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Religious Life Today

Part 2 of 4

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

March 25, 1977

IMPRIMATUR: Umberto Cardinal Medeiros, Archbishop of Boston

The Meaning of Religious Obedience

It must seem strange that we should be reflecting on the meaning of such fundamentals of religious life as poverty, chastity and obedience.

Why not talk about their sublimity or dignity, or concentrate on their practice? Why all this preoccupation with the meaning of this and the meaning of that---especially of such prosaic commodities as the three vows?

Well, they were perhaps prosaic sometime ago, but they are anything but that today. Volumes are being written, rewriting the essence of religious life and, in the process, redefining the evangelical counsels, including the virtue and the counsel and vow of obedience.

Accordingly my intention in this conference is to go over precisely these three aspects of obedience---as virtue, counsel and vow---and try to clarify some basic ideas about all of these aspects. I do not think many will dispute the value of such a clarification, especially since there is so much confusion in otherwise learned circles on what should be obvious. It better be obvious to those who are already committed to a lifetime of religious obedience. And it had also better be clear to the hundreds of prospective candidates who are not entering religious communities. Could it be because there are so few who are able to tell them in plain words what religious life really means and, within religious life, what obedience is all about?

Obedience as Precept

As with poverty and chastity, obedience as a precept is accessible to the light of unaided reason. We are not speaking here of obedience to God, as God; but obedience to some human authority which is presumably vested with the right to command.

In simple language, obedience is the precept by which a person should submit to someone who holds legitimate authority in any society.

There are, we notice, certain elements common to all forms of obedience:

  • There is first a society, which is natural, like the family or state, or supernatural, as the Church.

  • Within this society is someone who holds legitimate authority to govern. In fact, a society without authority is another name for chaos. No authority, no society.

  • The members of society, call them by whatever name, are subject to the authority in that community. And they practice obedience insofar as they submit to the directives of the one or those in authority.

Immediately a question arises: how submissive must a person be to be truly obedient? He must do more than carry into external practice what he is told to do. Otherwise he would not even be practicing virtue. There must be internal submission, at least of will and, as far circumstances allow, also of the mind.

So much so that we can set this up as a general principle, that the precept of obedience is as perfect as the will of a person is submissive to the one who holds authority in the name of God. And for the perfection of obedience, there should also be conformity of mind with the mind of the one who commands---as far as this is possible, and always only when there is no question of anything morally wrong or blind obedience to a sinful command.

If we further ask whether the precept of obedience thus described is necessary, the answer is “Yes” and in our day critically necessary to recover if the foundations of the family, of civil society, and of the Church’s well-being are not to be destroyed.

Not the least problem talking this way is that in civil society, the State has in so many ways betrayed the trust that citizens should have in their political rulers. It is not easy to continue obeying civil authority that legitimizes the murder of the unborn, or that sanctions the most flagrant sexual promiscuity. Yet, even in this case, no matter how sorely tried, Christians believe that civil authority---even when it abuses its rights---is still to be obeyed unless it commands what is clearly against the laws of God.

Obedience as Counsel

But obedience is not only a precept binding in conscience on all who belong to a society---and everyone belongs to some society. As a precept, obedience is the indispensable duty of man as a social being.

Not unlike what obtains in poverty and chastity, so too obedience has been raised by Christ to a higher order of dignity that we call a counsel.

What is the counsel of obedience? The counsel of obedience is the invitation that Christ gives to some people to submit to authority, beyond the obligations of the precept. Concretely and practically, this means entering a religious community.

Let us be very clear about what we are saying. Suppose, for the sake of clarity, we compare the three counsels with their corresponding precepts.

According to the precept of poverty, I am forbidden to steal or to covet and, when my neighbor is in need, I must share my possessions to relieve his wants. But according to the counsel of poverty, I do not merely keep my hands and heart of what belongs to another, I deprive myself of material things in order to be more conformed to the poor Christ and to join with other like-minded persons in a voluntary community where nothing is claimed as one’s own, but everything is held in common.

According to the precept of chastity, I am forbidden to arouse or indulge my sexual desire outside the sacred bonds of matrimony. But according to the counsel of chastity, I voluntarily sacrifice---even for a lifetime---all sexual pleasure, including what I have a natural right to in marriage.

