Set a watch, O LORD, before my keyboard

Certain events over the last couple of weeks seem to have coalesced to bring about this post. Some time ago we received Father Prior’s “Benedictine Approach to the Use of the Internet & Social Media“; shortly thereafter our reading of the Introduction to the Devout Life brought us to the chapters on conversations and detractions; this past week saw some celebrations of the vetus ordo at the Fatima shrine, the main celebrant being a well known American cardinal. The flood of invective on Portuguese social media on the part of the laity and, even worse, priests has brought all the more to mind St. Benedict, St. Francis de Sale and Father Prior’s words on silence.

Perhaps it is the age we are living in, or perhaps it is just my impression, but it seems that we live in a time when most people seem to be very opinionated and they make a fact of letting everyone know their opinions whether others want to know them or not. Yet looking to the Holy Rule for guidance, what does the Holy Patriarch have to say about much speaking? In Chapter VI, after quoting the Scriptures St. Benedict puts the matter quite succinctly:

[I]f at times we ought to refrain from useful speech for the sake of silence, how much more ought we to abstain from evil words on account of the punishment due to sin.

While the Rule is essentially directed at those living the cenobitic life, general rules can be taken from it that can be applied to the lives of those of us living in the world, as D. Mark Kirby shows the aforementioned commentary. One of the verses of Sacred Scripture that I am most reminded of is

In the multitude of words there shall not want sin: but he that refraineth his lips is most wise. (Prov 10:19)

Looking back at St. Benedict’s injunction to refrain from talking even for “useful speech” through the lens of Proverbs 10:19, I can look back at everyday situations in my life where conversations (be they in person or online) that start out innocent enough many times slowly begin to degrade: a complaint is made here, a fault of another is revealed there, and the conversation suddenly snowballs, leading either one or both parties to murmuring, sinning against charity, etc. And this is not even when the conversation has started off maliciously! On those occasions where one happens to be caught in a situation of gossip, I have found that if one doesn’t extract oneself immediately then one is easily sucked into a whirlpool of complaint, detraction, etc., even if one was initially unwilling to join in at all.

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On the Spirit of Silence

Let us do what the Prophet says: “I said, ‘I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue. I have set a guard to my mouth.’ I was mute and was humbled, and kept silence even from good things” (Ps. 38[39]:2-3). Here the Prophet shows that if the spirit of silence ought to lead us at times to refrain even from good speech, so much the more ought the punishment for sin make us avoid evil words.

Therefore, since the spirit of silence is so important, permission to speak should rarely be granted even to perfect disciples, even though it be for good, holy edifying conversation; for it is written, “In much speaking you will not escape sin” (Prov. 10:19), and in another place, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21).

For speaking and teaching belong to the master; the disciple’s part is to be silent and to listen. And for that reason if anything has to be asked of the Superior, it should be asked with all the humility and submission inspired by reverence.

But as for coarse jests and idle words or words that move to laughter, these we condemn everywhere with a perpetual ban,and for such conversation we do not permit a disciple to open his mouth.

What has caught my attention most in today’s reading is St. Benedict’s injunction “at times to refrain even from good speech.” This isn’t something which is apparently logical. Why should we refrain from speaking good at times? From my own experience, even when I’m “speaking good”, having what I think might be an edifying conversation, many times it goes downhill rather quickly, either degenerating into useless talk (either pointless or even bad), or the topic ends up being about myself (even if in a veiled way). How many times have I caught myself in the act and regretted it? What St. Benedict recommends here and which is applicable for the lay oblate, I think, is prudence in speech. One should take circumstances into consideration before talking.

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It may be a bit forced, but today’s readings at Mass brought to my mind this chapter of the Holy Rule. In the Epistle St. Paul reminds us of the Israelites in the desert with whom God was not pleased. And what was Israel’s great sin in the desert? Murmuring. In the Gospel account we have murmuring again.
Murmuring tends to be a lack of interior silence, of ruminating a grievance interiorly until it festers, and like a rotting mass it atracts flies (other noxious thoughts), whose buzzing fills us interiorly and removes our silence. But why is silence important? As our holy father said in the Prologue and re-states in this reading, the disciple needs to listen. If there is no interior silence, how can I hear the Word? If I do not listen, how can I obey?
Exterior silence is helpful in prepairing the interior. We are bombarded on all fronts by noise (TV, radio, Internet,mobile phones,…), as if to block out the silence. Why are we afraid of it? Curiously, I have gotten the same answer from many different persons from all walks of life – “if it’s too quiet, I start thinking about my life, and if I do that no good can come of it.” Am I afraid of silence? Am I afraid of hearing the Word, of its implications for my life? Do I create moments of silence in my own home, even when the family is around?