Plain Speaking

I was very struck by this morning’s reading from the Rule of St Benedict, chapter 7, verses 60 to 61, the eleventh step of humility. How many people do you know who ‘speak gently and without mockery, humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words’? The picture those words paint is of a plainness and simplicity we have come to associate in this country with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) β€” which may be one reason why the links between us are so strong. But I think monks and nuns have always known something about this business of plain speaking, though our take on it may not be the same as most people’s.

What we say bubbles up from the heart, and if the heart is quiet and gentle, then our words will be, too. Gentleness is not weakness, though many think it is, nor is quietness mere absence of sound. A quiet and gentle heart is not attained through accident, nor through a kind of mental and moral floppiness. If we wish to live this eleventh step of humility, we must first purify our hearts β€” sometimes even pacify them! β€” and set ourselves the hard task of disciplining our thoughts as well as our tongues. Some people delight in using plain speaking as an excuse for the wounds they deal others. I think our plain speaking should come as balm in a world where the smart soundbite and the cruel or mendacious word are only too common. That doesn’t mean we should falsify anything or deny the truths we believe and live by, rather the reverse. Our speech should be such that others can rely on us to say what we mean and mean what we say, but we should do so with the grace that comes from God. ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.’ That, surely, is something to aim at in all our doings.


13 thoughts on “Plain Speaking”

  1. From a Quaker perspective I can’t fault any of that. What I can say, however (and I guess that, out of courtesy, you can’t, though you hint at it) is that Quaker plain speaking can very occasionally be used as an excuse to say something hurtful – even if appropriate to the occasion or the business in hand. In the opinion of this Quaker at least (and writing out of a recent experience in which someone else’s “plain speaking” caused considerable dissension and hurt feelings) it’s something to be exercised with care and discretion and not merely to be regarded as a licence to say whatever you like – even if what you say is true.

    • I don’t think Quakers have a monopoly on the plain speaking which is hurtful. Many a monastic chapter has had its ‘difficult’ moments (usually introduced with the words, ‘In all charity’ or, ‘With respect’, which is code for ‘without charity or respect’). In a world that encourages and expects instant responses, I think the old monastic habit of waiting before speaking, and then doing so carefully and considerately, is one to be fostered.

  2. I suspect that Frank’s post contains an element of the real issue with plain speaking. The hurt that it can cause to others, either accidentally or deliberately.

    I wonder if always speaking the truth (or plain speaking) is necessarily the best thing. I believe that thinking before speaking and measuring what we say is so important, but that thinking must consider others. There may be another way of putting something across, which is accurate, but not hurtful.

    The phrase that I dislike is when someone says to me “With all due respect” when you know that it contains no respect or consideration what so ever, and what they say is likely to be blunt, rude or hurtful.

    I’ve been guilty of this sort of thing, saying things that I regret, both orally and even posting on the internet. I hope that I’ve grown and learned from my mistakes and that I am able to be clear, reasonably concise and to the point. πŸ™

    • I think we’ve all been guilty of hurting others by what we say. The above post links with the earlier one on Outspoken Silence (the ninth degree of humility) and all the others I’ve written about the uses and abuses of speech. The fact that I’m still writing them shows how much I have still to learn β€” even at my advanced age!

  3. Thank you for this reminder of just what a wonderfully thoughtful and inspiring book St Benedict’s Rule is. As relevent in the 21st Centuary as it was in the 7th. I was introduced to it by the new Archbishop of Canterbury four years ago, and the copy he gave me has been with me ever since. It has been a great help in developing my spiritual life.

  4. I belong to the Christian Life Community, which is for Ignatian lay people. At our small group meetings we share with each other about our prayer and about how God has been working in our lives. We listen to each other without comment. It is wonderful to know that what I say is being heard with reapect and that nobody will contradict or argue with what anybody else says. On one occasion we had all prayed the same passage from Scripture and we all found in it something completely different. I rejoiced that, unlike in other circumstances, there was no debate or attempt to say, in effeect, “You are all weong”. Listening with the heart helps us not to respond aggressively to other people. St Ignatius tells the director of the Spiritual Exercises to always assume the other person is in good faith unless there is proof otherwise and even then to treat them gently and respectfully

  5. I know a few people who speak β€˜speak gently and without mockery, humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words’. Most of them are nuns, but it sounds like a good rule to put into my life as well. Thank you for explaining what it means.

  6. At the risk of drifting off the point, the reference to “the old monastic habit of waiting before speaking, and then doing so carefully and considerately” sounds remarkably like how we are bidden to operate the Quaker business method.

    In principle, any Quaker meeting is a Meeting for Worship; and business meetings used to be known more formally as “Meeting for Worship with a concern for business”. We are bidden to think carefully before we speak (obviously), to speak briefly and not to repeat points that have already been made earlier. And, of course, we never, never have votes. The meeting comes to a conclusion on the issue before it when the Clerk produces a minute that reflects the sense of the meeting – and if the Clerk finds it impossible to do that (which does sometimes happen, though rarely) we simply move on to the next item – and probably return to the matter a month later when we’ve all had time to give it more thought.

    All that probably sounds strange and potentially slightly chaotic but, in my experience at least, it works remarkably well in practice. That said, of course, the Society is very small; and while we don’t all agree on everything all the time, we don’t suffer from any deep, fundamental divisions.

  7. Thank you, Frank, for that beautifully clear account of the Quaker business method. We do sometimes have votes in chapter, but usually a vote is only taken to confirm the mind of the chapter, or when it is required for legal reasons. Otherwise, we go on patiently trying to reach a common mind.

    One of the books I left behind when we came away from Stanbrook was a manual(?) of Quaker faith and practice. The book was designed by my friend Jeremy Green of the Wood Lea Press, Woodbridge, and given to me at a very good moment, when I benefited greatly from its wisdom. I see that an updated version is now available online. What a blessing!

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