So now, according to the precept of obedience, I am bound to accept the orders and directives of those in rightful authorities, whether in the family, or state, or Church, or derivatives of divisions of these. But according to the counsel of obedience, I freely go beyond what I am obliged to do. I voluntarily enter a community to which I am not required to belong. And I consciously and of my own volition say, in effect, “I want to do more than I am beholden to do as a citizen of Church or State. I want to undertake a life of subordination that will assimilate me more to the life and conduct of Jesus Christ.

My motive for entering a community, therefore, is the desire to be more like the Savior who, though God, voluntarily entered our human family, and made Himself all through life and unto death, obedient to His creatures---so that by His obedience a disobedient human race might be redeemed.

There are two short paragraphs in the meditative writings of St. Peter Canisius, doctor of the Church, that deserve to be quoted in full. They are exhortations to obedience after the example of Jesus:

“How obedient was Christ to His Father up to death, how subject to Mary and to Joseph, and even to His torturers, when they clothed Him with purple and later stripped Him. At their command He sat, stood, came forth, and bowed His head when they wanted to crown Him with thorns. Do you also obey others, if it can be done with a good conscience and without sin on your part? Do not contradict or criticize, or resist when commanded no matter how annoying are the things you are asked or told to do.

“How obediently Christ the God-man bowed to the sentence of death by the cross pronounced by a pagan judge! Do you remain obedient tin the irksome judgments of men, no matter how harsh, obedient to death? Do nothing disloyal, but be zealous, keeping in mind, ‘You would have no power against me unless it was given you from above.’”

No doubt this is not easy and no one who has lived in religious life any length of time has any illusions about the degree of humility and the depth of faith that obedience to authority in a religious community demands.

What needs to be stressed and cannot be overemphasized is that the counsel of obedience is a counsel precisely because it seeks to practice more submission to authority than a person is required or bound to do.

What does this “more” consist in?

  • It consists in more regulation of my freedom.

  • It consists in more demands on my time.

  • It consists in more restriction of my independence.

  • It consists in more reliance on the judgment of my community.

  • It consists in more dependence on superiors.

  • It consists in more limitations of my own autonomy.

  • It consists, in a word, in courageously subjecting myself to human beings beyond what I have to, so that I might thus become more like the Savior who preferred obedience to independence and whose whole mortal life was submission to others for the sake of God.

Obedience as Vow

There is still a third dimension to the practice of obedience, beyond precept and counsel. This is the vow of obedience.

Not unlike the vows of poverty and chastity, when I vow obedience I pledge myself to keep the promise I have made to God. But here the pledge is not to the sacrifice of material goods, nor to the sacrifice of marriage and its permissible joys. Here the pledge is to the sacrifice of nothing less than my own autonomous will.

We know what the word autonomous means. It is a combination of two Greek words, autos, which means “self” and nomos, which means “law.” I am autonomous insofar as, under God, I have the free use of my will, and, within the broad limits of the divine law, I may do what I please.

  • when I want to rise and when to retire

  • when I want to read and what I choose to eat;

  • how I want to dress and how I want to work

  • and so of all the myriad options in a normal daily life.

When I take the vow of obedience, I do not, because I cannot, abdicate my natural right to be my own master. But with God’s grace I can, and by my vows I do, relinquish more or less of these options and, what is most important, I promise God by oath that I intend to continue sacrificing these choices according to the directives of superiors and the expectations of my community apostolate.

Although seldom adverted to, and although it may seem too plain to bring into a discussion of the vow of obedience, I think the daily community order is the most practical—and sanctifying—aspect of the vow of obedience.

It is the most practical because in living up to my daily order I am living out my obedience in day to day, and during the day practice of this virtue. It is sanctifying because here especially the minutiae of obedience, often just because they are such little things, press most frequently on my own love of ease or convenience.

What do I mean by the daily order? By the daily order I understand the whole tempo of daily undertakings, of prayer and community life, of work and recreation, of apostolic duties and personal needs, of eating and sleeping, of life in the religious house and outside the community residence—all under the one aspect of order.

