Know When To Speak And When To Be Silent

Know When To Speak And When To Be Silent March 9, 2022

Lawrence OP: St. Antony of Egypt / flickr

We live in a foolish era; everyone likes to speak, giving their opinion to everything, whether or not they should do so. The wisdom of silence is rejected. We want to be praised by others, and we have been led to believe the way to do so is to be heard. Sometimes, indeed, often, this includes shaming all those who think differently from us so as to make sure people focus their attention on us and listen to what we have to say. We believe that this makes us important members of society, and in order to stay important, we must make sure others are ignored.

There are times when it is important to speak out, whether or not we want to do so, but we must not use such exceptional situations to justify our speech when we should be silent. We should be humble, willing to listen to others and learn from them. The more we presume we are know enough to speak and teach others, the more responsibility we have, not only for ourselves, but for those whom we influence, which is why James said: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness” (Jas. 3:1 RSV).

Most of the time, we should not presume to teach others; rather, we should wait in silence, speaking only when someone comes to us asking for our help. This way, we will not needlessly impose ourselves upon others, becoming busybodies when we should mind our own business. And if we speak out of turn, we will likely speak erroneously, as we will not understand the full context of the situation, which means, our words will likely make things worse, not better; in doing so, we will find ourselves at fault and so culpable for what happens next. “If one gives answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13 RSV).

It is important, therefore, to speak with wisdom, to know when it is appropriate to say something, and when it is not. If we speak out of pride or vainglory instead of love or concern for those in need, we risk looking like a fool, while those who do not know any solutions and are silent show wisdom as they understand their own limits. “He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.  Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Prov. 17:27-28 RSV). Speaking out of line, therefore, risks revealing our foolishness. This is why we find many who pursue a religious vocation often learn the value of silence, maintaining it unless they find themselves in a situation where it is necessary to speak:

One day Abba Macarius went to see Abba Anthony. He spoke to him and then returned to Scetis. The Fathers came to meet him, and as they were speaking, the old man said to them, ‘I said to Abba Anthony that we do not have an offering in our district.’ But the Fathers began to speak of other things without asking him to tell them the old man’s reply and he himself did not tell them. One of the Fathers said about this that when the Fathers see that the brethren fail to question them about something that would be useful, they ought to begin talking about it themselves; but if they are not urged on by the brethren, they should not say anymore about it, so that they shall not be found to have spoken without being asked, and to have said unnecessary words. [1]

What St. Antony had to say to Macarius seems to have been for Macarius alone; it would not have been of help to others, and so Macarius did not reveal what he had been told to his disciples. As he did not speak of it, so those in his monastery did not ask about it either. It was recognized by all that, despite the holiness and wisdom of Antony, not everything Antony said needed to be recorded or passed on to others. Macarius did explain why he went to Antony, to show he had some concern which he thought Antony would be able to discuss with him. There was some sort of offering which was not going on in his area. Was it going on in Antony’s? Was it something which should be done universally? Was it something unnecessary or even unhelpful? We are not told the answer to such questions, even as we are not told what Macarius did as a result of his visit. Macarius did not think it was anything which others needed to know. What he learned was useful to him but not others. If he believed it could have been useful, he would have shared it with all. If he was prideful or vainglorious, he would have shared it to show others how much Antony trusted and respected him. But Macarius was silent on what Antony said, showing us that we should not always be focused on recording all that even holy people have to say, realizing that if we did so, we might have people focusing on the words instead of living a life of holiness themselves. The author of the Gospel of John understood this, which is why he said he did not and would not try to record all that Jesus said and did.

“The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools” (Eccles. 9:17 RSV). This is because the words of the wise are carefully considered before being made, while those who like to control and dominate others will be quick to speak and not consider all that is necessary for what is just and proper. They will speak, but in the end, ruin themselves through their speech, as they will reveal not only their foolishness, but many secrets which they might not otherwise want disclosed. Thus, it can be said, “A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to himself” (Prov. 18:7 RSV).  We should all keep this in mind in our own interactions with others. We seem to have learned how to speak and speak loudly; now it is time to learn when to be silent.

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 133 [Saying of Macarius the Great 26].


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