Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 6, Esteem for Silence

Chapter 6 of the Rule of St. Benedict has to do with restraining speech. Not surprisingly, bad sorts of speech are prohibited for the monks. But what is interesting to note is that Benedict even wants to limit good speech:
Chapter 6
2...there are times when good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence...3Indeed, so important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk.
That's pretty hardcore. It's one thing to say, "If you don't have anything nice to say then don't say anything." It's another to say, "And even if you have something nice to say still don't say anything."

The idea here seems to be that silence is something to be greatly prized. Silence is more valuable than even constructive speech.

I've yet to discover this value of silence. I've not ever done a silent retreat. I figure I'd have to do a few of those before I could get a glimpse into Benedict's "esteem for silence."

Still, the recommendation to control our speech is well taken. Along those lines, the other day I was struck by the following passage in the epistle of James:
James 1.26
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.

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20 thoughts on “Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 6, Esteem for Silence”

  1. Now I need to watch "Into Great Silence." One effect that I encounter in the bits of 'silence' that I experience is that the silence doesn't lead to meaninglessness. Instead, the tiniest things can become invested with enormous meaning, even if the meaning is beyond words.

  2. You are always welcome here at Transfiguration Spirituality Center to try a silent retreat!
    It is one way to "be still and know..."

  3. I once took a trip to Yellowstone with a good friend. But he almost drove me to tears when he didn't understand that it spoiled the near wilderness experience to fill it with talking. I'm guessing that Benedict was protecting an experience that is not possible apart from silence. 

  4. my husband and I read through this together a few years ago and we realized that a lot of the "nice things" we were saying was actually unsolicited advice - a few months later we heard this quote "unsolicited advice is criticism" - we started to realize that sometimes we were cloaking "nice words" with judgement that was really criticism...  for me silence at that point is truly a much better place to land.

  5. Silence, it seems to me, is an increasingly precious and rare gift in our times.  Perhaps Benedict is aware that some things can only be found/heard/perceived in silence ... in which case, even good words/sounds become an obstruction.  I have found this to be true for some of my times of prayer: just silence is better 

  6. you and your readers might be interested in the 3 hr BBC documentary "The Big Silence":

    Abbot Christopher Jamison, a Benedictine monk, believes that he can
    teach five ordinary people the value of silent meditation, as practised
    by monks in monasteries, so they can make it part of their everyday

    He sets up a three-month experiment to test out whether the
    ancient Christian tradition of silence can become part of modern lives.

    brings the five volunteers to his own monastery, Worth Abbey, before
    sending them to begin a daunting eight days in complete silence at a
    specialist retreat center.

    Journey into the interior space that
    time in silence reveals. They encounter anger, frustration and
    rebellion, but finally find their way to both personal and spiritual

    Will they make silent contemplation a part of their
    everyday lives? How much will their lives be changed by what they have
    discovered in their time in silence And will Abbot Christopher’s hope,
    that they will discover a new belief in God, be fulfilled?
    also on youtube:

  7. "James 1.26
    Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless."

    Well, I only wish I knew of that passage when I was younger, having been both more unreservedly religious, and much more of a blabbermouth, always sticking his foot in his mouth. I thought I had to run my mouth BECAUSE I believed. It was radicalizing to finally find out that there was such a thing as a religious "vow of silence."

    These days, the wisdom of St. Benedict and James' words are quite clear to me. I have trouble opening my mouth anymore about something I believe, unless I am totally sure that what I am communicating will be clear and elucidating.

  8. This was a fantastic series.  Jamison has lodged himself in my mind as something of a role-model - right next to Richard, it goes without saying. :0)

  9. My first encounter with silence as a deliberate act (as opposed to a default position as an introverted child) was after reading Foster's 'Celebration of Discipline'.  One of the practices encouraged was to take a vow of silence through one's daily life, and NOT on retreat.  As with so many of the others, this chapter was kind of a life-changer at the time.  I started to see the connection between speech and self-esteem and the need to exercise power; I started to hear just how false and hollow many of my 'encouragements' and 'blessings' to others were; I started to understand how my desire to solve problems for others was really my need to be useful and valued by those others.  It was during this time in my life that a still, small voice became audible in my fretful, cluttered head that still guides me through my daily life (not that I always heed it) thirty years after my enrolment into this school of silence.

  10. from a guy that gave up riding in motorized vehicles for 22 years after seeing the environmental damage from an oil spill in the SF bay, and who gave up  talking for 17 years (and earned 3 degrees, including a PhD, while not talking):

    John Francis walks the Earth

    And so, on my 27th birthday I decided, because I argued so much and I talk so much, that I was going to stop speaking for just one day -- one day -- to give it a rest. And so I did. I got up in the morning and I didn’t say a word. And I have to tell you, it was a very moving experience, because for the first time, I began listening -- in a long time. And what I heard, it kind of disturbed me. Because what I used to do, when I thought I was listening, was I would listen just enough to hear what people had to say and think that I could -- I knew what they were going to say, and so I stopped listening. And in my mind, I just kind of raced ahead and thought of what I was going to say back, while they were still finishing up. And then I would launch in. Well, that just ended communication.

    So on this first day I actually listened. And it was very sad for me, because I realized that for those many years I had not been learning. I was 27. I thought I knew everything. I didn’t.

    see also:

  11. glad you liked it.  you might also like the blog or books of maggie ross, an professed anglican solitary for 30 years.  (i've read all her blog, but none of her books so far.)  she has a lot to say about silence, and also about "beholding" and how it's a lost art.

  12. Where shall the word be found, where will the wordResound? Not here, there is not enough silence.

    (T.S. Eliot; Ash Wednesday)

  13. So true! I have also had similar experiences with friends and loved ones. The aesthetics of "Silence" are such that we can only in retrospect appreciate the significance of those moments. Working silently alongside my father, looking into the eyes of my new born son, hearing the distant roar of the river from above on the trail as I hiked through the wilderness, are jewel encrusted moments that simply defy a verbal description.

  14. i've recently been looking into what it means to be a Quaker. it seems silence is integral to their faith--even conducting services in silence unless someone feels the need to say something to the group. there seems to be so much to learn there. i completely agree. does anyone else know any more about quaker thought as it relates to silence and as it relates to more untraditional views of christianity? 

  15. I resonate heavily with this challenge. I am someone who 'fills the silence', who always has something 'valuable' to add to the conversation. I consider it the keenest manifestation of my spiritual immaturity.

  16. I'm wondering if the same could not be applied to our engagement in social comment or not to comment?

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