The Solitaries of Saint Benedict are Benedictines, but they are heavily influenced by Carmelite spirituality, so much so that one the Solitaries’ patrons is Our Lady of Mount Carmel. In honor of the upcoming feast on Friday, the Solitaries will be offering five reflections on Carmelite Spirituality, focusing first on the Carmelite rule, and then on three great Carmelite saints. On the Feast a prayer to Our Lady will be posted in honor of the Feast.
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The Rule of St. Albert is much briefer than the Holy Rule of Benedict, but in spirit as well as many particulars the rules coincide. While the Holy Rule of Benedict encourages silence, the Rule of St. Albert has one chapter that is particularly instructive regarding silence; it is to this passage which we will turn:
The Apostle would have us keep silence, for in silence he tells us to work. As the Prophet also makes known to us: Silence is the way to foster holiness. Elsewhere he says: Your strength will lie in silence and hope. For this reason I lay down that you are to keep silence from after Compline until after Prime the next day. At other times, although you need not keep silence so strictly, be careful not to indulge in a great deal of talk, for, as Scripture has it — and experience teaches us no less — sin will not be wanting where there is much talk, and he wo is careless in speech will come to harm; and elsewhere: The use of many words brings harm to the speaker’s soul. And our Lord says in the Gospel: Every rash word uttered will have to be accounted for on judgement day. Make a balance then, each of you, to weigh his words in; keep a tight rein on your mouths, lest you should stumble and fall in speech, and your fall be irreparable and prove mortal. Like the Prophet, watch your step lest your tongue give offence, and employ every care in keeping silent, which is the way to foster holiness.
As always, these rules seem harsher than is reasonable. Yet it specifies that strict silence is not always the standard of conduct. Rather, the rule here asks its followers to keep a rein on their tongues.
Silence is not merely something that one does (or does not do) with one’s mouth. One can refrain from speaking all day and be far from silent. At the same time, one can speak throughout the day and still remain —at least in some sense— silent.
Silence is an attitude or a cultivated habit, just as temperance, moderation, compassion, and generosity. This complicates what we think of when we think of silence. For example, if a person practices compassion, sometimes she might sometimes refrain from helping someone in particular way because such help might be cause more harm than help. These virtues are not about simply doing something, but rather they are about having the right attitude or perspective on our activities.
Thus, silence is a disposition we can develop. Silence is undoubtedly begun by refraining from speech. However, anyone who has ever tried to do so realizes that with such silence, the mind often begins going into a state of greater activity, characterized by anxiety, uneasiness, jealousy, annoyance, and a nagging voice of criticism, both of self and others.
Because physical silence makes us aware of the internal chatter that physical non-silence covers up, we are forced to come to terms with this internal inquietude. This coming to terms —and not mere physical silence or not talking— is the point of silence.
So how might does one begin entering into silence? A person might start by repeating some word or phrase for a short period, say five minutes, every day or every few days, perhaps the name of Jesus or the Jesus prayer. This person might begin to lengthen the period of silence and repeating the word or phrase only when the interior silence begins to be disturbed. Eventually, a person may be able to enter a period of silence by means of a short prayer and use the word or phrase only rarely for re-centering the mind and spirit. Eventually, the quiet of these sessions will spill over into the rest of life, so that even when working or speaking or in a busy, crowded place, an interior silence is preserved, instead of the chatter that such activities often (blessedly) covers up.
This is a difficult path, and it should not be entered into lightly. A spiritual director or close friend should be aware of this practice and consulted frequently. An easier approach might be to try to refrain from wandering thoughts for five minutes a day and to focus on the task at hand. Gradually lengthening this process will produce a kind of mindfulness that silence also produces, and perhaps this mindfulness can lead backwards into a silence by a sort of back door.
May you enter into a fruitful silence.