Of Silence, and the Great Blessings and Advantages There Are in It

by admin on June 12, 2011

ONE of the means that will greatly help our progress in virtue and attainment of perfection will be to refrain and mortify the tongue; and, contrariwise, one of the things that will most injure and impede our progress will be to be careless on this point. St. James tells us the one and the other in his canonical epistle. On the one hand he says: If any man offend not in word, he is a perfect man (iii. 2). And on the other: If any man thinketh to be religious, and restraineth not his tongue, he deceiveth himself, and his religion is vain (i. 26). St. Jerome quotes this authority to recommend the keeping of silence, and says that those old Fathers of the Desert, resting on this sentence and doctrine of the Apostle St. James, took great care to keep it. He says that he found many of those holy Fathers who had passed seven years without speaking to anyone. Hence also Denis the Carthusian says that all religious orders have come to put among the chief observances of their order the observance of silence, and that with such severity that they enacted and ordained that he who broke it should be chastised with a public discipline.
But let us see what can be the reason why we have this matter recommended to us so much. Is it such a grave offense to speak one idle word? Is it more than losing a little time which is wasted in saying it, a bit of a venial sin that is cleared away by taking holy water? It must be more than losing a little time; the matter must be of more weight than it appears, seeing that Holy Scripture makes so much of it; for Holy Scripture is not given to exaggerations, nor weighs things otherwise than according to their just weight. The saints and doctors of the Church, to whom the Lord gives particular light to understand and declare the mysteries of the divine Scriptures, enlarge greatly upon the advantages that follow from the observance of the rule of silence and the great losses that ensue upon the contrary. St. Basil says that it is very profitable, especially for beginners, to practise silence; in the first place, in order to learn how to speak as is proper, for to speak well many circumstances are required, and it is a matter of difficulty, and of great difficulty. And since to learn other sciences and arts we reckon many years well employed to come out proficient therein, it will also be reasonable to employ some years in learning this science of knowing how to speak; for if you do not make yourself a pupil and pay attention to learning, you will never turn out a master.
But you will say: “By talking much we shall learn how to talk, as other sciences and arts are learned by much practice in them.” To this I answer with St. Basil that this science of knowing how to speak well cannot be learned without keeping silence and much practice in keeping silence. The reason is that speaking well depends on so many circumstances; and we have such a bad habit of blurting out, regardless of these circumstances, just what comes into our head and whatever it pleases us to think, and that in any tone we like to take, without order, without consistency. Two things, mainly necessary for anyone to know how to speak, are achieved by silence. The first thing is that by dint of much silence we forget the evil style of conversation that we brought with us at the outset from the world; which forgetting goes a long way to help us to learn a good style of conversation, as reciprocally the good style goes to make us forget the evil style that we had contracted. The second thing is that by this silence we find ample room and time to learn the right style of conversation. It gives us opportunity in abundance to look at those ancient religious, whom we understand to be experts in this science and who know how to speak properly, to learn of them and get impressed upon us that stamp of maturity which they show in their speech, and that repose and gravity of words. As an apprentice learns by looking to see how his master does things, that he may come to do the like, and so learning come out as a master, so we should look at men who are singularly excellent on this point, to learn of them. Look at that ancient brother here and that father there, what a good habit of speech he has, how graciously he dispatches and answers those who converse and deal with him. However occupied he be, he seems to have no other business on hand but to answer you; you will always find him in one mood, always like himself not as you, who when you are much occupied give ungracious and snappish answers. Look at that other, when any order comes to him on the part of obedience, how well he answers: “Just so, with all my heart,” without excuses, without asking who gives the order, or whether there is anyone else who could do the job. Look at that other, how incapable he is of saying anything to wound anybody, or give offense to a brother, either at recreation or out of recreation, either as a sneer or for the fun of the thing, either in presence or absence of the person spoken of; how he speaks to all and of all with respect and esteem; and do you learn to speak in that manner. Notice this other, how, when they have spoken to him a little word that he might resent, does not answer tit for tat, but handsomely dissembles as though he had not heard it, according to the word of the prophet, I became as one not hearing (Psalm xxxvii. 15), because he has learned well how to conquer himself and his brother. Do you learn to behave in that manner on like occasions. For these two reasons St. Basil says that a long silence is very profitable; because by disuse it begets forgetfulness of old habits of evil speech and gives scope and room enough to learn how to speak properly.
On the text, There is a time to be silent, and a time to speak (Eccles. iii. 7), St. Ambrose and St. Jerome allege the practice of that ancient philosopher, Pythagoras. The first lesson he gave his disciples was to keep silence for five years, that during that long period of silence they might forget their evil manners, and listen to him speaking, and learn how they should in future speak, and so become masters in the art. Hence St. Jerome concludes: “Let us, then, learn first to be silent, that afterwards we may know how to speak. Let us keep silence for a time; let us study those who are eminent in this science to imitate them; let us become disciples, that afterwards, after much silence, we may turn out masters.”
And though these saints are speaking to beginners, nevertheless what has been said touches us all. For either you are a senior or a novice, or you wish as regards the custody of your tongue to be like a novice or like a senior; choose which you will. If you are a novice, or wish to be like a novice, the first lesson will have to be to keep silence until you know how to speak well, as has been said. If you are a senior, or wish to be like a senior, you must be the example and pattern on which the novice is to look, and from which the beginner is to learn. But I had rather you played the senior than the novice, since the senior is bound to more; it was for this that you were a novice and were silent so long, that you might learn to speak; and it is only to be expected that you should know how to speak after so long a time. But if you have never been a novice and have never learned to speak, it is necessary that you should be as a novice now; because so you will learn to speak what is proper, when it is proper, and as it is proper.

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