Silence Is a Direct Means of Spiritual Advancement and the Attainment of Perfection

by admin on January 15, 2012

A VERY spiritual and learned father [Father Nadal] used to say of silence a thing very particular and note­worthy, well showing its importance; and though some may think it an overstatement and exaggeration, it is not so, but plain truth, well borne out by experience. He said that to reform a house or a whole religious order, nothing more is needed than to reform it in point of silence. Let there be silence in a house, and I will warrant you its reforma­tion. No greater thing, one would think, could be said in praise of silence, since this includes everything. The reason is that, when there is silence in a house, everyone minds his own business and the purpose that brought him to religion, which was to aim at his own spiritual advance­ment. But when silence is not, then there are complaints, grumbling parties, backbitings, and particular friendships, which are fomented by these conversations and familiari­ties. Then there is wasting of one’s own time and making others waste theirs, and many other undesirable consequences following therefrom. Thus we see that, when there is no silence in a house, it does not look like a religious house, but a secular. Conversely, when there is silence, it forthwith has the air of a religious house and a paradise. As soon as you come in by the door, everything is redolent of holiness. This solitude and silence elevates the spirit and moves those who enter to devotion. Truly the Lord dwelleth here, this is the house of God (Gen. xxviii. 16-17). In the same way I say of any individual: reform him in point of silence, and I warrant him for a reformed man. By experience we see that, when we have talked much, we then find in our examen that we have fallen into many faults. Where there is much talking, there is poverty (Prov. xiv. 23), and misery, and matter of weeping. And when we have kept silence well, we hardly find anything to make our examen on. He who guardeth his mouth, guardeth his soul (Prov. xiii. 3). Even among the heathen, Charitans, a leading man and great doctor among the Lacede­monians, being asked why Lycurgus gave so few laws to the Lacedemonians, answered: “Because they who speak so little as they do have small need of laws.” Thus silence is enough to reform any individual and to reform a house and a whole order. And this is the reason why those ancient saints so much esteemed and practiced silence; and why all orders have inscribed among their observances, for one of the chiefest of all, that of silence. Therefore Denis the Carthusian says that St. James says: If any man sin not with his tongue, the same is a perfect man; and if any man thinketh to be religious, not bridling his tongue, that man’s religion is vain (iii. 2; i. 26).

Let each one, then, consider attentively how little we ask of him in order to his being perfect, and what an easy means we give him to that end. If you wish to advance much in virtue and gain perfection, keep silence, for thereby the Apostle St. James says that you will gain it. If you want to be a spiritual man and a man of prayer, keep silence, for in that way the saints say that you will ensure it. Contrariwise, if you take no care of keeping silence, you will never attain perfection; you will never be a man of prayer; you will never be very spiritual. If otherwise, tell me if you have ever seen any man who was a great talker and chatter-box to be very contemplative and spir­itual; you will not even find him at all proficient. Shall the talkative man be justified? asks holy Job (xi. 2). No, says St. Gregory on that text; the talker shall not be jus­tified, nor come to much good. And the prophet: The talk­ative man and babbler shall not raise his head in the land (Psalm cxxxix. 12). He shall not thrive; he shall not grow; he shall come under the malediction of the patriarch Jacob: Thou art poured out like water, thou shalt not increase (Gen. xliv. 4). If you have poured out your heart by these gates of the mouth and the senses, going beyond bounds to gather various distractions, you shall not grow, you shall not thrive.

The saints well liken the man who does not keep his mouth guarded and shut, to a vessel without a cover, which God commanded to be held for unclean: vas quod non habu-erit operculum, nee ligaturam desuper semper immundum erit (Num. xix. 15), because it is ready to receive within itself any uncleanness, and speedily gets filled with dust and nastiness; so does his soul quickly fill with imperfec­tions and sins, whose mouth is not kept shut.   So says the Holy Ghost through the Wise Man, and repeats it many times.    He who talketh much will do hurt to his soul (Ecclus. xx. 88).   He who talketh much will go wrong on some point (Eccles. v. 2).   There will not fail to be sin where there is much talking (Prov. x. 19).   Would to God we had not experience of this so often as we have!    St. Gregory says well: “You will begin with a good word, and thence you will come to an idle word, and from that you will jump at once to a jesting word, thence at once to an ill-natured word; and little by little you will wax warm in your speech and grow in your desire to heighten facts and make them appear considerable; and when you think not, you will have slipped into lies, malicious perhaps, and even pernicious lies: you will begin with a little, and end with a good deal.”   Such is often the way, to begin with buf­foonery and end in detraction.    Albertus Magnus says: “Where there is no silence, one is easily overcome by the enemy.”   And he quotes Proverbs (xxv. 28): As a city open and without circuit of walls, so is the man who cannot restrain himself in speech.   On which words St. Jerome says that, as the city open and without walls is much exposed to be entered and sacked by the enemy, so he who is not sheltered by this wall of silence is much exposed and in great danger of being overcome by the temptations of the devil.

And we may add another particular reason for this. A man in the world who is off his guard and taken up with many different things may easily make a mistake, but he who is on his guard, not so easily; so he who does not keep silence may readily be led astray by the devil, because he is distracted, taken up and absorbed in irrelevant matters; but he who walks in silence and recollection, walks always wide-awake and always on his guard, and so the devil will not so easily catch him or lead him to take a false step.

Excerpt from Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues by Alphonsus Rodriguez, translated by Joseph Rickaby (Loyola University Press, 1929). Reprinted with permission.

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