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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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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