Charlie's Blog: The Discipline of Silence


The Discipline of Silence

It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.

With the beginning of each new year come resolutions to exercise and go on a diet. I would like to commend such wishes for self-improvement, but I know they come from vanity instead of virtue. One of the blessings of getting older is that you focus less on your waistline and more on your character. This is because what makes a person really unattractive is not what goes into their mouth but what comes out of their mouth. A better resolution would be to guard our speech instead of our physiques.

I struggle with what I label collectively as "ill communication." The term comes from a Beastie Boys album title, but I find it to be a great shorthand for all the sins of the tongue. Ill communication is any sort of speech that is destructive in its nature. This is not to be confused with saying "negative" things which are usually true things that need saying. The cult of positive thinking has made it forbidden to acknowledge any unpleasant aspects of life as if they only exist when we talk about them. This is just stupidity. Destructive speech is when the things we say are assaults upon God or those made in His image.

1. Blasphemy

The first and worst form of ill communication is blasphemy. This is where people take the Lord's name in vain in violation of the commandment. If you believe God's last name is "Dammit" and say it as often as possible, you are guilty of a grievous sin. God's name is precious and should be held in the highest esteem. This extends to all His names especially the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This was the first thing I had to clean up in my journey from atheist to Catholic. I have said many things that pain me to recall now, and I will have to answer for those things on the Day of Judgment. I can only beg mercy and pardon from God Almighty for all the things I have said.

I also admit that it is impossible to go a single day without hearing God's name taken in vain. In the Muslim world, offenses like this are punished by death. But I believe that God is merciful, and I abhor such penalties. But when someone does take the name of the Lord in vain, I make the sign of the cross. I do this as my way of atoning for the offense and to ask God's mercy on the offender. I mentally ask God to forgive this person.

You can't love the Lord and treat His name so disrespectfully.

2. Vulgarity

Vulgarity is a cousin to blasphemy. This is because they go together like peanut butter and jelly in the world of ill communication. This would be the F-bombs and the scatological references and even a smack on "the horse you rode on." If blasphemy intends to offend God, vulgarity aims to offend everyone else. There was a time when saying the F-word in mixed company would result in being asked to step outside and take a man sized beating for the offense. Nowadays, the women's language is saltier than the men's.

Many fail to see the evil in vulgarities especially in our R-rated world, but this kind of offensive language is a sin. As St. Paul puts it in Ephesians 4:29, "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear." My conscience stings fiercely at this point because I am very guilty of using vulgarities.

3. Insults

Insults are a cousin to vulgarity, and their intention is to cause offense to others. Sometimes, no offense is meant, but it happens. Other times, it is meant. Being deliberately insulting to other people is a sin. This would include using racial epithets, sexist remarks, and the like. If you spend your life following the example of Don Rickles, you need to cut it out.

4. Calumny, Gossip, and Scandal

Calumny is when you tell lies about other people to ruin their reputations. Gossip is when you tell the truth about other people to ruin their reputations. Scandal is when you stick your nose in other people's business to dig up the dirt on them. These usually go together as a three pack, and they are evil. You don't have to worry about keeping them straight because they all aim for the same target which is the murder of one's reputation. We are all familiar with the character assassination that happens to people in politics. You don't have to actually kill someone to murder them. The slander of someone's good name has the effect of putting these people out of good company which is the aim of murder.

5. Complaining

Nobody likes a whiner. Life is tough enough without listening to the constant backbiting and complaining. Complaining is like pouring salt in an open wound such that the sting is only made worse instead of better. Complaining amplifies the negative instead of curing it. Show some fortitude and eliminate the whining.

6. Cynicism

We live in cynical times, so it is hard to recognize this sinful speech. But watch an old movie or television show, and it will feel refreshing compared to today's entertainment. This is because entertainment today is permeated and soaked in cynicism. Cynicism is simply the assumption that everyone is scum, and the world is out to get you. The aim of cynicism is to not be naive, but its dark cloud becomes oppressive over time. It has the same effect as complaining.

7. Lying

Lying is where we consciously aim to deceive people. It is when we say things we know not to be true. It can be an exaggeration, or it can be a full blown whopper. Or, it can be the selective memory I encounter when people conveniently forget things they would rather not acknowledge while remembering things that never actually happened. As far as we can help it, we should always get our facts straight.

Purity in speech is a difficult thing. Most of the temptations in this area come from people's abhorrence of silence. On talk radio, they have this thing called "dead air." This is when no one is talking. This is bad for radio because it makes people think the station is off the air, and people might skip over the station when they don't hear anything. So, talk radio hosts keep a constant chatter going. People do the same thing in life. They always have to keep talking.

We can learn something from the Trappist practice of silence. Contrary to popular ideas, Trappists do not actually take a vow of silence. They simply do not engage in idle chatter. Trappists speak only when necessary. This practice comes from the Rule of St. Benedict:

Of silence
Let us act in conformity with that saying of the Prophet: "I said I will guard my ways lest I sin with my tongue; I have put a bridle on my mouth; I was dumb and was humbled and kept silence from good things." Here the prophet shows that if we ought at times for the sake of silence to refrain even from good words, much more ought we to abstain from evil words on account of the punishment due to sin. Therefore, on account of the importance of silence, let permission to speak be rarely given even to the perfect disciples, even though their words be good and holy and conducive to edification, because it is written: "In the multitude of words there shall not want sin." And elsewhere: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue." For to speak and to teach are the province of the master; whereas that of the disciple is to be silent and to listen. Therefore, if anything is to be asked of the superior, let it be done with all humility and subjection of reverence, lest one seem to speak more than is expedient.  Buffoonery, however, or idle words or such as move to laughter we utterly condemn in every place, and forbid the disciple to open his mouth to any such discourse.  
Now, the Trappists practice silence with a great severity, but this is impractical for the layperson living in the world. Yet, we can learn something from this discipline of silence. A primary reason we sin so much with our tongues is because we always feel the need to keep running our mouths. This idle chatter demands material, and this is where the sin comes in. It is easier to lie, blaspheme, gossip, and insult than say good things. How many saints have a big mouth? Saintly people tend to be quiet people. When they speak, their words take on a weight and a value that no idle chatter can match. If you want to be a saint, practice thrift in your speech. The discipline of silence removes most temptation for ill communication.

I struggle so much with this because I have a gigantic big mouth. If I have a resolution for this new year, it is to speak less. Quiet people are seen as gentle, wise, and good listeners. The discipline of silence is what I like to think of as "minimalism of the mouth." Use fewer words but make those words count. I pray that I will get better at this practice.