Plain and Gentle Speech: the Eleventh Degree of Humility

When [a monk] does speak, he should do so gently and without mockery, humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words, and without raising his voice. As it is written, ‘A wise person is known by the fewness of his words.’ (RB 7. 60–2, the Eleventh Step of Humility)

Those words, which we read today, have always struck me as applicable to more than monks and nuns because they stress both the importance of speech and the difficulty we all have in ensuring that our speech is always and everywhere what it should be. Words matter, and the way we use them matters, too, so it is no accident that Benedict places this short reflection almost at the end of his chapter on humility. It is perhaps the hardest kind of humility to attain, requiring not only constant watchfulness over what we do say, but also over the thoughts and feelings that prompt what we say. The humility of the tongue is hard won, but look how Benedict categorises its effects: gentleness, seriousness, humility, wisdom.

Gentleness isn’t always admired by those who make a living from the words they speak because it is often mistaken for weakness, but true gentleness is actually a sign of strength. The gentleness of Jesus before his accusers is a case in point: his speech and his silence came from the same deep source, the union between him and his Father. Benedict doesn’t want his monks to be weaklings, afraid of speaking out, but strong people, who make their words count. They have no need of stridency or aggression. They speak from a position of thoughtfulness, mindfulness. What they say is measured, prayerful even. They are serious in the best sense, sincere and earnest. That doesn’t mean there is no room for humour — far from it — but the humour of the cloister is never obscene or destructive of another. (The Latin word I have translated as ‘mockery’ is rather harsher than I am able to convey in English.) A monk’s speech ought never to be long-winded (because he has thought beforehand and knows, more or less, what he will say); nor should he ever raise his voice in argument, because he respects his interlocutor too much to try to drown him/her out. He is always ready to listen, to respond.

Of course, most of us fall short of the ideal much of the time, but is is good to have an ideal; to know that, even in our speech, we can be an aqueduct of the wisdom of God — not a fountain, for all comes from him; not a river, for we are too insignificant; but definitely an aqueduct, channelling some of the wisdom of God to others through our human words. And to be an aqueduct we must first make sure the foundations have been laid in reading and prayer.

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12 thoughts on “Plain and Gentle Speech: the Eleventh Degree of Humility”

  1. Words of wisdom indeed. And spot-on. I just came back from a conference where I said too much, and too harshly. I felt I had to. I stand by what I said, but am not happy with the how. But could I have conveyed the same content differently? I cannot take back what has been said, or how it was said, but maybe next time a short prayer before I open my mouth will make a difference.

    • I know that feeling all too well! I’d certainly recommend a prayer before uttering, but also a prayer for interior peace once the talking is finished. St Thérèse of Lisieux had a very wise way of dealing with monastic typhoons in a teacup. She always asked the Lord to deal with any lingering upsets rather than wasting time on self-reproach.

  2. I think that these words are wisdom indeed. I can’t count the times that I’ve allowed my tongue (or pen) to run away with me. Thank you for making me think again, several times on this blog.

    Now, older and hopefully, a little wiser, I do try to think before I speak. I also try to think of how what I say, might be received – putting myself in the place of others. It’s a hard discipline to learn and one that I still fail at. But perseverance is another word to bear in mind.

  3. This post is perfectly timed as yesterday I was informing myself as to the meaning of meekness from Jesus’ perspective, the promise that the meek would inherit the earth. This inheritance not meant as a booby prize for being a doormat all one’s life, but in the sense of self-restraint, strength, gentleness, reliance on God as you describe.

    Thank you!

  4. I guess the Friends’ version is in Quaker Faith & Practice at 3.10:

    “… Give your whole attention to the matter before the meeting. If you want to speak, try to sum up what you have to say in as few words as possible. Speak simply and audibly, but do not speak for effect … Do not repeat views which you have already expressed. Do not address another Friend across the room but speak to the meeting as a whole. Be ready to submit to the direction of the clerk…

    On some matters before the meeting you may feel very strongly. Listen as patiently as you can to all other points of view. Even Friends you consider ill-informed or wrong-headed may make positive or helpful points: watch for them. Do not put into other Friends’ mouths things which they did not say. Be certain of your facts. Avoid stating as facts things which are matters of opinion.

    Do not take offence because others disagree with you. Be chary of ascribing, even in your mind, unworthy motives to others…”

    But St Benedict put it in a nutshell.

  5. Thank you for these words. They are an important reminder in the face of a growing cultural notion that the only way to ‘be yourself’ is to say everything that comes into your head whatever the consequences.

  6. Thank you for this post. I especially needed it as I said too much this weekend to people who are dear to me. I may have been 100% right (and maybe not), but I said it more than once and I could have been more thoughtful. I will think about this and pray that your words and Benedict’s influence my thoughts, actions and words.

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