{Practicing Benedict} When it is best not to speak

{Practicing Benedict} When it is best not to speak December 14, 2011

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.
Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools,
who do not know that they do wrong.
Do not be quick with your mouth,
do not be hasty in your heart
to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
and you are on earth,
so let your words be few.

-Ecclesiastes 5:1-3

I read that passage the first day of Advent. Then I wrote it down on an index card and set it on the shelf behind my kitchen sink. It’s water damaged and keeps falling over. But I’ve been coming back to it. What does it mean to “go near to listen rather than offer the sacrifice of fools”?

This probably won’t be a shock to you. I like to talk. I have a head full of words and I hear them coming out of my mouth all day long. If I can’t talk to a grown-up, I’m talking to my kids. I’m telling stories and explaining scientific facts for my germ-obsessed 3-year-old. I’m sitting in front of 18-year-old girls and explaining a passage of John. I’m telling my husband about my day long before he can get his shoes off when he walks in the door (exhausted from his winter(ish) bike ride home from work). Then I’m talking to a friend on the phone. And talking into the keyboard on Twitter. I’m talking to the stupid vacuum cleaner for its inefficiency and talking to the laundry for its extreme inability to be content with its former cleanliness. I’m talking to the cat about how sweet he is. I’m talking to my baby about how to clap his hands. I’m talking to August about picking up his small toys off the floor…your brother is going to find them and get hurt! I’m talking to my husband at the bathroom sink, my mouth foaming with toothpaste.

Then I’m sleeping. And I’m quiet.

Don’t we all long for quiet? Life is noise noise noise. And at the end of the day when we lie down in bed in the quiet, our minds flash open. We see what our voices kept hidden all day long: our fears, our to-dos, our longings. And we wonder, would we all be happier, healthier, if instead of facing those anxieties in the quiet of nighttime, when the volume turns down and we hear our own psyches explaining our world to us…wouldn’t it be kinder to ourselves to listen to that voice all day long? Is that even possible? Is an inner quiet something you can own when your son is running through the living room in a super cape sliding onto his belly on the carpet? Is it possible to listen when your office is a lifeless cubicle and you enter numbers into a database…every beep of information slowly eroding every hope you had for meaningful work?

Our lives are loud. We long for the green forest where birds call out to one another at the right moment and never too much. We long for the shiver of wind through the trees and the sounds of nighttime murmurs. We are a people shaped for silence; we’ve just forgotten.

When St. Benedict formed his monastic community, he knew the danger of speech, how quickly we can break another down, how quickly a word from another can be planted in the deep places of our hearts and stay there to torment us for a lifetime. If we want to live lives of kindness and encouragement, we are wise to quiet down.

In Benedict’s words:

I am guarded about the way I speak and have accepted silence in humility refraining even from words that are good. In this verse the psalmist shows that, because of the value of silence, there are times when it is best not to speak even though what we have in mind is good. How much more important it is to refrain from evil speech, remembering what such sins bring down on us in punishment. In fact so important is it to cultivate silence, even about matters concerning sacred values and spiritual instruction, that permission to speak should be granted only rarely to monks and nuns although they may themselves have achieved a high standard of monastic observance…We should remember that speaking and instructing belong to the teacher; the disciple’s role is to be silent and listen (St. Benedict’s Rule, Chapter 6).

If you’re hoping for a play-by-play of how to practice monkish silence in everyday life, you won’t find it here. (Did you read that second paragraph?) St. Benedict required silence at all meals. That certainly isn’t happening in my house. But in my two visits to Benedictine monasteries, I felt a certain quiet power emanating from the older monks, as if years of practicing quiet had actually resulted in real humility. And I saw in the younger monks those hard edges that silence was still wearing down.

Silence has power. And while quiet may not be much of a possibility in our daily lives, I’m (slowly!) learning the possibility of inner silence, that when I make space to notice the anxieties and lists and longings that I’ve been pushing down underneath all the noise of my day…when I bring them to the light of quiet, they lose their power over me. When I show them to Jesus more often than I hear myself talk, I begin to recognize that there is always something to hear and most of the time, I’ve missed it.

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