This order will differ somewhat from day to day, and work to work. Yet overarching these differences there will still be order, like concentric circles, each containing those smaller than itself and contained by the larger beyond.

Another name for this order could be rhythm, where the operative element is a certain recurrence or periodicity; or harmony, where the main idea is consistency and unison; or finally pattern, where the thing that stands out is planning and proportion.

Why make so much of the daily order as the most familiar expression of our vow of obedience? The reason is part of the mystery of religious life. It is the external form, if you will, of the internal union of hearts and wills that constitutes a flourishing religious community.

Look back over the centuries of apostolic achievement of the great religious families of Christian history. Think of the evangelization of whole continents brought to the knowledge and love of Christ. Think of the missionary enterprises, the schools, and hospitals and homes for the aged, the books and periodicals published, and conversion of nations to the Gospel and the establishment of the great monuments of Christian civilization—wrought by men and women religious since the rise of monasticism to the present day.

Are not these mighty accomplishments a tribute to the obedience of by now tens of thousands of humble followers of Christ who worked together in a daily order that, except for such ordinary, orderly obedience, could never have come to pass?

The vow of religious obedience means many things. But one thing it must mean if the apostolate of religious in the future is to be anything like the glorious apostolate of the past. It must mean that a group of highly motivated followers of Christ bind themselves to the daily tasks of their community and, by living together, praying together, and working together are extending the Kingdom of God in the modern world.

God will bless their humble and obedient togetherness by doing wonders through their hands. This is only to be expected, since the Lord loves obedience and renders it, I do not hesitate to say, miraculously efficacious for the good of souls. If, as Christ promised, He is specially present where even two or three are gathered together in His name, how much more will He grace those gatherings of not two or three, but twenty or thirty or two or three hundred—provided they are gathered together (under obedience) in the name of Jesus, who is Jesus because it was by His obedience that we were saved.

Selectivity, Formation, Structure, and Service

A cluster of practical consequences follow as corollaries to the fact that religious life is of divine origin, and therefore vocations to this life come from God who became man, practiced the counsels and wants others to do the same.

For the sake of convenience, I will give four words that aptly summarize some of these consequences. They are selectivity, formation, structure and service. Let me make a short commentary on each.


Somewhere near the heart of a religious vocation is the idea that God chooses certain people to imitate His own incarnate example of the religious life. Christ’s words that, “I have chosen you, you have not chosen me” are a startling expression of this mystery.

In practice it means that we must come to understand better than we have done so far that a vocation to the religious life is just that: a distinctive call from God, choosing certain individuals for this way of life.

If we take this at its face value, we shall begin to look more closely for what is, after all, the most important element in a genuine vocation, the selective call from God. The best single sign of such a call is the possession of a strong, sound faith—comparable to Abraham’s when he was called by Yahweh; a faith that is simple and clear, that has been tested in the crucible of suffering, that trusts in Providence implicitly, and that seeks, above all, to do His holy will.

Instead of looking for a high Intelligence Quotient (IQ), we should be looking for a high Faith Quotient (FQ). The first without the second will reap a crop of sophisticates, with cultivated intellects, whom I consider largely responsible for the present debacle in religious institutions in Euro-American society.

No one is suggesting that we ignore basic intelligence, or fill our novitiates with simpletons. But if we look over the past history of God’s predilection, it is remarkable how He has favored “the little ones” and, in Mary’s words, has by-passed “the mighty ones to exalt the lowly.”

A sure index of a high FQ is the possession of gifts—even great gifts—joined with humility, which gives promise of capacity for sacrifice. For when God chooses, He also confers graces, among which the grace to be lowly in one’s own estimation is paramount, and the ability to carry the cross is of the essence of being chosen by God.


Correlative with looking for the right things to recognize authentic vocations and sift them from spurious ones, is the need for a supernatural formation of those who, presumably, have a genuine call to the religious life.

A library on the subject is fast accumulating and the Holy See’s extensive document Renovationis causam only points up the fundamental issue involved. Here is how I would state it: Since religious vocations are of divine origin, it is only through divine means that they can be sustained, and only by divine means can the young religious be formed to face the terrifying challenges of the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries.

