Silence:

The Still Small Voice of God

 

Both Terence Kardong and Esther De Waal express an initial disappointment in this brief chapter. Perhaps this disappointment stems from the rich experience each has had with silence that doesn’t seem to be caught as effectively in Benedict’s words as they are in writings by other spiritual masters. This is just one more instance, among many, of Benedict’s diffidence about impressing us with eloquence. Time and time again, Benedict shows that he prefers to draw our attention to his teachings with the sparsest of words.

One of the paradoxes about speaking or writing about silence is that using words in any quantity is likely to undermine its subject. Indeed, the chapters on Silence in the Rule of the Master, from which Benedict took only a small portion, illustrate this pitfall. The Master is long and wearying. One can pick a few good points out of the morass, but they are engulfed in the overall garrulous style of the Master. This is an example of how a loquacious speaker causes us to tune out from what is said sooner rather than later. It is not just a matter of quantity of words; it is a matter of quality. We can listen to substantive speech for hours while five minutes of garrulous speech is too much. In contrast, we can see that Benedict embodies the practice of silence through the fewness of his words.

Silence is not a mere absence of words or thoughts; it is a positive and substantive reality. Esther De Waal alerts us to the important distinction Benedict makes between taciturnitas and silentium (taciturnity and silence). Taciturnitas “simply means not speaking,” while “silentium has “the wider understanding being still and silent.” Footnote Max Picard, a German philosopher, who has written on silence with greater elegance and depth than any other writer I know, confirms the importance of this distinction. He begins by telling us that “silence is nothing merely negative; it is not the mere absence of speech. It is a positive, a complete world in itself.” Footnote This positive aspect of silence is well expressed in the German title of Picard’s book Die Welt des Schweigens. The verb schweigen is active rather than passive; it denotes silence as a purposeful act. Picard elaborates on the substantive quality of silence by claiming that “it is a primary, objective reality, which cannot be traced back to anything else. . . . There is nothing behind it to which it can be related except the Creator Himself.” Footnote Benedict shows his own awareness of this substantial reality of silence by saying that “we sometimes ought to refrain from speaking good words on account of the intrinsic value of silence” (RB 6:2).

We can further clarify the distinction between taciturnitas and silentium by taking note of how silence is compatible with words while taciturnity, of itself, has little or nothing to do with silence. In fact, silence requires a relationship with words in order to be itself. Picard says: “Speech came out of silence, out of the fullness of silence. The fullness of silence would have exploded if it had not been able to flow out into speech.” Footnote Picard deepens this dialectic by saying: “There is something silent in every word, as an abiding token of the origin of speech. And in every silence there is something of the spoken word, as an abiding token of silence to create speech.” Footnote Words, on the other hand, do not necessarily have any relationship with silence, and that is why mere taciturnity does not constitute silence. Words that merely create noise is chatter. We can hear words participating in the Word (the Logos) but chatter is totally disconnected from the Word. Music has the same dialectic with silence when it is music and not chatter. Many of the most powerful moments in music are the rests, those brief moments when no music sounds. The opening of Schubert’s great Sonata in B-flat is a particularly dramatic example of the power of silence. Here, the grand pauses that punctuate the brief, tentative phrases and the off-key tremolos in the bass overwhelm the sounds emerging from the silence.

Curiously, Benedict does not begin his chapter with words floating serenely out of the primordial silence in the way Max Picard writes about it. Instead, he thrusts us into the struggle we experience to attain and maintain silence. Benedict extolls the value of silence by quoting the opening words of Psalm 38 (39): “I will guard my ways so as not to sin with my tongue. I placed a guard at my mouth. I was speechless and humiliated, refraining even from good speech” (RB 6:1). So far so good. But Benedict and his monastics would know from chanting the Psalter every week the verse that follows: “I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse, my heart became hot within me. While I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue” (Psalm 39: 3). This is nothing more than a failed attempt at silence. With his heart becoming hot within him, the psalmist is already experiencing a lot of interior noise, and it is no surprise that when this noise bursts into speech, it is not speech with any connection with silence at all. From this point on, the psalmist complains vociferously to God about everything he doesn’t like about the universe. Noisier and noisier.

