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I recently attended a workshop where the facilitator began with saying something along the lines of “with words people can open your spirit or close your spirit, and if there is anything I say or do today that closes your spirit in any way please tell me, because I want to be someone that opens up the spirit of other humans.”
When I read Saint Benedict’s rule ‘Restraint of Speech’ I was immediately reminded of this wise teacher’s request. Like Benedict, she understood the importance of words and the imminent danger that waits behind each careless utterance. Both in the other and within ourselves, our souls can be easily trampled upon when words are spoken in haste and silence is ignored.
We spend so much time filling up our worlds with words, whether it be our world of Instagram and social media, coffee shop conversations, church, blogging (I’m very aware of the contradiction here), podcasts, or even our time spent alone. We often offer our fellow humans energies of negativity in our gossip, vulgar language, slander, and snap judgments. We fill our world with our opinions and convictions that can leave very little room for the thoughts of others.
What’s conveyed to them is that their views are less than, their voice isn’t as important, but that your views should be revered, that you have something worthwhile to say. This isn’t only in human relationships. It’s evident in the filling of the time spent with God: with reading, writing, all the words and thoughts. I speak this from a world of evangelical systems that often dictate how others should think, feel and be, filling the spaces with things out of fear of the silence, the nothingness, all in the name of God; that this is the way He would have wanted it.
Joan Chittister, the Benedictine nun whose book “The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for 21 Century" is my guide for this Convivium series, says of Saint Benedict’s rule on restraint of speech “When we refuse to give place to others, when we consume all the space of our worlds with our own sounds and our own truths and our own wisdom and our own ideas, there is no room for anyone else’s ideas.”
I am guilty of this in a couple of ways.
I talk. Too much. I become inpatient when talking about a subject I have thoughts and opinions about. I often interject too early or interrupt someone’s train of thought at the first moment of silence, when I felt they are finished. I feel the need to get all my thoughts out; somehow feeling an urgency that I must have my opinions heard. I must be known.
Secondly, and more prominently, these days I have noticed that I cloud my time spent with God with words. Whether that be with the Scriptures, the saints (new and old), or my own thoughts. I get caught up. I don’t stop. I don’t listen. God is within me, has made my body His dwelling place and yet I fill up my world with so much noise it drowns His voice out. It provides no space for His ideas to be heard and contemplated.
Even while writing this blog post, I became consumed with my thoughts, consumed with what I felt I wanted to say and felt was needed to be said. So I stopped. I breathed. I put on meditative music and just listened.
“The word we seek is speaking in the silence within us.”
Wash over me mercy. Wash over me love. Wash over me silence.
The difficult thing in today’s modern world is that even when we are alone we are connected. We are never really alone. There is always noise, always words to be read, always convictions and opinions waiting to be heard, pictures to be liked, and opinions to be validated. It is no longer just when we are with people that we need to be mindful of our words, of restraining ourspeech, of being silent. We need to exercise restraint of speech both with people and without people.
And so now more than ever we need to be still, we need to be silent, and listen to the voice within us and within others.
When we seek to fill in the spaces with our words, striving to be heard, craning our necks to be validated, we act out of our fear of not being heard, our insecurity of not being validated. So then we are heard, but on what premise? That we silence the other two voices that need space: the voice of the other human, and the voice of the light within.
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“Make no doubt about it, the ability to listen to another, to sit silently in the presence of God, to give sober heed, and to ponder is the nucleus of Benedictine spirituality. In fact it may be what is most missing in a new century saturated with information but short on Gospel reflection.”
God desires to be heard, both in us and through his image in the other. I have experienced this recently in times of deep prayer. When I put down all books about God and Christianity, turn off all music with words, and switch off all lights so that I may have noiseless vision, God meets.
I say meets because God, too, seems to practice restraint of speech, sometimes to our frustration. He is not a God of many words. As it states in John 1:1-2, words were powerful, The Word is powerful, God doesn't need to speak many words because each and every one is incredibly powerful and active. His Word, the Word, who was with Him and was Him from the beginning, became flesh. His Word actually came alive, His Words are immediately turned into living things. He doesn't need to speak much or be verbose. One Word does the trick. God isn't a chatterbox, and that's okay.
And we need not be chatterboxes, either. When we have The Word, when we truly know the there is one Word and that He is the Gospel, the Good News, and the grace that opens all souls, the need to be heard decreases. We no longer grasp at validation by getting all the words out, or needing to talk about that person, or give our opinion. We no longer need to fill our space with God with words and thoughts out of fear of the silence.
Benedict urges “even good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence,” and if the silence is where we find the Gospel, the Word, we must enter in to this practice more in the name of finding the presence of God within ourselves and in the image of God in the other’s words.
So when I slow down, stop talking, and dim the noise, I realize that God just wants to be. He doesn’t want to talk at me, he just wants me to experience the ever soul-opening silence that is His presence. His Word, as noted in John 1, is grace, and nothing else needs to be said.
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One of the most controversial books of 2017 was Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, which was criticized by many as advocating Christian retreat from the secular world. Convivium has asked writer Breanne Valerie to live out the monastic Rule of St. Benedict in her daily life as a busy social worker and Vancouverite. Over coming weeks, she’ll reflect for readers on her joys, struggles and spiritual growth from taking the 700-year-old religious classic to the streets.