Among these means, formation in prayer is so basic that nothing else can supply for this foundation. With it, we can look to the future with courageous serenity.

In order to cut through a mountain of literature and state briskly what I think needs doing, I recommend that those in charge of formation honestly ask these questions: Do the young religious have enough time for prayer? Do they have the right climate for prayer? Do they see around them examples of prayer? Do they receive adequate (and accurate) direction in the broad vistas and methods of prayer?

Time for prayer means that those in authority have set up the right priorities; that a fair barometer of how important they consider something is the number of minutes and hours they have provided for its pursuit—here, for the cultivation of the sublime art of communication with God.

The right climate for prayer is an atmosphere of quiet peace, which includes sufficient periods of silence but postulates much more. The peaceful quiet so valuable for prayer is especially the absence of tension between people which, in more prosaic terms, is the presence of understanding charity.

We are moved by example, and those who are being led on the paths of perfection must see around them people who pray. This surrounding may be the immediate residence where they live; but it should include also the whole ambit of the community to which they belong. They cannot be taught one thing in the novitiate or early years of profession, and discover to their horror that all this talk about prayer is really based on a double standard. Those who have the “leisure” which means the very young or very old, yes, they do pray and prayer is certainly encouraged or duly practiced—but maybe because there is nothing “better” or “more useful” to do.

The example of which I speak is the de facto priority given to prayer among religious actively engaged in the apostolate. Is their schedule so crowded, or other interests so absorbing, or their physical and emotional energy so drained that prayer seems have become routine appearance in chapel or a drowsy meditation in the morning before they have really awakened from sleep?

Direction in prayer is many things, but above all it is discernment of personalities and guidance in helping the religious discover what form of converse with God if most effective in producing the fruit of prayer, which is virtue. Prayer is to make me more holy, which is either selfless conformity with the divine will or my holiness is more sanctimonious than real.


It would seem, at first sight, irrelevant to talk about “structure” in connection with religious vocations as divinely originated. Quite the contrary, as a few moments’ reflection should reveal.

We are now witnessing conflict between two contrasting concepts of the religious life. The first view hesitates to say that this life is substantially rooted in the Gospels and, under the Church’s aegis, has a traceable and continuous history as an integral part of Christian tradition. The second view affirms what the first disclaims.

Both views would insist that a religious vocation is from God. But immediately they diverge in spelling out how such a vocation is to be carried out. Is it in a structured community life, with superiors and rules and such empirical signs of a distinctive consecration as, until recently, the faithful had taken for granted and, until the present revolution, had been sanctioned by the ecclesial wisdom of the ages?

Or is it something radically different? Are we now to believe that preconciliar days religious life was formalized in special prayer, dress, interpersonal relationships to protect privacy within closed communities, so that the individual person felt incorporated and spiritually safe in the total group orientation? Are we now to confess that all the apologetics of past generations was written, mistakenly, to support this sexless, impersonal, automatized caste system? And are we to conclude that now a disturbing spirit, a burning fire, is giving religious vocations an entirely different charismatic direction?

On the right answer to these questions depends more than meets the eye. For it is one thing to admit that religious life is somehow of divine vintage, and something very different to add that the life of the counsels is not an amorphous religious urge but, like the Church which Christ founded, it has form and structure and definite principles and determined norms—again not unlike Catholic Christianity which, to say the least, is a visible, organized and hierarchical society.

Those who opt for a structureless religious life are quick to describe the kind of person who still, sadly, migrates toward preconciliar communities. Especially among women, she is the weak, indecisive person who is looking for support for her own inability to be “self-directed.”

This would mean that women like Teresa of Avila, Julie Billiart, Sophie Barat and Francesca Cabrini were foundresses of asylums for spineless individuals who needed custodial spiritual care. How strange that these weak, indecisive people should have created such monuments of achievement in the Catholic Church!


We have one more face to see of the practical consequences to conceiving a religious vocation as of divine Gospel origin. It is “service” and affects nothing less than the character of the apostolate to which active religious communities are presumably dedicated.

A new word has entered the vocabulary at this point. “Open placement” or, more euphemistically, “apostolic discernment,” is the theory that active service of the neighbor by religious men and women should, in the last analysis, be determined not by superiors in consultation with their members, but by the members, no doubt in consultation with their “coordinators” or “administrative officials.”