Benedict gives us an important key to the value of silence when he says that “it is the master’s role to speak and teach; the disciple is to keep silent and listen” (RB 6:6). Kardong tells us that although this is the only time the word “listen” occurs in this chapter, it “is not a throwaway word here, for listening is precisely why the disciple is silent before the teacher. . . . It can be said to be the real node of monastic silence.” Footnote Benedict is reminding us that in order for us to learn from another, we must listen to that person. It is not possible to listen to another if we are doing the talking or if our hearts are burning hot within us, ready to burst into angry speech. We must stop talking before we can listen. In practice, the hierarchy between master and disciple dissolves if real listening takes place, because the master needs to listen to a disciple in order to discern what should be taught. The point is, silence is not a virtue, in fact it is nothing at all, unless it fosters the art of listening. In contrast to the listening disciple, monasteries have always been plagued by novices who know all about monasticism, know even more about the True Faith. On top of that know everything there is to know about spirituality, and they will tell guests and their fellow monastics everything they “know.” Novices such as these don’t usually stay in the monastery very long once they really find out what monasticism is all about. Mysteriously, the longer one lives the monastic life, the less one knows about these things, and the less one has to say about them. Perhaps we should say that the more perfect the disciple, the less that disciple will want to speak.

In discussing this magic word from the Prolog that Benedict uses again here, Esther De Waal says that if she had to reduce the Rule of Benedict to one concept, it would be “that of listening to the voice of God in my life.” She goes on to say:

 

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 and 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 heart, the guarding of the heart, which touches the very deepest levels of my consciousness. Footnote

 

In using the word “stillness,” De Waal is giving it the meaning of the Greek monastic word hesychia, which means stillness and resting. Like the word silence in the sense of the German word schweigen, hesychia is an active word implying intentionality. That is, achieving stillness requires exertion, much exertion. The Psalmist’s difficulty with being still shows us that stillness can be a hard goal to reach. De Waal’s reference to our inner monologues alerts us to where the problem is. Keeping our mouths shut will not create silence as long as we keep the fires burning within.

Although the quest for silence is in many ways an individual venture, most of Benedict’s references to the practice of silence stress its importance in community life. Benedict’s admonition to disciples to be silent in order to listen to teaching already points to a human relationship. Similarly, Benedict insists that at meals, where one of the monastics is reading to the community, “profound silence should reign” (RB 38:5). If anyone talks or even whispers during the reading, the reading cannot be heard. During study periods, older monastics need to patrol the monastery and “be on the lookout for the bored brother who gives himself over to frivolity or gossip and is not serious about lectio. Not only is he useless to himself, but he leads others astray as well” (RB 48:17-18). The word lectio is a monastic technical term for the prayerful and meditative study of scripture, the sort of study that can only blossom in an environment saturated with silence. Although Benedict is writing about individual study here, he is also making it clear that providing an environment for study so that it can lead to an encounter with God through God’s Word is a communal effort. Even more important is the communal responsibility to protect the prayer of others with the gift of silence. When the Divine Office is finished, “we should all leave in deepest silence and show reverence for God” (RB 52:2). The phrase “deep silence” is another indication of the substantial weight silence has for Benedict. He goes on to say that the reason for leaving the church silently is so that anyone “who may wish to pray by himself not be hindered by the thoughtlessness of another” (RB 52:3). Silence, then, is not an individual matter at all. It is an integral part of communal life.

Although Benedict says little about the relationship between prayer and silence, his few words, such as those just quoted above, wrap prayer in silence. Elsewhere, Benedict expresses his distrust of “much talking” at prayer, suggesting that such prayer will not be heard. Rather, “prayer should be short and pure unless perhaps it be prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace”(RB 20:3-4). John Cassian, one of Benedict’s sources, says that a monastic’s calling to seek “nothing other than the vision and contemplation of that divine purity . . . can be acquired only by silence.” Footnote Terence Kardong goes on to point out that Cassian’s teaching demonstrates that prayer tends to evolve into wordlessness. “Since God is basically ineffable, true experience of God transcends words and even frustrates them.” Footnote

In laying out the times for silence and prayer, Benedict says that we should not “fraternize at improper times” (RB 48:21). The implication here is that there are times when fraternizing is proper. Monastic timetables normally provide for both conversation and silence by setting times for both. There are times for the community to gather at corporate recreation to socialize informally and there are times when all are to be silent. Of greatest importance is the Greater Silence that begins after Compline (the last office of the day) and extends through the early morning of the following day. Even here Benedict is flexible. As important as silence is during the night hours, he admits that charity to guests or some other command by the abbot might take precedence upon occasion.

