Summer Feast of St. Benedict 2021
July 11th we Benedictines normally celebrate the summer feast of St. Benedict. However, since this year the 11th falls on a Sunday, the 14th Sunday of Ordinary time takes precedence. So at Holy Name we will celebrate on Monday, July 12th.
A few years ago, in an issue of the journal from the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration there was a good article by Sister Bede Luetkemeyer. What follows is an abbreviation of her words:
“Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.” Saint Benedict, in the Prologue to his Rule, addresses those who “long for life. His advice is “Keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim. Once you have done this, my eyes will be upon you and my ears will be open to your prayer.”
If we were to abbreviate this quote, we might say: “God will hear our prayers when we put away vicious talk.” This can be a surprising and disturbing thought: having our prayers heard depends on how we use our tongue.
The gift of speech is one of the most powerful gifts God has given us, but it probably evokes less gratitude than any other. Habitual use of speech bends to make us unconscious of the many times our speech verges on being critical, or, to use the adjective in the psalm, “vicious” talk.
Not many of us are humble enough to make amends for wounding words. We depend on time and the good will of others to wipe out what has been said, but the wounds of hurtful words can never be totally erased. Despite our best efforts to heal relationships, the scars remain.
Perhaps the first step is admitting that we are burdened with the habit of speaking without paying attention to what we say. Jesus goes literally to the heart of the problem. He speaks of the words that “come from the heart.” These are the words that are first formulated in the mind and take on the emotions that issue from them. Hence, controlling our thoughts is our first task. Discernment of our thoughts in the manner of the early monks cuts off the evil before it reaches the heart. If our words do not come from a humble heart they will fall on deaf ears.
One of the familiar practices from the past is the daily examination of conscience. Recalling our conversations and labeling them as hurtful or helpful becomes habitual. We can train ourselves to think before we speak, to take a prior account of the possible consequences of our speech. It is better to judge ourselves than to hear Jesus’ warning, “I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.” (Mt 12:36)
Another effective way of learning how to use the tongue is learning the virtue of silence. The recommendations for the practice of silence are frequent in Scripture and in the ancient rules of the Desert Fathers. Although the Desert Fathers sometimes practiced perpetual silence, we are not called to that extreme. Rather, Scripture describes moderate speech that flows from wisdom. Benedict lists four qualities of such speech in his chapter on humility: serious, brief, gentle, reasonable.
The teachings of Benedict are taken from the Scriptures and so are meant for everyone. One of the reminders Benedict uses in his chapter on silence is taken from the Book of Proverbs: “In the multitude of words, there shall not want sin.” (Prv 10:19) One of the Desert Fathers (teaches): “A person may seem to be silent, but if s/he is condemning others, she is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning til night and yet she is truly silent, that is, she says nothing that is not profitable.”
External silence is impossible until we learn to control the unending conversation that is going on in our (heads). A 20th century Russian Orthodox monk wrote about prayer and the Christian life, “When we listen to someone we think we are silent because we do not speak; but our minds continue to work, our emotions react, our will responds for or against what we hear … The real silence towards which we must aim as a starting point is a complete repose of mind and heart and will.”
We might wonder what happens to spontaneity, to having a chat without having to think about every word we say. Jesus assures us that out of the contents of our heart our mouth will speak. If we guard our hearts from evil and our minds from negative thoughts, our words will arise spontaneously without guilt, reflecting the goodness we have stored away.
God alone utters the perfect word, the speech without fault. By pondering the perfections of Jesus, we come to own the good word of which the Psalmist speaks: “My heart overflows with a good theme; my tongue is ready like the pen of a scribe.” (Ps 45:1)