Implicit in the theory is the conviction that each person, individually led by the Spirit, is best equipped by nature and grace to find that apostolic and particular work which is most conducive to his (or her) fundamental outreach to the people of God.

It is possible to examine this theory on theoretical grounds. But it is perhaps more convincing to ask how it squares with the known character of the Catholic apostolate since apostolic times. That apostolate has been, from the dawn of Christianity, a corporate apostolate. By the year one hundred, one hundred dioceses are known to have been formed along the shores of the Mediterranean. When Henry VII suppressed the English monasteries, over two thousand chantry schools for children were suppressed along with them. And when the communists took over in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, their first target of demolition was all Catholic institutions conducted by religious men and women.

It would be a truism to say that the dioceses in the Catholic Church and the institutions in the Catholic world did come into existence or flourish—nor would they have become the object of opposition by Marxian materialism—because of “open placement,” which really means “no placement” but “open option.”

Roman Catholicism has a very clear idea about the nature of a vocation to service in the Church. It sees it as a call to serve the faithful by a mandate from Christ, of course. But this mandate includes the element of being “sent,” hence receiving a mission from those who exercise authority in the name of Christ. Unless we distort the meaning of words, no one ever really ‘sends’ himself.

Every true religious vocation, therefore, includes the grace of humble obedience to the Church’s authorized representatives. They are not to assign indiscriminately or casually, or without concern for the capacity and even preferences of those they send ‘on a mission.’ But they do the sending as all the evidence of the Gospels assures us that Christ sent those whom He had previously called. Mission, like vocation, is also of divine origin.

An Epilogue

One short paragraph before I close. In the years to come it will be clearer than it is now how much depends on the undisguised convictions that a religious vocation is from God—from God who became man, a priest and religious; from God who, as man, continues to inspire thousands to follow in His path of holiness and service of mankind; and from the God-man whose grace sustains all who are sure that the Church He founded speaks the truth when she teaches that a call to the religious life is a ‘divinely given seed.’ Experience has proven how fruitful this seed, when received in faith and supported by love, can be.

The Value of Silence in the Religious Life

There are some features of the religious life that get much attention these days. Other features are seldom if ever, I don’t say dealt with extensively, but even so much as touched upon. Silence, I think, is one of these currently submerged aspects of a community life of the counsels.

From all you hear and read in some quarters this is not surprising. So far from encouraging silence, spokesmen of the religious life are advocating talking and still more talking. Dialogue is the motto and conversation is to replace silence as the move of the future.

I should add immediately that I respect the good intentions of those who argue against silence. I can also understand some of the reasons for their attitude and the need—long felt but not seriously acted on—of adjusting rules of silence to apostolic needs.

But adjustment is one thing and rejection something else.

My plan is to take this single element of religious life and see it under the double aspect of history and culture. What does the history of religious life show about the practice of silence? Then we turn the focus to contemporary America and ask the hard question: What value does silence still have in our culture, and what adaptations should be made? All the while we keep in mind that our concern is not only with the imperatives of religious commitment or the demands of the apostolate, but also with the personal satisfaction of the individual religious—his (or her) sense of achievement and fulfillment in the service of God.

Silence in the Scriptures

The Bible recommends silence so often, in so many ways, that it seems almost excessive in its praise of not using the tongue. Among the ancients, Judith and Esther, Job and Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah, tell of the beauties of silence and of how it pleases the Lord to receive from His faithful the sacrifice of words unspoken and of thoughts that, for love of Him, are not expressed.

But the great revelation on the meaning of silence came only in the person of Christ. He was the omnipotent Word of God whose utterance made the universe, yet He came into the world as the Infans, the speechless one, and remained so months after His birth.

Until the age of twelve we have no recorded words of the Savior and after that, silence for another eighteen years at Nazareth.

During His short public life He spoke often, but He also did not speak with men during the long hours He spent in quiet conversation with His Father.

At two dramatic points in His passion, His silence spoke with an eloquence that will be remembered for all time. He did not answer the accusations leveled against Him before Pilate and He did not say a word while Herod and the king’s court mocked Him as an ignorant fool.

