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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