in the Roman countryside where he located his community there wasn’t the hustle-bustle of the big city. Having been to Subiaco and Monte Cassino last year, I can attest to the fact that these locations were very remote locations high in the mountains with very little other than the sounds of nature surrounding them. Benedict left all of the noise and distractions of Rome as a youth, according to St. Gregory the Great’s biography of St. Benedict, to better please God and avoid falling into the evil vices of his fellow students. After all of the attention following his first miracle, Benedict “stole away secretly from his nurse and fled to a lonely wilderness about thirty-five miles from Rome called Subiaco” (Life and Miracles of St. Benedict Ch.1).

In the narrow cave at Subiaco, Benedict experienced a prolonged period of silence and solitude for three years that was interrupted only by the sounds of nature, the thoughts and desires within himself, and the sound of a little bell ringing to signal the arrival of food rations lowered from above by a kindly monk of a nearby monastery. Surely his time alone with God and himself shaped his understanding of the role that silence plays in fostering spiritual and personal development.

In writing a Rule for his own monasteries, Benedict leaned heavily on the writings of the monastic tradition that preceded him, borrowing heavily from the Rule of the Master but revising it according to his own wisdom and experience. Benedict placed particular emphasis on the importance of silence in the daily life of his disciples by referring to it in multiple chapters: silence at all times but especially at night (RB 42.1), during Lent (49.7), during meals (38.8), during siesta (48.5), in the oratory (52.2), with guests (53.23-24), and after a journey (67.5). It is Chapter 6, however, that St. Benedict provides the spiritual rationale for all of this silence.

Chapter 6 is situated in the Rule between the chapters on obedience (Ch. 5) and humility (Ch. 7). And, it is noteworthy to point out that the chapter is entitled “Restraint of Speech” instead of “On Silence.” In the monastic tradition dating back centuries before St. Benedict, speech (i.e., expressing oneself aloud with words) has been recognized as one of the primary pitfalls for those who choose to dedicate themselves to a life of holiness and wisdom. Spoken words are powerful, and it is so easy to use them for sinful, selfish, or evil purposes—prideful boasting, cursing, lying, slandering, spreading gossip, etc. Not only can one use words wrongly, but people use excessive chatter as a distraction technique and as a means of controlling other people and situations. Furthermore, if one is doing all the talking, he or she is not listening. If one is not listening, then one is not capable of learning God’s wisdom. As St. Benedict points out, “Speaking and teaching are the master’s task, the disciple is to be silent and listen” (RB 6.6) If we are disciples of Christ, then he is the Master. We are to learn from him. So, restraint of speech, even from good words, promotes an environment of reflective listening for the Word of God being spoken. Like obedience and humility, restrained speech out of reverence for silence is a discipline undertaken for one own spiritual growth.

Prolonged times of silence nurture an internal receptivity to God. In the silence we can become aware of the thoughts and feelings that are hidden underneath the usual activities that take up our time and attention. Stepping away from a situation for a period of time can offer us a different perspective. The dynamics we encounter within ourselves in the silence reveal who we are on the inside without the false personas we adopt when engaging with others in our families and in other social relationships. It is in the silence that we come to realize just how much we need God’s healing and supportive love to restore all that has been wounded or neglected in our lives. Silence fosters growth in self-knowledge—knowledge of the good, the bad, the strengths and the weaknesses, and it helps us to be more attentive to the ways that God is truly present in our lives—in nature, in others, in our creative pursuits and in so many other ways.

“Be still and know that I am God.” Ps 46.10

By Sister Therese Haydel, OSB

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