Wisdom And Silence

Wisdom And Silence January 12, 2024

Dimitris Kamaras (Photographer): Fra Angelico — St. Peter Martyr Asking For Silence/ Wikimedia Commons

Most of us love attention. We love showing off. We want others to look up to us, to praise us, as this makes us feel important. For this reason, we often speak on things we shouldn’t be speaking about. We want to appear to know everything, hoping if we do, others will look up to us and listen to our every opinion. We will try to fake it until we make it. Then, we believe our influence will increase, and through it, we prove our worth. It is an issue of pride, but it is also an issue of control, as we like the sense of power we get when we have people listening to our every opinion and doing the things we tell them to do.

This kind of dynamic has led so many people astray, including, and especially, the ones speaking on matters they should not be speaking about. They speak out of ignorance, acting as if they are not, exercising their power and influence over others, manipulating people to do their will, whether or not what is done will be of help to anyone. Prudence is completely lost in the equation. We need to stop ourselves from following through with this kind of dynamic, for if we continue to follow it, slowly but surely, we will begin to believe our own reputation and think we are wiser than we really are, and as a result, we set ourselves up for a great fall.

Society encourages people to constantly speak and never be silent. It often is as if everyone is babbling together, all at once, with no one communicating with anyone else.

What we really need to do is learn to stop speaking, to embrace silence, and through it, take the time to truly gain knowledge and wisdom.  We can start by stopping ourselves from making a comment when it is not needed. We need to learn self-control. We need to accept that we do not need to make ourselves the loudest voice in the crowd. We certainly don’t need to get drawn into some sort of useless debate.

Often, those who want to make themselves heard do so by trying to deny others their value, to deny especially those who have wisdom and knowledge by criticizing and ridiculing them. By tearing others down, by using all kinds of bravado in what they say and do, they hope they can hide their ignorance, not only from others, but themselves.  A person of wisdom, as the book of Proverbs indicates, does not need to tear others down. “He who belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent” (Prov. 11:12 RSV).

It is best for us, if we care about ourselves, to learn how to be silent, so we can take the time we would be using to speak on things we don’t know to gain wisdom, and through that wisdom, learn how to best conduct ourselves. “Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (Jas. 1:19 RSV).  If, after gaining such wisdom, others come to us and ask us questions, we would more likely have something substantial to offer them, and if we don’t, we would know we don’t and would not pretend we do.

This is why various  desert fathers and mothers became famous for their wisdom, and what they said was remembered.  They embraced silence. They used the time they had to learn, first and foremost, about themselves, to know themselves, and with such knowledge, they gained greater insight about the human condition as well.  If people came to them for advice, they would have practical experience, if not actual study (as some, to be sure, were educated, and had both to offer), to use to answer whatever questions came their way. They did not speak much, but when they spoke, it was remembered, while so much of what others said in their day and age, who gained fame, are now forgotten, showing how fleeting such fame can be.

We should keep in mind that the desert fathers and mothers were like us; many of them, like many of us, had a difficult time embracing silence. This is why there is, within the various sayings collections which preserved their wisdom, we find all kinds of admonitions on silence and the various ways to put it into practice. They indicated how the would-be monk should avoid all external distractions, for if they did not, those distractions would get the best of them, and they would not be able to embrace all the disciplines expected of a monk. They would let their inordinate passions control them instead of controlling those passions. Going out of their cell, finding people, especially other monks to talk to, even reading books, could be distractions and lead the would-be monk astray, so, Abba Poeman said: “The beginning of evils is distraction.”[1] This is especially true for us today. So many people are bored, looking for distractions, and that is the reason why they use social media and speak out, or do all kinds of other activities which are otherwise best to avoid. We have not learned what we can and should do with our time, so we do not use it wisely.

If we want to gain wisdom instead of merely appear to be wise, we would learn the wisdom of silence. We would find the way we can use times of silence for our own advantage, using it as a time for self-reflection and meditative prayer.  But, if we claim that we should be more active in the world, and that means, we should be constantly speaking, sharing our opinions on everything, sharing the good which we have already attained, we will find out, as, Abba Diodochos reminds us, that we will wear ourselves out and lose much of that good:

Abba Diodochos said, “Just as heat quickly escapes outside if the doors of the bathhouse are continuously open, so it is with the soul when it wants to do a lot of conversing. Even if the conversation is good sometimes, its own heat dissipates through the gate of speech. So silence at the appropriate time is a good thing, being nothing other than the mother of wisest thoughts.”[2]

We might start out with good intentions. We might even say something which is good and wise. But we will find someone will respond to us and draw us into an extended conversation, one which does no one any good. We might start fighting them, losing all sense of peace or self-control.  For this reason, when we speak, we should also learn to limit ourselves and our speech, to know when to be silent, even if people would like to challenge us and draw us out of our silence. If others want to speak, it is often best to let them speak, and have their words come to naught by themselves, for it is only when we give them attention they do not deserve that we give them power.

[1] The Book of Elders. Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Systematic Collection. trans. John Wortley (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2012),  20 (Poemen 43).

[2] The Book of Elders. Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Systematic Collection, 18 (Diadochus CPG 6016 gn. 70).


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