This past January I first read The Rule of St. Benedict and it greatly impacted me. Early in the rule, Benedict gives a laundry list of exhortations to the monks, several of which I took to heart. Within the list, which included the Shammah, some of the Ten Commandments, a sampling of Christ’s commands, and the Catholic works of mercy, among others, I took to heart these three exhortations:
52. Not to speak much.
53. Not to speak idly nor as to cause mirth.
54. Not to love boisterous laughter (Benedict 53).
Then, I read the sixth chapter on silence. Benedict begins this chapter by explaining the importance of silence to prevent monks from speaking evil words and keep them obedient to their abbot. He finished with an exhortation:
“We always condemn and ban all small talk and jokes; no disciple shall speak such things” (56).
“Amen,” I thought, even though many of my fellow readers disagreed.
I want to know my friends’ lives, their ideas, families, passions, joys, imaginations, and faith. I want to support them both in their suffering and in their triumph. I want to exhort them to delight in God forever and to know that God loves them as his children. It is difficult for this to happen when our conversations are confined to small talk about food or the weather, or cheap jokes that do not elicit even a chuckle.
When I reread Benedict’s Rule for the Jerusalem and Athens Forum course, our professor asked the class to develop its own rule like those of St. Benedict. I extolled the greatness of the passages on silence to my classmates. Although some of my peers understood my vision, many of them disagreed. In the end, we agreed to add two exhortations to our rule: “respond with listening” and “create a space for intentional conversation and fellowship in the academic sphere.”
However, the importance of silence and the intentionality of speech go beyond the monastery and college-level seminars. Benedict begins his chapter on silence with Psalm 39:1, “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue.” As he explains this verse, he reveals the power of words. When we speak endlessly, we will say hurtful things and sin (Benedict 56). I know how hurtful impulsive words can be, as I have hurt people by letting words slip from my mouth without thinking. Even when our words do not cause pain, being quick to speak benefits ourselves more than it benefits others. Through excessive talk, we elevate our own importance and too eagerly make promises we cannot fulfill.
Like the sophists criticized by Plato and Paul, we often exploit the power of speech in order to influence others. When we base our identities in this speech, excessive talk becomes the only way to prove ourselves to others. Therefore, reducing our speech is foremost an act of humility. We are not the main characters of our stories. We are not God. We do not need to speak ourselves into existence, because God redeems us and adopts us as his children.
Not only should we speak less, but we should also listen and think more. Benedict exhorts his monks to hear and learn from their abbot. Likewise, we should be fully attentive to each other (Benedict 56). Rather than scrambling for a talking point, seek to understand your friends as they speak, digest their words, and think before you respond. Initiate questions more than comments. When your friends respond to your questions, do not rush to fill the space with your own ideas. Sometimes it is good to stay still. Silence allows us to reflect and be fully present with each other.
In surrendering the power and burden of speech, we trust in God. We do not need to prove ourselves to him like the hypocrites or babble on like the pagans. He knows all our needs before (Matthew 6:7). We only need to listen and learn from Him. Although life outside the monastery requires us to talk more than a monk’s life of prayer and song, it is nonetheless important to weigh our words.