No wonder the apostle James made the astounding statement that ‘the only man who could reach perfection would be someone who never said anything wrong’ (Jas. 3:2); he would be able to control every part of himself. James knew. He had seen Christ in action and watched the dialectic between the Savior’s speech and silence. Christ, he discovered, revealed Himself as perfect man in both way: whenever He spoke, he had the right thing to say; when He was silent, He refrained from saying anything wrong.

Silence in the History of Religious Life

Historians of language point out that nothing more surely reflects a change or development of culture than the new meanings attached to old words, as a new civilization comes into being.

Among the ancient Romans, silentium essentially meant the absence of noise or sound. There was the silence of night and of quiet repose. Ovid wrote of the dead as “the silent ones” and Vergil spoke of the “silent shades” of those in the grave.

Then came Christianity, and all of a sudden things changed. The earliest exhortation to silence outside the Scriptures came in two letters of Ignatius of Antioch at the turn of the first century, urging the followers of Christ to imitate His practice of silence. “It is better,” he said, “for a man to be silent and be a Christian than to talk and not be one.” His argument was the professing the faith in a pagan society called for an extraordinary restraint of the tongue, notably through patience.

— Eastern Monasticism

The origins of monasticism in the East and West reveal so strong a desire for silence that some have mistakenly looked upon the “Desert Fathers” as social misfits who ran away from a world they were unable or unwilling to cope with. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When Antony of Egypt in the third century entered the solitude of the Thebaid, his motive was to pray more effectively. We know from his classic life by Athanasius that Antony did plenty of talking in sermons and counsels to his brethren. But he always was particular with whom he engaged in conversation. His homely comparison to bring out this preference is perfect. On one occasion a military officer urged him to stay with the soldiers after Antony had preached to them about salvation. The hermit replied, “Just as fish exposed for any length of time on dry land die, so monks go to pieces when they loiter among you and spend too much time. So we must return to the mountain as fish to the sea. Otherwise we lose the sight of the life of the spirit.”

If the value of silence among hermits was to foster recollection, its practice in the earliest religious communities was intended to help bridle the passions. Legislating for Eastern monasticism even to this day, St. Basil prescribed, “The practice of silence is useful for novices. For if they tame their tongue, they will give good evidence of their self-control, and they will be able to learn most attentively from those who use the word wisely.”

This was shrewd counsel. Basil assumed that the first requisite for learning is listening—and therefore not talking; and that among the passions in need of discipline, the yen to speak should be controlled from the first days of the novitiate. He further implied that only a person trained in not speaking could later on be trusted with speaking wisely, and be worth hearing because he had something to say.

— St. Benedict

Western monasticism, beginning with St. Benedict, is often characterized as community-centered and social, where the Eastern has always been more personal and ascetical. It is not surprising, then, that Benedict should have made a great deal of silence and speech in his famous Rule. He joined the two together in a synthesis that no one has yet improved upon, and placed the whole matter of communication by vocal sound into the context of humility.

Benedict’s teaching on the subject is the bedrock of Christian spirituality on the use of one’s voice in social intercourse. First recall that he had twelve degrees of humility, of which the ninth through the eleventh treat of silence and the use of the tongue.

The ninth degree of humility is that a monk refrain his tongue from speaking, keeping silence until a question is asked of him, as the Scripture shows, “The talkative man shall not be directed upon the earth.”

The tenth degree of humility is that when a monk speaks he does so gently and without laughter, humbly and gravely, with few and reasonable words, and that he be not noisy in his speech as it is written, “A wise man is known in a few words.”

The genius of Benedict was to have shown how close the connection between silence and humility is. The two are inseparable. He understood that the reticence which reflects humility is neither sterile nor negative. It actively motivates a religious first to distinguish between what is worth saying and what serves only to inflate his ego, and then to act on the distinction by speaking only to benefit the neighbor and never to serve his pride.

Benedict was too wise to expect anyone only to answer questions and not take the initiative in dialogue. But he also knew, as the previous degree of humility makes clear, that each religious as a person wants to be distinctive. His natural impulse must be curbed, so “a monk (should) do nothing except what is authorized by the common Rule or the example of his seniors.” How does he decide when to speak and when to keep silent? By asking himself if what he intends to say is consistent with the life he has undertaken or corresponds to what the older and tried members of the community talk about in conversation.

