This article was originally published in Sword & Spade magazine.
Fr. Jarrett Bede, O.P. (1881-1934) historian, author, priest — wrote this short meditation in his classic book Meditations for Layfolk.
Silence is no less necessary for those out of the cloister than for those within. For religious, monks and nuns, it must of course be more rigorous, more material, if such an expression be allowed for that of which the essence is the absence of matter; but for those who live in, but not of, the world, it must be no less faithfully kept. Nay, rather because of the very rush and tumult of life, the need for it in the souls of those whose business it is to pass their days close to the humming and whirling machinery of existence is far more pressing and urgent. Even physically for such as have their time fully occupied, crowded with incident and crossed with the lives of so many others, there seems a recognized need for a break from time to time for perfect rest. The necessity of a sabbath, or day of rest, betokens how human nature cries for a lessening of the tension at least every now and then. We men whose lives are filled up with such activities that the whole being is riveted in fixed attention on our work, require moments, not simply of relaxation for amusement but also for mere and sheer silence. To be serious is even easier than to be amused, and requires far less effort than to be amusing; hence our very pleasures take their tithe of our energy and do not of themselves re-create the soul. For this re-creation, as for creation itself, silence must precede speech; and out of the stillness alone, as of old, can leap the word.
The soul, then, like the body, has need of silence, which is the necessary condition for recollection and contemplation. Such a silence as this means also the actual cessation of all distracting sights, sounds, perceptions; it supposes as part of its essence a really physical silence (a contradiction in words, but not in ideas) as required for a few minutes daily, or at least from time to time during the week: for silence is the mother of thought. To talk is to expound, and to expound requires premeditated matter, and to meditate requires silence. Am I not conscious very often how much I need this silence? Does it flash in upon me during my conversation that I am frequently making use of expressions and arguments which I cannot really justify and which do not seem fully to contain and bear out the construction I put upon them? I must admit that a very great deal that I pretend to take for granted has only a vague significance, hazy and incomplete. There is much that I dread being questioned about. Does not my soul loathe many of my crowded and jaded hours? My vapid and empty conversations, my endless gossip, the baldness of my ideas, the imitative nature of my remarks, the dull and platitudinous moralizing in which I so frequently indulge at the expense of others repeatedly show, even from a human point of view, the need I have of thought, and therefore first of silence. Otherwise we become mere gramophones, grinding out the records composed by the labours of others.
I must be silent, therefore, that I may speak. But this after all is the lowest reason that can be urged; there is at least one other that is more commanding. I must be silent indeed that I may speak, but silent also that I may listen. If I am always talking, how can I hear what others are saying; above all, how can I hear the voice of God? He will make no effort to outshout my own words, nor the clamour of life that I deliberately pursue: His is the still small voice that is heard only when the whirlwind has passed. Now it is of supreme importance to me to hear what God has to say, far more important than His hearing what I have to say; and just as in prayer it may well happen that I reproach God with never giving me His whispered counsel or comfort and yet never with my own persistent speech allow Him opportunity to “get in a word edgeways”; so it may well happen in life that I make no efforts to catch His voice. It is the still waters that are ruffled by the slightest breath of wind, and it is only the silent souls that hear the slightest whisper of God. Yet the loss of all this to me! what marvellous opportunities perhaps came in my way, what needed advice, wisdom, love, were thrown away upon me! for I was so disturbed, fussy, noisy, that the Divine Word passed me by unheeded, deafened by the tumult of earthly things. Let me learn silence in my life, for God does not shout.