Reflections on Silence
At our Visitation in May with Abbot Joseph we agreed to review our observance of silence, specifically the various places and times of silence. Any renewal of the external practice of silence, asks at the same time that we look within, at the inner face of this essential monastic value. The Word of God comes out of the silence. We all understand the expression from Scripture the ‘small still voice of the Spirit’ and we go to our knees when we hear and receive this silent voice speaking. It is an interesting juxtaposition of word-images: small…still…voice of the Spirit…God’s Spirit…God’s silent voice. The Word dwells in silence: the Word is infinitely surrounded by silence and the Word births forth from the g To help us help even more understand the value of ‘silence’, I like to quote passages from an old book (published in 1952) titled The World of Silence by Max Picard. He writes:round of silence.
“The mark of the Divine in things is preserved by their connection with the world of silence” (p.4). “Speech came out of silence, out of the fullness of silence” (p.8). “When two people are conversing with one another…, a third is always present: Silence is listening” (p.9). “Silence can exist without speech, but speech cannot exist without silence. The word would be without depth if the background of silence were missing” (p.13). “It was inevitable that speech should come out of silence. For since Christ the Divine Word came down to humankind from God, the ‘small still voice,’ the way of the transformation of silence into speech was traced out for all time” (p.15). “Speech and silence belong together….Speech must remain in relationship with the silence from which it raised itself up” (p.21).
Max Picard’s book written over 65 years ago continues to be prophetic in terms of the need of silence to be connected with our words. When this connection is present our speech is not ‘chatter’, our words will not be hurtful, our speech will reflect a third who is listening…Silence, ‘God’ is listening…the Spirit is hovering!
I like now to turn to the Rule of St. Benedict to see what we can glean from it on the monastic value of silence. In RB 80 the appendix lists references to silence first under the heading of “silence as inner stillness” (p.582). Some of these are: “Monks should diligently cultivate silence at all times, but especially at night” (RB 42:1).“After the Work of God, all should leave in complete silence and with reverence for God, so that a brother or sister who may wish to pray alone will not be disturbed by the insensitivity of another” (RB 52:2).“The fourth step of humility is that in this obedience under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions, her (his) heart quietly embraces suffering and endures it without weakening or seeking escape” (RB 7:35).
What I like to point out in these passages from the Rule is that we are to ‘cultivate’ silence. This means it needs the care and tending like we would any plant we want to grow. And we are cultivating something within, within hearts first of all because what is planted in the heart will be manifested in the outer life. What is taking root in the heart creates an authentic ambience in the outer lived life.
Another heading from the appendix of RB 80 is “silence as discipline in speech” (p.582). I feel that this is very important for us…to see silence as discipline in speech. In other words, we are being called to the practice of silence in our speech; to take as an ascetical practice the discipline of our tongue! Perhaps we will be less ‘defensive’ in our speech with one another when we remember to let silence accompany the words we speak. For the discipline of silence we have this text from the Rule:“The ninth step of humility is that a monk controls his (her) tongue and remains silent, not speaking unless asked a question (RB 7:57), for Scripture warns, In a flood of words you will not avoid sinning (Prov 10:19) (RB 7:58), and, A talkative person goes about aimlessly on earth” (Ps 139: 12). (RB 7:59).
We may not consider ourselves to be a ‘talkative person’ but we all do fall into a flood of words when we are upset, when we have to explain ourselves over and over as if to justify a behavior or an expressed need. It is clear the Rule is calling us back into the silence of the heart where the Word of God will surely come to our aid to let us know what to say.
Sr. Aquinata Bockmann in her book, A Listening Community, writes: “It is characteristic for Benedictine spirituality that receptivity is emphasized before ever mentioning activity” (p.6). This receptivity is an inner capacity to receive the Word of God and so listening becomes a pivotal attitude for the monastic. Bockmann continues: “For Benedict the human being is essentially a ‘hearer of the word’….The principle reason for keeping silence lies in the fact that it enables the disciple to listen (RB 6:6)” (p.6). She also notes that “silence, listening is humility” and that “listening is indispensable for communal life” (p.6).
Silence and listening are indispensable for community life. To underscore what Bockmann is saying I like to note one implication of when our speech is disconnected from silence. The Prologue gives a commentary on psalm 33 and one piece of it is verse 17b: ‘If you desire true and eternal life, refrain your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit’. When silence no longer accompanies our words and we are in a conflictual conversation with a sister, what can easily happen? What about the truth of our words? Does our speech have hurtful arrows in it? Are we blinded by our own ‘beams’ as we accuse or react to our sister? Have we descended into the ground of silence to have our words purified? Here are a few more quotes from Max Picard’s The World of Silence: “Only Christ was able to fill speech brimful with truth…in Him the space of language is filled with nothing but truth” (p.19). “Silence provides a natural source of re-creation for language, a source of refreshment and purification from the wickedness to which language itself has given rise. In silence language holds its breath and fills it lungs with pure and original air” (p.23).Silence, which is the silence of God, exists without us. This monastery is located in an area where silence is pristine, like its natural surroundings. The outer practices of silence, which we will renew, can help us return to the silence of the heart where our words are purified, where we are able to hear the ‘small still voice of the Spirit’. Jesus, the Word of God, never departs from the ground of silence. Always his words carry with them this healing space, this Divine silence: ‘he healed them with a word’…a word that was surrounded by silence. And so his words are preserved forever: “The mark of the Divine in things is preserved by their connection with the world of silence” (The World of Silence, p.4).