The Right Use of Speech: the Ninth Step of Humility

Most of us speak first, then think; or we omit the thinking altogether and just burble on, convinced that what we have to say is worth saying, or, at any rate, not doing any harm to anyone. We have become, quite literally, careless about our use of speech.

St Benedict is not particularly novel in his teaching about speech. He urges restraint, as one might expect, but he doesn’t expect the monk to inhabit an entirely silent world. In the ninth step of humility he warns against letting our tongues run away with us and suggests we ought to be sparing in our use of words, waiting for the superior to invite us to speak, or so I take his usque ad interrogationem, ‘until spoken to,’ with its echoes of the rather more severe stance of the Rule of the Master. But he doesn’t really have anything very profound to say on the subject. The next two steps of humility will also be concerned with speech and laughter, and I think it is clear that Benedict is primarily concerned with the way in which humility is manifested exteriorly. We give ourselves away by what we say and how we say it, so the monk must be aware of the importance of guarding his tongue.

I daresay we can all think of occasions when we have spoken or written something we later regretted, or when we have judged someone harshly because of what they said or their manner of speaking. Language has enormous power and we are very quick to register when something is not quite right, when a false note is sounded or words and deeds are in opposition. I read this ninth step of humility as an invitation to integrity, to a consistency of purpose and action which goes beyond words. It may not be very novel or very profound, but it certainly challenges me.

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3 thoughts on “The Right Use of Speech: the Ninth Step of Humility”

  1. Great reminder. Words are powerful and so is tone and manner. Good to think about it.
    I have to say-the hold your tongue until spoken to by the superior or read as any authority doesn’t seem to translate
    well into our time. Give respect to a person in authority and listen to them–of course–but a person has the right to speak
    even if they are not invited or encouraged to do so.

    • One must read this in the context of the Rule as a whole. The assumption that we know better than our predecessors can be exactly the kind of arrogance that deafens us to the Holy Spirit. Again, it is a question of discernment. Benedict is optimistic about human nature, but he is also realistic. Whether we like it or not, not all of us are equally worth listening to insamuch as we do not all possess equal insight or ability. Fortunately, in chapter 3, for example, he provides for everyone to speak and be heard, though he still gives to the abbot the responsibility for final decision-making.

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