DO YOU SAY NOTHING TO ANSWER THESE CHARGES? JESUS, HOWEVER, REMAINED SILENT (Matthew 26: 62). If we meditate on this behavior of our Lord, as the evangelist intends us to do, we are at first puzzled: our Lord was innocent, and obviously so. At other occasions when questioned or falsely accused he had given answers, sometimes very sharply even aggressively as we see in chapter eight of St. John’s Gospel. When accused of making excessive claims that implied he was greater than Abraham, Jesus answered in detail in an attempt to  win over his accusers. ‘I assure you before Abraham was born I am’ (John 8: 59). Similar instances can readily be cited. The difference was that Jesus’ hour had come to fulfill the Father’s plan. Convinced that the time of fulfillment had arrived, our Lord remained silent in the presence of his accusers. Our Savior refuses to resort to merely human resources of speech in self-defense; he will rely totally on his heavenly Father. In his silence he deliberately chose to accept rejection and injustice for the sake of fulfilling the mission assigned him by the One who sent him into the world for the redemption of our alienated human race. 

Later his followers came to understand the significance of Jesus’ silence and understood it as a lesson they were to assimilate. Silence came to be appreciated as the attitude of one who truly seeks to carry out the Father’s will. In silence one is united with the Savior and communes with the Father along with Jesus who is now become the Lord of glory. Its meaning goes beyond the acceptance of injustice, rejection and insult; it is the attitude of one who looks to the Father for guidance and relies on his grace for the light and strength needed to carry out his will. St. Benedict summed up this profound insight into the higher realms of the spiritual life and made such practice of silence a fundamental element in his Rule. He assigned a full chapter to this topic.  The key sentence is the following:  

Here the Prophet shows that if we sometimes ought to refrain from speaking good words on account of the intrinsic value of silence, so much the more ought we stop speaking evil words out of fear that it will be punished as sin. 3. Therefore, due to the great importance of silence itself, perfect disciples should rarely be granted permission to speak, even good, holy and edifying words (ch. 6). 

Few took this teaching more seriously than the founders of our Cistercian Order.    Silence was so characteristic of their spirituality that their followers became known as the silent monks. As a point of historical fact, however, they were not unique in ascribing a major roll to silence. Cluny also well understood that the life of serious prayer required a large place for silence and so they had devised a sign language to assure the preservation of the atmosphere of silence while providing for a simple but adequate means of communication. The Cistercians took over this system of signs when they began their New Monastery, having experienced its utility and helpfulness in their life as Benedictines.  

The implications of giving prominence to the observance of silence are fundamental in indicating the character of monastic spirituality and its primary orientation and in preserving its essential orientation to the contemplative union with God that is its goal. For the stress given to silence makes clear that the primary concern of monastic life is the search for God in as direct a manner as is accessible to our human kind.  The inner world and the communications emanating from the depths are obviously considered to have primacy over sociability. Not that human relations were neglected or even down-graded. But they were to be given a transcendent orientation and character that is intended to govern their manner and frequency. This view of human relationships in fact represents a heightened appreciation of their worth and dignity. Exchanges between persons are to be elevated to that level where they serve to enhance the quality of life. Words are to be used sparingly not because they are of little import but so that they might not be debased through careless, idle or even perverse use.  

As Benedict points out it is nearly impossible for those who speak much and too readily to avoid sin.  Experience bears out the truth of this observation with all too much evidence. Especially when one has suffered some misunderstanding or is vexed with a superior or colleague how human it seems to ventilate with others and in the process influence the listener so as to lower his regard for the one criticized. This occurred often enough even in monastic communities that St. Benedict himself made a point of assigning only a specially qualified monk who, in addition to the abbot, would advise the novices and speak to them of their souls’ interests. This provision, however, has limited effect if the novice himself either listens to others who speak too readily precisely because they lack the qualifications that a serious guide possesses, or himself vents his frustrations or resentments in the ears of another monk.  

