Making Every Word Count: the Eleventh Step of Humility

Reading St Benedict’s eleventh step of humility (RB 7. 60–61) on the feast of Blessed John Henry Newman is a happy coincidence. Happy, because Newman had an extraordinary gift for making every word count; a coincidence, because Benedictines have been reading this section of the Rule on this day for centuries.

After telling us how not to use our tongues in the ninth and tenth steps, Benedict now gives us some positive guidance. We are to speak gently, without mockery (risus), humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words, and without raising our voice — and only when we have to:

cum loquiture monachus, leniter et sine risu, humiliter cum gravitate vel pauca verba et rationabiliia loquatur, et non sit clamosus in voce.

That is a pen-portrait of a sensitive and civilized speaker, a person who weighs his/her words and speaks modestly but effectively. It is interesting that Benedict substitutes the word rationabilia for the Rule of the Master’s sancta. The conversation of the monk won’t be limited to holy things, but whatever he speaks of will be spoken of with proper regard for both his subject and his audience. Words matter, and humility will be shown in the way we use them. A certain reticence is not only becoming, it is essential. Although Benedict doesn’t explicitly say so here, he makes it perfectly plain elsewhere that reticence is part and parcel of the monk’s interior work of listening out for the voice of the Lord. We can’t hear if we are making too much noise ourselves.

I think this little passage of the Rule gives us much to reflect on. Most of us allow words to tumble from our lips or keyboards without really thinking about them. We are so busy rushing on to the next idea that we fail to register the effect we have on ourselves, let alone others. We do the same when we listen or read. We don’t take in what is said but rush to judgement, sometimes with disastrous results. Benedict reminds us again of the contrast between biblical notions of wisdom and foolishness and clearly wants  his monks to be endowed with the former. That takes time and patience, and a readiness to accept correction when we are wrong.

A question each of us might ask today is this: what do my words convey to others? Do I use language to impose my will on them, or to bolster my self-esteem? Is my humour kind, or is it cruel? How do I link my belief in the Word with the way I use words in my everyday life? The answers may be chastening.