Does it Matter What One Thinks?

I have a hunch that the question posed in the title to this post will elicit different answers from men and women. Broadly speaking, men tend to assume that what they think and say matters. They pride themselves on being reasonable, objective, and well-informed. Many of them are, and I treasure the conversations I have had with such, especially those who have stretched my mind and understanding. I think it fair to say, however, that women are in a less fortunate position. No matter how intelligent or well-educated a woman may be, she will often find her opinion disparaged or disregarded for no other reason that that she is a woman. I have sometimes chuckled a little chuckle when taking part in conversations where some hapless man has kindly explained something to a female friend or colleague I know to be an expert in the subject under discussion. I notice that in most such cases the woman turns the conversation or lapses into silence rather than confronting her interlocutor. Is that weakness or wisdom? Does it matter what one thinks?

I have been thinking about this in the light of what St Benedict has to say about the uses and abuses of speech and the current Brexit debate. Some of the debate has not really been debate at all but a trading of slogans and insults that has done nothing to help any of us to a deeper understanding of the complex issues involved. Likewise, some of the personal attacks on individuals have been 0beyond the pale. Indeed, some of those on Theresa May have been so ugly that I have found myself sympathizing with her — something I never thought I could. But sympathy is not the same as agreement. In a democracy one has both the right and the duty to speak out; but there is a catch. To speak from a position of knowledge is one thing; to speak from a position of ignorance is quite another. Yesterday’s acceptance by the other EU member states of the so-called Brexit deal presents every UK citizen with a challenge that has enormous implications for the future. How we deal with it matters, but do any of us know exactly how we should?

The only constructive suggestion I can make is one most readers will be expecting: to listen carefully to what others say, to weigh their words and exercise restraint in responding, especially when negative emotions are aroused. It is very easy to echo the anger of another without being aware that one is doing so. This morning I noticed quite a lot of anger on Facebook, but I am certain many of the angriest were totally unaware that their words might stir up a corresponding anger in their readers — though more directed at them than the objects they had intended. It is a perennial problem. We feel things deeply and choose words that express our feelings, letting them tumble out of us without any checks or balances. Sometimes, however,  a pause to reflect can be beneficial. Not everything has to be voiced as loudly as possible. Benedict expects his monks to be thoughtful and when they do speak, to do so in a few, well-chosen words (RB 7. 60–61). I think there is something in that for all of us, male or female, for or against Brexit or any other burning topic of the day, don’t you?

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Learning to Speak

Learning to speak is as difficult as learning to listen. We might think that once we have mastered the sounds, words tumble forth of their own accord — an endless stream of them. Most of the time that is true, alas; but learning to speak, as orators of old understood the term — to speak with precision and persuasive force, with nothing unnecessary or unworthy, nothing trivial or beside the point — that is an art, and an art we, as Christians, need to cultivate in a society where words are abused and trivialised. St Benedict, we must remember, grew up in age when the art of oratory was still part of a gentleman’s education and what he says in the Rule about the right use of speech, especially in the Eleventh Step of Humility, could be taken as an expression of that. I think, however, that it expresses something richer and deeper something much more fundamental to our existence as Christians. Benedict, quite simply, wants us to value words and set great store on them because God chose to incarnate himself as the Word made flesh. Words cannot be trivial if they express the nature of God, can they?

I think we can take this a little further today, as we celebrate the feast of St Laurence, the Roman deacon who counted the poor as the Church’s greatest treasure. When asked to give an account of himself, Laurence spoke exactly as Benedict would have his monks speak: gently, without mockery, humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words. And because he spoke so simply and directly, he gave us for all time a definition of what makes the Church truly rich. It is in her poor, her voiceless, her defenceless, that the Church truly glories — not in the rich, the successful or the powerful. Learning to speak is not just about making intelligible sounds; it is the art of seeing into the heart of things and communicating what we see.

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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.

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Plain Speaking

I was very struck by this morning’s reading from the Rule of St Benedict, chapter 7, verses 60 to 61, the eleventh step of humility. How many people do you know who ‘speak gently and without mockery, humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words’? The picture those words paint is of a plainness and simplicity we have come to associate in this country with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) — which may be one reason why the links between us are so strong. But I think monks and nuns have always known something about this business of plain speaking, though our take on it may not be the same as most people’s.

What we say bubbles up from the heart, and if the heart is quiet and gentle, then our words will be, too. Gentleness is not weakness, though many think it is, nor is quietness mere absence of sound. A quiet and gentle heart is not attained through accident, nor through a kind of mental and moral floppiness. If we wish to live this eleventh step of humility, we must first purify our hearts — sometimes even pacify them! — and set ourselves the hard task of disciplining our thoughts as well as our tongues. Some people delight in using plain speaking as an excuse for the wounds they deal others. I think our plain speaking should come as balm in a world where the smart soundbite and the cruel or mendacious word are only too common. That doesn’t mean we should falsify anything or deny the truths we believe and live by, rather the reverse. Our speech should be such that others can rely on us to say what we mean and mean what we say, but we should do so with the grace that comes from God. ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.’ That, surely, is something to aim at in all our doings.

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