I remember a song that we were taught in Sunday School when I was a small child growing up. It had to do with being careful of what we said, saw, heard, did, and where we went. The song taught us that our carefulness was necessary because our conversations and actions, being observed by a loving heavenly Father, produced consequences in our lives and in the lives of others.
The simplicity of that little song fits rather perfectly into what Benedict is saying to me in Chapter 6 of the Rule where he sets forth his guidelines regarding restraint of speech. The question arises: Why silence?
“Benedict’s spirituality, if I were to reduce it to one single concept, is that of listening to the voice of God in my life. When God’s voice is drowned out by incessant clamor, whether inner or outer, in whatever shape or form, then continuous dialogue with God becomes impossible. An inner monologue with myself, constant chatter with others, the invasion of the spoken word through the press or television are all the ever-present realities in my daily life over which I need to exercise some sort of discipline if I am to keep any quiet inner space in which to listen to the Word. This is the stillness of the heart, the guarding of the heart, which touches the very deepest levels of my consciousness.”
Silence in solitude plays an important role in my life. It is a need in my life that has always existed although it has only been in the past few years that I’ve recognized my need to give attention to it. Recognizing and beginning to cultivate it came about by what I call a providential accident. A series of deep personal crises, some my own fault and some at the hands of well-intentioned others, caused me to opt for a long season of seclusion. I left pastoral ministry, earned an income mowing grass on a golf course, lived in the thick of people in the Northeast, yet had little to do with most. Considering the vocal interactive life that I’d lived as a pastor, seclusion was itself another crisis that compounded an already long list of crises.
It’s taken decades for me to realize that I’m not the best version of myself without long episodes of silence. Without silence and solitude I get all balled up in my interior life, in my own personal communal life with God. I grow detached from the Source when I am constantly involved, start living more out of my head than in the spirit, and I think this is the terrible crisis that befalls the human race in this post-modern world that we occupy. It’s also terribly easy to justify this mode of constant interaction because it’s the only mode of living that most people know.
I’m reminded of something Merton wrote. “Silence does not exist in our lives merely for its own sake. It is ordered to something else. Silence is the mother of speech. A lifetime of silence is ordered to an ultimate declaration, which can be put into words, a declaration of all we have lived for.”
We live in a world of itching ears and wagging tongues. Itching ears will listen to anything that sounds good on the surface, to anything or anyone offering promises that help cultivate the attitudes and lifestyles of those two categories of monks that Benedict rejected early on in the Rule – modes of living that fill the secular world.
That little song from my early childhood years never received any air-time in my memory until recently. Its opening words now ring in my mind like a bell tolling in a steeple … O be careful. In the end, what will my declaration say to those who know me?