Speak Only if You Can Improve Upon the Silence

by Quentin Schultze

Why did the monastics sometimes take vows of silence.   Is silence better than speech?  Is there anything fundamentally wrong with speech?

It’s probably true that if we are busily talking we might be less inclined to listen to others. To observe them. To pay attention to them. Monologue does not guarantee intimacy. (Does dialogue? That’s a topic for another essay.)

If we don’t listen to others we can’t get to know them as distinct persons with their own hopes and fears. We can’t love them because we fail to truly know them and how to serve them. Mutual listening is a kind of communicative foreplay for relationship.

The ear is just as important for intimacy as are the eye and the hand. By listening to others we can learn to caress them in our minds and hearts. To inch toward being one with them.

Perhaps human silence is not really empty. Maybe silence speaks in a special, sometimes mysterious language of the heart. We can then hear the birds. The wind. Our own thoughts. Who we really are. Whose we are.

Could it be that we fear silence because we fear ourselves — what we might think or feel or desire? Oh, lonely solitude! What is beyond your void? What ghost of ages past speaks through your discomforting resonance?

What if our silence is actually an opportunity to listen? What if silence is always important because someone has already spoken, long or shortly before we open our mouths and move our lips? What if the creator of the universe “speaks” through the creation? Could we even identify let alone understand that “speech” if we are noisy rather than silent? What does it mean to “listen up”? Why are we content to “listen here”?

Strange possibility: We in high-tech societies are becoming media-rich and relationship-poor. We are noise-oppressed. Silence-deprived. Love-challenged. Spiritually shallow beings in a darkening sea with rising miasma. Do the words “I love you” mean much today?

Maybe we can learn from the monastics how to regain the love in silence, to speak only if we can improve upon the silence. Maybe such silence can equip us for tasting heaven on earth, with open hearts to hear beyond our own words.

“Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,/ Take me to You, imprison me, for I/ Except You enthral me, never shall be free,/ Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.” –John Donne, Sonnet 14

To improve upon our self-induced silence, shall we first listen up?

— Quin

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