Silence is a necessary pre-requisite for effective communication. It allows us to listen and respond to words and actions. It may also be an invitation for reflection and meditation.
The Scottish poet, George MacKay Brown, writes in his autobiography that “we move from silence into silence, and there is a brief stir between, every person’s attempt to make a meaning of life and time.” Iris Murdoch corroborates this view: “truth can be attained, if at all, only in silence.”
In a densely populated area, the search for silence seems to be illusive. Noise is the order of the day. This lack of silence impinges on our personal space and makes our surroundings inhospitable and chaotic.
Christ sought silence throughout his Ministry. The New Testament is full of examples of Christ withdrawing for silence and reflection. Before embarking on his ministry, He retreated for forty days in the desert. In the Gethsemane, he retreated in silence and prayer. In these two famous narratives, Christ was assuaged by temptations, inner demons and loneliness.
His experience is common to all those who opt for some time in silence. Silence demands that we are more introspective and attentive to ourselves and our surroundings. This can be threatening. Noise and chaos can become a welcome relief when the burden of silence becomes too heavy.
Rule of St Benedict encourages individuals to moderate their speech – to avoid idle talk and engage in conversation which can be profitable and edifying to the individual and his community. The emphasis is on listening rather than on creating noise. His Rule is a masterly work which encourages a balanced and healthy life. It is a key text to understanding Europe’s social, spiritual, legal and economic development.
Very little is known about St Benedict. His short “Rule”, written in the early sixth century, has also been one of the basic rules for Western monasticism and an important text of Christian spirituality.
He writes approximately a century after the Sack of Rome of 410AD. The Visgoths left Rome in a state of utter devastation and the Roman Empire began a long period of decline characterised by societal divisions and apathy towards communal goals and values. It was a society which sought comfort in the noise, chaos and pleasures of city life.
The concerns of the 5th and the 6th century are thus not so remote and irrelevant to an audience living in the 21st century. The financial crisis and its aftermath, spurred on by a desire for profit accumulation and greed, left behind a society which faces challenges which are not so dissimilar to those of late antiquity.
Individuals, firms and governments find themselves questioning the future as they attempt to carve a role for themselves within the new economic and social realities. Others find themselves shut out from the economic and social life of the society they live in.
St Benedict’s Rule offers valuable lessons to an uncertain and ever changing world. His writings challenge our understanding of community and our response to the number of problems we face. In an attempt to find quick solutions and have their voice heard, many are forgetting the value of silence – and listening.
One has to make a distinction between the silence imposed on individuals through social exclusion, neglect or marginalisation and a measured silence which allows for discerning and attentive thought. The latter form of silence is healthy and beneficial; allowing for thoughtful reflection prior to action. It allows for introspective thought rather than retrospective action.
The noise, chaos and distractions we create often exacerbate marginalisation. Sometimes, we may even drown out our own authentic voice in our desire to conform. Perhaps, for our own sake, we need to make some space for silence in the chaotic fast-pace communities we are creating.