Outspoken Silence

The ninth step of humility, which we read today, is a warning to monastic bloggers among others:

The ninth step of humility is for a monk to control his tongue and keep silent, not speaking unless questioned. Scripture teaches that ‘In a flood of words you will not escape sin,’ and that ‘The talkative will not thrive on earth.’ (RB 7.56-7)

Close readers of this blog will have noticed that there are certain subjects on which I never comment. Sometimes my reasons for doing so are purely pragmatic: I don’t know enough, or I fear the consequences for the community (as when a mild remark of mine led to a concerted attack by email and telephone which we found deeply disturbing). Sometimes they are a matter of principle: for example, I don’t comment on the internal affairs of other Churches because I don’t believe I have the right to do so. My silence, however, is not necessarily to be construed as having no opinion, still less as my agreeing with whatever is being proposed. At its best, it is an attempt to live the ninth step of humility.

The kind of silence enjoined by Benedict’s ninth step of humility is very far from being an empty, playing-it-safe avoidance of potential trouble. It is the silence of intellectual and moral humility. One of the consequences of the digital revolution is that in the West, at least, we can express our opinions much more freely and widely than ever before. On the whole, I think that is a good thing; but there is a down side. Not every opinion is necessarily of equal value. We do not all do our research with equal thoroughness; we do not all think through our positions with equal clarity. The more complex the question, often the more difficult the answer; but we do not all see that or acknowledge it in our own case. We think we are right, and we love to let others know how right we are! (Even better, when we can let others know how wrong they are.)

From intellectual humility flows moral humility, but have you ever stopped to consider what that might be? It is the humility of action, of carrying through in our lives that which we perceive to be true and right. I wonder how many of us feel uncomfortable when we think about that, aware of the many ways in which we accommodate ourselves to whatever is convenient or ‘expected’.

The silence of intellectual and moral humility is often despised by others as weakness, but I think that is a mistake. What we do not say matters as much as what we do. If we were truly to practise the ninth step of humility, I think our silence would be eloquent to the point of outspokenness because it would be grounded in God and in his truth. And what more perfect grounding could we have than the Word which became flesh?



8 thoughts on “Outspoken Silence”

  1. My understanding of the 9th silence is that of showing compassion “to inflict the minimum of pain” by the converse of truth. The truth may hurt, so is it necessary? “Sweet Truths” may anger another, instil discrimination and create an atmosphere of jealousy or contempt?
    I’d draw a line between word & flesh and call it primitivism and how we move away from flesh to word, EG wisdom? “The wise are to be recognized by the fewness of their words”

  2. Dear Sister, Perhaps in the interest of charity you could mention the topic on which you choose to be silent. Its understandable your not wishing to bring repercussions on your fellow sisters for your thoughts but so too Christ requires us to uphold the truth & not always sit silently by while harm & deception thrive.

  3. Sheilagh, I think possibly you haven’t understood my post. It’s my fault for not writing clearly enough. There are many subjects on which I choose to be silent — out of charity sometimes, out of prudence sometimes, out of what I hope is intellectual humility sometimes, possibly even out of cowardice at times (though I hope that is rare), BUT that is where prayer and judgement come into play. Deciding when to speak and when to keep silent are important themes in the Rule of St Benedict; so, if you are hoping for a list of topics on which I choose not to speak, I’m afraid you are going to be disappointed. 🙂

  4. It occurred to me, reading this blog, that a very positive effect of the internet on me has been that I keep silent or weigh my words much more carefully. The reason is that I am so appalled by the vitriol in some comments. This made me reflect on what I say. In this way the internet and its exchanges has been grace for me.

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