The eleventh degree of humility is, when a monk discourses with moderation and composure, mixing humility with gravity; speaking few words, but home, and to the purpose; not raising the voice. “The wise man is known because he speaks little.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

This step of the ladder immediately reminds me of a saying from the Tao Te Ching:

He who knows does not speak;
He who speaks does not know.

Indeed, across cultures the saying is true: “The wise man is known because he speaks little.” While it may disturb some that I would immediately think of a text from another religion, it is worth noting that St. Benedict here is quoting the Sentences of Sextus, a compilation of Christianized Pythagorean proverbs. As St. Justin put it, “whatever has been well said by anyone belongs to us”—for in the Logos, whose humility we are seeking to imitate through St. Benedict’s ladder, is “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:9).

While the ninth step was about avoiding talkativeness and cultivating a habit of attentive listening, and the tenth step was about living in seriousness and not too easily seizing upon occasions of laughter, this eleventh step combines the two: “when a monk discourses with moderation and composure, mixing humility with gravity; speaking few words, but home, and to the purpose; not raising the voice.”

The eleventh step is about silence, rightly understood. Unlike the Pythagoreans, no vow of total silence is required of new converts to the Christian way of life. (The Pythagoreans required five years, by some accounts.) Rather, true silence is a state of the heart. It often manifests itself in outward silence, but not always. Sometimes one must speak, “mixing humility with gravity.”

But outward silence does help to cultivate inward silence. And inward silence strengthens our discernment regarding when to speak and when we should not. The relationship is mutually reinforcing.

Given that our context here is humility, I think it safe to say that St. Benedict has this inner silence in mind. But what does it have to do with humility? To still one’s thoughts and feelings—isn’t this just a spiritual state of peace? Is it, too, really bound by the logic of humility?

Well, yes, though one need not be so conscious of that fact. We still our thoughts and feelings by reminding ourselves that they are within our control, that our circumstances largely are not, and that we therefore are rarely justified in imputing our own mental and emotional state to others. It is an admission that, if I am angry for example, my own state of being is ultimately my fault.

Now, this does not mean that, therefore, no one ever treats another person unjustly. I would not agree with the Stoics that from the divine perspective there is no good and evil. Evil is real, even if ontologically vacuous, and the harms it causes are not to be made light of or downplayed. Rather, the admission that my anger is my fault is a way of empowering me in the midst of that harm.

I think I can explain this by looking at another, related concept: forgiveness. The Greek word can sometimes have the connotation of “release.” That is, when I refuse to forgive someone, I am allowing myself to be held captive to the wrong I have suffered. When I forgive someone, it is just as much for my own good as for the good of the one who wronged me.

Christ himself even warns, “[I]f you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 11:26). How can he grant us release if we allow ourselves to be held captive in this way? It is not that he does not offer forgiveness, but rather that we refuse to receive it when we refuse to forgive others.

And yet knowing what unlimited forgiveness God bestows upon the world in Jesus Christ, it must only be from a place of pride that I would refuse to forgive another. If I am not better than Christ—which I’m not—then I must not be above forgiveness.

All this is to say, it takes great humility to be silent in soul. When we submit all our thoughts to Christ as the measure, then we see both his great love that outshines all evil and our own smallness when held to that standard.

I know a man who may easily be mistaken for being naive. This is because he is so unassuming of everyone he meets. He takes everything at face value. He is serious, though not dour. He is quick to blame himself in any misunderstanding.

Yet he is intelligent and educated. He is not naive it all. He is humble. As virtue is a matter of thought, deed, and word, so also humility, which contains all the virtues, shines through in the words of the wise … and in their silence, for that matter.

He who knows does not speak;
He who speaks does not know.

Perhaps one of the chief causes of talkativeness and frivolous laughter is an inability for people to stay on topic, to speak “few words, but home.” Too often we divert conversations to topics of our own interest rather than truly attending to the concerns of others. It reveals a lack of focus, a lack of true silence of soul. It is not an absolute silence—even Laozi had a few words to say—but one that is moderate and composed, flowing from a heart of immovable humility.

This, then, is the eleventh step: spiritual silence, about which I think I’ve said enough.