That such happenings do occur in certain communities accounts for no end of troubles. It is precisely those who are most vulnerable who lack the discretion and self-control needed to preserve a quiet mind when things do not go their way who are most likely to listen or speak in this harmful manner.  To protect such persons from themselves and to assist in the adequate formation of the novices and postulants Benedict, and Pachomius before him, gave the responsibility for their formation to a wise and experienced monk. Later abbots, recognizing the problems associated with such association between the younger monks and those inclined to speak without due discernment and even critically, have made it a rule that no one should take it upon himself to speak of matters pertaining to the interior life with the novices. Still less should they give expression to criticisms or listen to those of novices. This kind of murmuring, St. Benedict expressly states, should be totally banished from the monastery, not only as regards the young but in all our relations with one another.  

In the Statute on Formation there is a special section dedicated to the role and duties of all the monks for contributing to the spiritual health and growth of the community. They do this by their fidelity to the spirit of the Order and to their particular duties in the community. By the mature quality of their lives as men seeking God within the Cistercian tradition, monks can provide significant assistance to their brothers, not only the newer members in their advance in the ways that lead to union with God. The title of this part of the Statute is THE COMMUNITY AS FORMATIVE. There it is expressly stated that  

All who live in the community share responsibility for its unity, its dynamic fidelity to the Cistercian charism, and its capacity to provide all its members with the conditions needed for the human and spiritual growth that leads to the fullness of love. (par. 11)

Those who are called to our way of life must be open to learning how to enter into the deeper realms of the heart. This means they are to give their chief attention to the inner life and, with faith and steady application, devote themselves to working at bringing their passions and thoughts under the influence of grace through prayer. It is the abbot’s task to present this doctrine to the whole community. The novice master is to assist him in this in the case of the young. The abbot must show them that they cannot be seeking the kinds of consolation that comes from ready talking and freely associating with others. When professed monks collaborate with the abbot and by their example encourage them in this way a certain number will be able to persevere in this demanding struggle. After a time they will be strengthened in their vocation and find a quiet peace and eventually a profound and persistent joy. 

On the other hand, if some senior monks encourage them in their levity, talkativeness, their desire to justify themselves or even to complain when corrected by their superior, their need for attention and approval, these brothers, and others among the young monks who see what is happening, become confused. Some are weakened in their trust and cooperation with their abbot. Such undermining of the superior’s efforts can occur though the responsible party remains quite unaware that he is doing harm by putting obstacles in the way of his brother and of the abbot’s efforts. 

From my experience with such instances over the years, often the person who behaves in this way is convinced he is justified in expressing his criticisms because, as he thinks, they are true; he believes he acts through a human feeling of sympathy.  But genuine sympathy is based on discerning insight and not directed by passion or resentment. Every one has the obligation to avoid calumny which consists in listening to or disclosing to one who has no right to know, any truths about another which lowers esteem for him. Such behavior comes mostly from a lack of sufficient insight into ones own inner life and especially resentments; it is not deliberate or badly intended. I recall Father Thomas Merton telling us one day in class how, based on his experience, he thought that such sins of speech are the easiest ones for monks to fall into. Men who would never knowingly be uncharitable, slip into this injustice often enough without suspecting their fault. I dare say that every abbot in office for an extended time has repeatedly had to deal with such instances of mistaken sympathy and false friendship that ends with one or both parties leaving the monastery.  

St. Benedict can be numbered among those who, as superior, suffered from men, lacking in sound monastic experience, who came together and criticized him.  As commonly happens, they ended by being victims of their own lack of insight when he simply abandoned them. Other great and holy abbots had trials of this kind to endure. St. Bernard, as we learn from one of his letters, suffered from criticisms against himself that led to the departure from Clairvaux of a young professed he had been directing and who disburdened himself to another monk criticizing Bernard. Only after some years and havingcaused considerable anguish to himself and his abbot, did he recognize his error and returned. We must be on our guard and profit from such mistaken ways for few are they who escape such temptations, especially on occasions when we have disagreements or feel misunderstood.  When Bernard dealt with this subject in a sermon, he did so from experience. The following are his words. 

