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.


Controlling the Tongue: the Ninth Step of Humility

‘A word once let out of the cage cannot be whistled back again,’ said Horace, and I daresay we can all recall instances when we wish we could have bitten off our tongue. We use words to build up, but also to tear down. Love and hatred are both expressed in words. Truth, lies, grumbling, encouragement, prayers and curses, all spill out of us through our mouths. No wonder Benedict writes

The ninth step of humility is for a monk to control his tongue and keep silent, not speaking unless questioned. Scripture teaches that ‘In a flood of words you will not escape sin’, and that ‘The talkative will not thrive on earth.’  (RB 7. 56–58)

There is more to the ninth degree of humility than just controlling our tongue. We are asked to control our reactions, too. Note that Benedict recommends silence unless questioned. I think he is reminding us that we often speak without thinking first, and although he has nothing against spontaneity, he is aware that we can do a great deal of harm unintentionally; and it is sometimes harder to put right unintentional wounds than any other kind. They go underground and fester in secret. It is good to get into the habit of mentally asking ourselves whether voicing an opinion or making a comment would be genuinely helpful. That is especially true when we are dealing with things that affect the lives and happiness of others. Do we know all the facts; are we certain of them; are we contributing anything positive, or are we just speaking for the sake of speaking, perhaps even gossiping? We know how difficult it can be to stop once we start talking. We get ‘carried away’ by our own eloquence, so what began innocuously can end with the drip-drip of poison.

One of the areas where we need to be on our guard is in our use of Social Media. Twitter, for example, invites immediate reactions. Spontaneity is both its glory and its shame. It is easy to tap out a reply to someone’s tweet and push the send button before reflecting. I must confess I am irritated by those who reply to the title of blog posts without bothering to read the actual post first, or who address accusations/aggressive comments by name out of the blue, simply because they ‘felt like it’. We have seen how much distress this can cause. Facebook can be just as destructive of people’s happiness and well-being with its sometimes hostile remarks and cruel comments.

To express humility through control of the tongue is much harder than we might think. It requires a constant inner watchfulness and sensitivity to others most of us need a lifetime to develop. Perhaps that is why Benedict places this step of humility so far along the path he is marking out for us. It is a subject to which he will return again because the way in which we speak, the words we use and the intentions of our heart, are intimately linked to our spiritual growth. The humbler we are, the closer we become to God; and Benedict wants us to be very close indeed.