Very few monks today take a vow of silence, but they do practice a discipline referred to as restraint of speech. In many monasteries the monks eat their meals in silence. There is also what is called the great silence which begins after evening prayers and ends after breakfast. Other periods of silence are built into their daily routine and times of prayer. These times of silence permeate the monastic day and help the monk to stay centered and focused. Those of us living in the busy, noise filled modern world could benefit greatly from such regular periods of silence built into our day.
But the discipline of restraint of speech means much more than that. Dennis Okholm puts it this way:
When words were necessary, Benedict exhorted them, they [monks] should speak rarely, briefly, directly, and simply; speech that was malicious, gossip, tasteless, or destructive was forbidden. As Columba Steward explains, “The issue becomes more clearly one of stewardship. Language is a gift that can be used thoughtfully or thoughtlessly, humbly or proudly. Someone constantly aware of the presence of God will know when and how to speak.”
If we think that working periods of silence into our busy schedule is difficult, it is a cakewalk compared to this type of restraint of speech. What might it mean if we considered restraint of speech as a spiritual discipline in our day to day lives?
In our culture our days are filled with words. We are often the antithesis of this call to speak rarely, briefly, directly. We are prone to speak often, at great length, indirectly, and complexly. We have an opinion about everything, and we do not hesitate to express it. My wife and I have had a habit of engaging in conversation our daughters call bickering. The discussions begin innocently enough. One of us says something, often not even addressed to the other. The other responds, and we are off. These conversations occur all too often and last way too long. They clearly could not be described as either direct or simple. With my retirement these types of conversation have became more frequent.
We have often tried to analyze the conversations, and we generally only succeed in blaming each other and setting off another round of bickering. As I was reading what Okholm was saying about restraint of speech, I realized that all of the blaming aside, this was the real issue. Almost all of these conversations were simply unnecessary. I was very often speaking when I simply needed to be silent. At other times I needed to listen to what my wife was saying and only comment when I had something useful to add to the conversation and then not defend my position when we have different opinions. Were I to do that I would speak much more rarely and briefly. If I were to then only speak my thoughts directly and simply the conversations would be brief and there would be little opportunity for the bickering to even begin.
Thinking back I recalled that, as the manager of a health insurance company Special Investigations Unit I developed a reputation for going into negotiation sessions and resolving disputes between the investigators that worked for me and the providers that were being investigated. I realized that I would go into these meetings with very little information, sit in silence, sometimes for a long time, and listen to the discussion. In that silence I would often begin to see where the real underlying differences were that were not being addressed. Still not speaking, I would formulate what I wanted to say, wait for an opening, and make a statement or ask a question that often turned the conversation in a new direction and led to a resolution of the dispute. My comments and questions were generally brief, direct, and simple. I had more than one Investigator ask me after a successful session how I was able to do that. I had no good words for it then, but in truth it was through restraint of speech. I was able to be silent and listen and think, and then I was able to speak directly, and simply. I did not feel obligated to enter into the discussion until I had something to say, and then I was often able to be silent again and let the investigator and the provider work toward a solution with a different focus. The discipline of restraint of speech calls me to do the same in other areas of my life. If I can practice that restraint in my relationship with my wife the bickering would almost certainly stop.
In this world of stand up comics, talk shows, and twenty-four seven news programs we have almost lost the meaning of malicious, gossip, tasteless, destructive, or forbidden speech. Any attempt to restrain this type of language, even in our day to day conversation, will almost immediately lead to an assertion of the right to express our opinion or to a reference to the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.
For many of us, any real honest look at our daily lives from a spiritual perspective would reveal much speech that would be categorized as malicious, gossip, tasteless, or destructive. Were we to commit ourselves not to speak anything that fell into these four categories we would clearly speak much more rarely and much more briefly. Many of the jokes that we tell, the teasing that we engage in, and the little smart remarks that we make on a daily basis would also be eliminated. When I look back at the bickering that goes on between my wife and I, much of what is said in those conversations would fall into one of these categories as well.
As Steward points out, language is a gift that can be used thoughtfully or thoughtlessly. Someone once said that when we finally realize how much we hurt others by just being ourselves we have a pretty good understanding of what sin is. When my wife and I bicker we are using language thoughtlessly, and in the process we hurt each other. The cumulative effect of this thoughtless behavior keeps our relationship from being fully the great gift that it is for us.
Like most destructive behavior in our lives restraint of speech is ultimately an issue of humility. Am I humble enough to “speak rarely, briefly, and directly?” Do I care about others enough not to speak anything that is “malicious, gossip, tasteless, or destructive?” Am I willing to pay careful attention to what I say and use language thoughtfully or will I be proud and arrogant and ignore how my speech hurts those around me and keeps me from being the person I am called to be? The choice is ultimately mine.
Steward puts it in perspective when he says, “Someone constantly aware of the presence of God will know when and how to speak.” This places the discipline of restraint of speech where it belongs: squarely in the midst of the spiritual life. The very essence of the spiritual life is developing this constant awareness of that Mysterious Presence we call God in the midst of our day-to-day life, and if we do that, restraint of speech becomes a natural part of that process. As Steward points out we become stewards of the great gift that language is in our lives.
References and Notes
First published on Turning Around: The Newsletter for Those On The Great Journey, In Search Of Life – In Search Of God, in January 30, 2008.
The Rule Of Saint Benedict, a monastic rule used in Benedictine monasteries and often seen as the basis for monastic life.
Okholm, Dennis, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2007).
Stewart, Columbia, Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998).