The ninth step of humility is that we control our tongues and remain silent, not speaking until asked a question, for scripture warns, “In a flood of words you will not avoid sinning” (Prov. 10:19), and “A talkative person goes about aimlessly on earth” (Psalm 140: 12).
This part of the Rule can stir our experiences of enforced silence. In the family and at school, for example, we have had silence pushed upon us; the ingraining of ‘be quiet unless spoken to’ as a way of behaviour control has left its mark. Is there a way through this? Is it possible to treasure silence and to value the art of not speaking as part of the life of silence itself?
Those who have embraced silence as an event, having their humanity drawn into the divine life of silence and into the truth of who they are, they do not experience this part of the Rule as proscriptive. It is rather, protective; it protects the silence of life from too many words.
The spirit of the Rule is not about external control and force. A balance is walked between the framework of its guidance and the growth that this guidance fosters. Control here is about self-control as a virtue, not control administered externally. This virtue is a gift of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23); it is self-control as a characteristic of a maturing personality, one becoming increasingly and humbly self-secure. A maturing personality grows comfortable with silence.
It is the talkative who risk being a kind of ‘outlier’ to the ways of silence because they can tend to spend too much time with attention at the surface of consciousness. Words are of the self-conscious mind; too many of them (both spoken and heard) keep attention away from our depths. This may be convenient, even a kind of relief, however in the end life becomes stunted.
The talkative, without a practice to balance their use of words, can find themselves restless, divorced from the heart. Meditation balances talk via its grounding of attention in the heart. The Rule balances talk by asking us not to have words as our default way of communicating. A silent and loving presence is far more important than words.
Why might there be a need to speak at all? Is it pride, insecurity, something else? What will the words serve – kindness, ego? If we are not enough aware of our motivations for speech, we risk hurting others with our words. And, because all too often actions accompany words, unguarded words could lead to hurt via word and action.
One practical example of an unbalanced use of words can happen when the community is at table for a meal. At Meditatio House we have noticed how conversations can ‘split off’ at the meal table, people talking with each other at the top of the table, the middle, and the bottom. In the end, what can result is a cacophony of words all competing to be heard. However, when conversations are heard one at a time, people have a chance to practice listening and patience, and we can experience what it is that makes listening and patience a challenge. In this way we grow humbler, that is, less egocentric.
With too many words, opinions and ideas can solidify into identity and become who we think we are. This solidifying limits the attention and perception of the ego. Silence dissolves this solidifying in the life of divine love. As this happens, the ego is forgotten.
To remain silent, and so become aware of what keeps us from silence, this is a humbling act – one that can be repeated many times a day. Humility is learning to listen first, without speaking; listening, not only to others, but also into the deep of the heart. Then, as we mature in silence, words come to be formed more in the silence; words come to be an expression not of noise or avoidance, but of who we are and our intuitions; they are of us and the Spirit. As we soak in this silence, unnecessary words naturally fall away until we remain silent, even while speaking.
You must let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth, but only what is beneficial for the building up of the one in need, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. You must put away all bitterness, anger, wrath, quarrelling, and slanderous talk—indeed all malice. Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you. (Eph. 4:29-32, NET)