Although words can be used constructively to build connections between people, words can just as easily be used to alienate people from one another. Refraining from speech that will hurt others is essential to creating and maintaining good relationships. This is why Benedict is so insistent that we refrain from “crude jokes and idle talk that arouses laughter” (RB 6:8). It is precisely this sort of chatter that slips into hurtful comments about other people. When we refrain from evil speech, we have a much better chance of becoming aware of what words will deepen our connection to another and which words might tear us apart. If the cellarer, the monk responsible for the goods of the monastery, is not able to furnish what is asked for at the time, he is admonished to “offer a kind word in reply” (RB 31:13). Likewise, the porter is expected to provide the weary traveler a prompt response “in the warmth of charity” (RB 66:4). Joan Chittester shows us how words can build connections when she says that “the goal of monastic silence, and monastic speech, is respect for others. . . . The rule does not call for absolute silence; it calls for thoughtful talk.” Footnote When words are spoken between people in an environment of silence, these words are much more likely to be in tune with the Word. Words spoken outside of an environment of silence are more apt to be mere chatter.

Just as obedience must come from the heart, so silence must also come from the heart. It is very possible for there to be much noise and chattering beneath tightly closed lips. The “silent treatment” we give to people we have a grudge against is noisier than a tirade. Internal murmuring, of course, is an inner noise that destroys obedience as much as it destroys silence. In carrying out a command grudgingly, we cut ourselves off from each other with our interior noise. The more we arefull of noise, the less aware we are of what is truly happening within us, to the point where we can’t “hear ourselves think.” Such noise prevents us from listening to ourselves, to others, and to God.

When we consider Mimetic Theory in relation to silence and noise, we can see readily that acquisitive mimesis is a great noise maker. The mimetic rivalry that results from acquisitive mimesis wraps us so tightly with one another that it becomes impossible to listen to that person. At the same time, we think that the desires generated by the other are our own desires, because we are no longer capable of hearing the truth of what is in ourselves. It is worth our while to pause a moment and note what the chattering voices say inside us when they make so much noise. These voices are telling us how to trounce somebody in a debate, or what to say in a long-winded lecture to make somebody else reform, or how to make other people totally compliant to our desires to an extent that never happens in real life. In each of these examples, we can see our inner voices stirring up rivalry between ourselves and others. For some reason, in these fantasies we always win and everybody else always loses. When we direct our fantasies at people we hold a grudge against, whether for real injuries or imagined ones, our fantasies grind them deep into the dust. These interior voices can just as easily be filled with self-recriminations that echo the victimizing words drilled into us by others. As long as we allow the noise of these voices to overwhelm us, we are sacrificial victims who have acquiesced with our persecutors. In all of these cases, the noise of mimetic rivalry leaves us no room for God.

James Alison offers us a dramatic presentation of how inner and outer noise prevented Elijah from hearing God until he was plunged “into the shamed silence of one who knows himself uncovered, and for that reason, deprived of legitimate speech” (1 Kings 18-19) Footnote . Elijah could not hear God’s voice in the wind, earthquake or fire. And no wonder! Those phenomena echoed the inner noise that had filled Elijah with a sense of triumph when he defeated the prophets of Baal. Alison points out that what seemed to be a story of triumph turned out to be “the story of the un-deceiving of Elijah, . . . the story of how Elijah learnt not to identify God with all those special effects which he had known how to manipulate to such violent effect.” Footnote What Elijah heard from the “still small voice” was what Elijah could not hear when the crowd was cheering him on to his bloody victory over Baal’s prophets. He had become a mimetic double of the prophets of Baal who had brought Yahweh down to Baal’s level, a level of sacrificial violence. After hearing the still small voice, Elijah went away, his zeal all but extinguished. All he did afterward was choose Elisha to be his successor, a successor who pursued his ministry with a lot more healing and a lot less violence than did his master. Such was the result of the still small voice. This reflection on Elijah should caution us against glorying in noisy triumphs over other people, even (or especially!) in the name of God. The still small voice of God does not try to make a loser out of anyone.

Max Picard underscores the power of silence to heal human relationships when he says: “Within the realm of creative silence the individual does not notice any opposition between himself and the community, for the individual and the community do not stand against each other, but face the silence together. The difference between the individual and the community ceases to be important in face of the power of silence.” Footnote That is, silence dissolves the rivalrous impulses we are in danger of succumbing to. The practice of silence is a means of overcoming our own entanglements in mimetic rivalry as much as it is a means of grounding ourselves deeper in God. Benedict would be the first to insist that these two results of silence go together.

It is not possible to listen to God in silence without gaining a greater ability to listen to other people. Listening to others has the effect of quieting the noise of mimetic rivalry within ourselves. That is, it is not possible to listen to another and maintain the same noise level we had before. If we dedicate ourselves to maintaining a high inner noise level, we will not hear anybody else. Listening allows us to be nurtured by God in the silence of Creation when the Logos first spoke. Insofar as we hear God in the nurturing silence, that nurturing silence will permeate the words we speak so that those words and their accompanying actions will nurture others.