Wednesday, January 24, 2007

On the Spirit of Silence

In Chapter 5 of his Rule, Saint Benedict encourages us to foster a spirit of tactiturnity, that is, restraint of speech. It is not much of a joy for me to have to expound on this: a teacher cannot but be caught between the requirements of monastic ascesis and the duties of charity in this case. I will try to avoid unnecessary words in meditating on this chapter.

Benedict's principal concern is Biblical: In many words, sin will not be avoided, the book of Proverbs teaches. Thomas of Kempis expressed a similar concern: (I paraphrase) in such occasions that we must engage in social banter, when we return to our cells, we are smitten with remorse for all the silly, untoward, awkward things we've said. Alas, such communication is necessary and perhaps at least contributes to humility and some friendship.

The monastic tradition, however, adds to this Biblical warning the fruits of philosophic speculation, and more importantly, the fruits of the desert experience. St. Anthony the Great, whose feast we celebrated one week ago, withdrew from all social intercourse to devote himself to purity of heart. He understood this purity of heart as the cleansing of the heart from its wayward passions and a precondition for the vision of God (Matthew 5: 8). Most of the time, we lack the inwardness and introspectiveness to be aware of all the thoughts and feelings that pass continually through our hearts. We instead distract ourselves in idle talk, television, net surfing and whatnot. Sin, which comes from within the person (Mark 7: 20-23), is allowed to fester, unchecked. It is only when we make an intentional act of silence that we can begin to be aware that we have thoughts at all, and after some time, we will learn to identify them like a birdwatcher who learns to identify different types of birds by their appearance, song and habitat. Once we have identified them, we can learn how to rid ourselves of the harmful thoughts.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so we cultivate inner silence not to eradicate thoughts entirely, which is, according to universal monastic witness, not desirable or even possible for most people. We look to fill the space we carve out with the Word of God, that is, with Jesus Christ. Again, all of us will need at some time, perhaps most of the time, to put thought in place of thought, and do this by meditating on passages of Scripture. At some point, however, the serious disciple of Christ will desire to have God in His simplicity, and will simply be silent with God. After logging many hours with God, we will come to the realization that we belong to Him: He is Creator, Master, Friend, Spouse. We will sit in God's presence as a married couple can sit together saying nothing, simply aware of one another. This awareness of God's presence will begin to permeate our day, and we will then be on the road to humility (see RB 7), since the first step of humility is this awareness.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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