Brookline Carmel Bulletin
March 12, 1961
“Remember that which is said by the Apostle St. James: ‘If any man thinks himself to be religious and bridles not his tongue, that man’s religion is vain.’ This is to be understood no less of inward speech than of outward.” (St. John of the Cross’ 3rd Caution against the world)
Certainly everyone has, at one time or another, seen a treadmill. I have seen that ingenious device incorporated into a cage containing some chipmunks. They would get into it, run for miles, and then step out exactly where they were when they climbed in. This gives us a pretty accurate picture of a person who uses every available means to rid his soul of all tendencies to sin and neglects the practice of interior and exterior silence. First he withdraws his affections from all that is not God by frequent confession and mortification, and then, by giving free rein to his tongue, his curiosity and his imagination, he permits all kinds of seductive creatures and creature pleasures to come flooding back into his soul. It is the same as barring all doors against one’s enemies, only to let them come swarming in the windows.
The necessity of silence for spiritual growth and the silence expected of a spiritual man are best understood by considering the power of the tongue, or rather, of words. The world around us gains entrance into the soul either directly, through sense experience, or indirectly, through the medium of words. It is clear that words are capable of evoking feelings, sentiments, desires, emotions and passions. Words, be they spoken or written, can stir up in a man either love or hatred; they can spur him on to action or they can draw him up short and deter him. The greatest leaders in history have all been eloquent speakers. Their words captured the minds and hearts of numberless men. With the will of their disciples bent to their own, they were able to utilize their talents, abilities and energies to pursue and achieve their own personal ambitions. Of no small moment, therefore, is the fact that words can be used to introduce into the mind ready-made judgments and a fully developed philosophy of life calculated to serve immediately as the motivating forces of human behavior.
In addition, the spoken and written word can take us anywhere and everywhere. No corner of the universe is so remote or so small that it cannot be penetrated by the human mind. Just by reading the astronomers we can go out to the most distant galaxy and study its structure, its movements and its other properties. We can explore the interiors of atomic nuclei with the physicist. Through the instrumentality of words we can share the experience of other human beings. Who hasn’t fought his way to the top of Mt. Everest, gasping for breath, limp with suspense, exhausted? Who hasn’t descended into the eerie black abysses of the ocean’s depths? In the moral order, we are able to accompany the saints on their rugged climb to the summit of perfection, right up to intimate union with God. And it is just as easy to descend with the most depraved of men into the depths of wickedness and debauchery. Another momentous effect of the spoken and written word is, then, that it enables us to live vicariously. That is how we relive history in order to profit from its lessons.
So it follows that words, because they are so powerful, must be used with the greatest caution. By that same token, it is with the greatest caution that we should expose our minds to them. Of course, it is impossible for one to live in an atmosphere devoid of all sound, just as it is impossible for our minds to live in an atmosphere void of all knowledge and ideas. So, considered from the ascetical point of view, a man keeps silence when he steers clear of all unnecessary, irrelevant and harmful words. He neither utters them, nor listens to them, nor thinks them. One might object: If that is so, then the spiritual man is necessarily of a narrow mentality, for his mind would be restricted to a few isolated bands in the spectrum of reality. But no, what is unnecessary, irrelevant and harmful (all things considered) doesn’t appear on the spectrum of reality because it is not of God.
The silence required of the ordinary Christian is nothing more than prudence in speech. He may say anything he wants to, provided it doesn’t inflict harm upon the souls of his listeners. Special care must be exercised in speaking to and within earshot of children, the immature, and easily scandalized. Care should also be exercised when speaking of persons holding high offices, lest their good name, the greatest bulwark of their authority be injured. We might term this – prudence in speech – active silence. Passive silence would mean closing the ears (and eyes) to all harmful words, and also by keeping watch over the imagination. A man maintains interior silence when he keeps his mind free of all that does not pertain to his obligations to God and his fellow men, i.e., free of all thoughts that do not in some way draw him closer to God.
For those who inhabit a cloister, silence is also defined as the exclusion of all unnecessary noise, conversations and thoughts. But here, however, the meaning of the word unnecessary is broadened to include everything that 1) is not sanctioned by the rule or by obedience, and 2) whatever interferes with the practice of the Presence of God. True silence, therefore, is prayer: preoccupation with Divine Realities, interior communion with God and His Saints.
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