The ninth degree of humility is, when a monk controls his tongue and keeps silence till a question be asked. For the Scripture teaches that “in much talk you will not avoid sinning”; and “the talkative man shall live out his life haphazardly.”
~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7
“In much talk you will not avoid sinning.” This reminds me of Adam Smith’s take on justice. As it was told to me, to Smith justice is the only duty a man can perform by not doing anything. That is, to him, justice amounts to “do no harm,” and doing nothing harms no one. Personally, I would take a broader understanding of justice—and perhaps he does as well, I’m no expert in his ethics. But it does call to mind a true corollary: say nothing and you will be much less likely to sin with your tongue.
Sometimes, of course, we must speak, shout even. We must communicate with one another in order to have relationships. We must yell and warn others if they are in danger. We must discipline our children (hopefully without yelling). And so on.
God spoke the world into existence, and then he created us in his image. Speech—at its best, anyway—is an extension of our rationality. Language has syntax and grammar, rules that it follows to convey ideas. While all animals communicate in various ways, language (so far as we know) is unique to human beings. God gave us this capacity in order that we would use it well.
This step of the latter is not so much about silence as it is about talkativeness. This is something with which I certainly struggle. I’m Scots, so the temptation is in my blood. I might be timid and introverted at first, but get on a subject I’m interested in, and if I don’t stop myself, I can talk and talk and talk.
Talking isn’t bad per se. As I mentioned, God made us to speak. But talking and talking—especially about mundane subjects, but even about supposedly “spiritual” ones—that is where the problem comes. That is where we cultivate a haphazard life.
Talking all the time has at least the following two dangers: 1) we may inevitably end up talking about something with which we have absolutely no familiarity as if we actually did, and 2) we may in fact know precisely what we are talking about and fuel our own sense of pride.
The second danger comes from a twisting of something good: teaching others is meant to be an act of service. But when we do so out of pride, just to show how much we know, then we are only serving ourselves, even when we are right.
But as I said, this step is not so much about silence as talkativeness. That is, it is about how talkativeness is bad. On the other hand, it is also about how listening is good: “when a monk controls his tongue and keeps silence till a question be asked.”
It may seem like simple etiquette, but how difficult can it become, especially perhaps in friendly company, to stop ourselves from interjecting and interrupting? Waiting until someone actually asks to hear what we have to say takes great discipline and humility. At this point, indeed, we are 3/4 of the way to the top of St. Benedict’s ladder. 3/4 of the way in reading it, I should say, as I cannot claim to have successfully climbed this rung myself, at least not most days.
There is a great deal of maturity required as well. This becomes obvious for anyone who has spent the day with a two year old. How hard it is for a toddler to listen well! He/she may be the sweetest little girl or boy, but getting that child out of his/her own world to listen can sometimes be a real chore. Often they will even ignore their parents, not out of disobedience so much as childishness. They actually don’t know that they should stop and listen. Or if they do know, they honestly don’t often remember. It’s hard being a baby.
And there’s the catch: it takes great effort, discipline, humility, and maturity to listen well and control one’s tongue in this way. But when we do, we find that life itself has become much easier. The less I have to apologize about some dumb thing I said, the better. The less I teach, the more I can learn. (And, actually, good teachers out there know that good teaching actually involves a whole lot of listening and learning on the part of the teacher anyway.)
Too often, whether we realize it or not, we are so insecure about ourselves that we do not trust the other person to ask us for our input. Too often, as well, we are so self-centered that we miss the fact that the person speaking to us may just need a friend with an open ear.
On the bright side, this step of the ladder does not take much to understand in our own context. Yet it takes a great degree of humility to actually perform.
One conversation at a time, I hope to ascend this step as well, so long as I don’t waste any future opportunities for humility. Life is too short to live so haphazardly.