And so, my dearest men, preserve among yourselves peace and do not offend one another in acts or in words or even the least gesture. . . . The nature of man is naturally more prone to suspect evil than to believe good, and more when the rule of silence that we must observe with complete exactitude does not permit you who are the cause of the disorder to excuse yourself nor the other to disclose the wound that a word or action wrongly interpreted has caused in his soul in order to cure it. (Sermones sobre el Cantar de los Cantares, 29.4 [B.A.C., Madrid 1955] 207)

Silence, to be sure, is not the only defense against such human temptations, nor is silence above all a defense against sin. On the contrary, as I indicated earlier, the more important role of silence is to create the possibility in practice for us to enter more deeply into our inner self and thus eventually to purify our hearts so as to enter more fully into communion with the Lord.  Silence has played a major role in the life of Jesus and the great saints. Bernard stressed its large significance for Mary (Sermon en la octava de la Ascuncion de la Virgen Maria, 10 [B.A.C. Madrid 1953] 732)   

In a particular manner silence played a major role in the life of St. Augustine.(Cf.   Brian Stock, Augustine the Reader, [Cambridge, Mass.: 1996] 61 ff., for the following points). For his conversion was effected under the influence in good part of St. Ambrose. And it was Ambrose who taught him the fact that silence provides a condition that assists  reading to lead to contemplative experience. In observing Ambrose read silently- an unusual practice at that period when even private reading was done aloud- Augustine noticed for the first time a new function of reading in silence, as he observed 

. . . the silent decoding of written signs as a means of withdrawing from the world and of focusing attention on one’s inner life. Silent reading was the technique: the silent reader, into whose interior world the outsider could not penetrate, was the sign that the desired state had been attained. A psychological mechanism and a philosophical ideal became one. (Stock, 62) 

In his Confessions the Bishop of Hippo treats of silence as a symbol of the interior life where he notes that: ‘He does not pass to the highest peace where the greatest silence is found, unless he does war against loud noise and its vices.’ (En. In Ps 9.8, cf. Stock, 325, n. 165).  The image is biblical. We read in the Apocalypse that ‘When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour’ (8:1). Later on this profound silence became for Bernard of Clairvaux a symbol of the experience of rapture when the soul was seized, as it were, by the Spirit in ecstasy and came to know unutterable divine mysteries. 

Though silence serves as a symbol, yet in its own right it has a fullness of significance that we come to appreciate only after faithfully pursuing it and overcoming the many obstacles to penetrating to its depths. We cannot discover what is most personal to our self save in a profound silence. For until we know the depths of a solitude that separates us from every creature by virtue of our individuality we do not truly understand who we are and what we require to attain the purpose of our existence. This existential solitude revealed in the silence of our depths is impossible for us to sustain in tranquility without the special grace of the Spirit. When we taste something of its flavor we know instinctively and immediately that nothing and no one in this world can find us there except in God. This taste of the infinite serves to detach us from the things limited by this world. For God alone can fill up the measure of our solitary state. Thus does silence which prepares for the entry into this transcendent solitude lead to that detachment which purifies our heart from the attractions of possession and pleasure and free us for receiving in a certain fullness the Spirit of God. We must, to be sure, take the further step of choosing to admit him into our soul by a total and free act of loving desire. Only such a yielding of self can fill up the measureless solitude out of which our personal being arises hour by hour whether we are conscious of it or not. 

Silence then is more than the absence of noise and speech; it is the attitude of the believer who strives to live the fullness of his vocation as consciously, deliberately and freely as we can manage with the help of grace. The fact that God calls us to be members of Christ, and us as monks to the Cistercian life dedicated to contemplative union with him, is a clear sign that he has destined us for such a way of going to him and of eventually attaining to him. If we have rules of silence and strive to observe them honestly from the heart and with discernment, then, it is not because we are not concerned for others; the contrary is true. It is because God has enlightened us with the realization that we and all  persons are destined to find our fulfillment in him in the first place, knowing that in him we are united with one another and with all who belong to him. Thus the practice of silence with discretion is a way of loving in Spirit and in truth. May we help one another to live in such loving concern for what is best in one another and in all those with whom we have contact.      

 Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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