In the Rule of Benedict, the saint writes about the crucial need of silence frequently and devotes chapter six to “A Spirit of Silence.” I have read that chapter over 100 times but overlooked the phrase, ‘a spirit of silence’ until now.
Usually, we think of silence as an absence. That is, after all, how we define the word-an absence of sound. But the phrase, a ‘spirit of silence’ changes things, and radically. I think about silence and solitude frequently. Both are required for prayer and writing.
While the ordinary definition of silence connotes passivity, St. Benedict’s phrase implies intention, even control. I have written before about what I called the ‘Seduction of Noise: Advice from the 5th Century.’ But overlooked the main point.
But as I think more about Benedict: That man from the 5th century, I realize that he speaks not of the external condition of noise. But of intention: we must adopt a spirit of silence-(italics mine)
Here are his words:
Let us do what the Prophet says:
“I said, ‘I will guard my ways,
that I may not sin with my tongue.
I have set a guard to my mouth.’
I was mute and was humbled,
and kept silence even from good things” (Ps. 38:2-3).
Here the Prophet shows
that if the spirit of silence ought to lead us at times
to refrain even from good speech,
so much the more ought the punishment for sin
make us avoid evil words.
Therefore, since the spirit of silence is so important,
permission to speak should rarely be granted
even to perfect disciples,
even though it be for good, holy edifying conversation;
for it is written,
“In much speaking you will not escape sin” (Prov. 10:19),
and in another place,
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21).
For speaking and teaching belong to the master;
the disciple’s part is to be silent and to listen.
And for that reason
if anything has to be asked of the Superior,
it should be asked
with all the humility and submission inspired by reverence.
But as for coarse jests and idle words
or words that move to laughter,
these we condemn everywhere with a perpetual ban,
and for such conversation
we do not permit a disciple to open his mouth.
I realize now that Benedict is challenging us. With his specific examples, the precise details of instructions, the master explains that a spirit of silence is a gift, even perhaps a virtue. Obtained by strict self-control, a focus away from self and toward the other, external noise can fade into oblivion when we cloak ourselves with a spirit of silence..