Uninhibited laughter is only another form of uncontrolled speech. They generally go together. The man who talks too much is often an inveterate jokester, whether he sets the pace for others or allows them to make him into a congenital laughter.

Again quiet humor or a ready wit was not in question. What Benedict opposed was fatuous gaiety that renders a person unfit for the grave affairs of life. The impression of being constantly amused, which some people put on, is worse than empty. It is misleading. “Nothing more surely reveals true misery,” Benedict wrote elsewhere, “than fictitious joy.”

More than once in conferences to his brethren, he suggested that the spirit of perfection was inconsistent with the ways of the world. If a religious wants to play the role of polished entertainer in one company, he will find it hard to behave like a rough ascetic in another. Dom Paul Delatte tells the story of a possessed nun at Loudan who owed the fits of possession to a habit of high frivolity to which she used to give herself. There was no curing her condition until she got over this excessive gaiety.

Not satisfied with prescribing restraint in speech and laughter, Benedict summarized that whole of a monk’s deportment by saying it should be reasonable. Another term would be “mature,” where the maturity implies completeness of growth and development in one’s dealings with others. By contrast it is not childish or puerile.

The immature religious is garrulous. He gives opinions without being asked; he anticipates with ready answers inquiries that are never made; he insists on talking long after others have caught on that silence was demanded; he goes on and on with his story. It never dawns on him that the secret of being tiresome is in telling everything.

— From Francis to Ignatius

Consistent with the monastic spirit, Benedict wanted his followers to practice silence as a means of self-discipline and in the interests of community life. A new dimension entered religious life with the rise of two strongly apostolic orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans. Each contributed a different element, yet both were directly concerned with the apostolate.

Francis of Assisi was the most charitable of men, but he could not tolerate idleness. His first biographer, Thomas of Celano, relates how Francis ‘allowed himself hardly a moment of time to pass unused.’ Once when he was staying in a cell at Siena, he called his sleeping companions one night to tell them he had just received a heavenly communication. He had asked the Lord to tell him how he could tell if he were truly a servant of God. He was informed, “You are then truly my servant when you think, speak and do holy things.”

Applying this norm to his brethren, Francis warned them especially against useless conversation. “Much profit from prayer flows away,” he argued, “because of idle words after prayer.” To put teeth into his warning, he ordered that any of the brothers who catches himself speaking idle or useless words “shall be bound immediately to admit his guilt and say a Pater Noster for each unnecessary word spoken.”

For all his gentleness, Francis was a sworn enemy of laziness. This worked both ways. His friars were not to indulge in vain talk in order not to waste time; and they should work hard so that “the heart and tongue may not wander to unlawful things or idleness.” A wagging tongue loses precious time, and keeping busy avoids silly conversation.

Dominic was more of a legislator than Francis. Also the apostolate of his men was more intellectual. As professional preachers, his friars were to master the sacred sciences. From this need arose the most important innovation in the daily schedule of a Dominican priory—the substitution of study and mental prayer for manual labor.

St. Dominic, therefore, made silence an essential feature of his way of life. The Constitutions he drafted were very demanding. “Let our brothers,” they read, “keep silence in the cloister, dormitory, cells, refectory and oratory of the brethren, except perhaps they speak something in a low voice, and in whispers. Elsewhere they can speak with special permission.”

Plenty of opportunity was given for recreation at appointed times, but during ‘regular order’ the atmosphere necessary for effective study was to be one of silence.

When St. Ignatius came to organize the Society of Jesus, he borrowed many ideas from his predecessors—including their insistence on silence. But he changed the focus. His men, and those whom they would train, were to ‘maintain themselves in peace and true inward humility.’ Then a typical Ignatian distinction, ‘Silence will be a proof of this when silence is to be kept.’ But there would also be the need for communication in the apostolate. So, ‘When they are suppose to speak, this peace and humility will be seen in the urbanity and spiritual tone of their language, the modesty of their countenance, the dignity of their walk and whole bearing, all of which should be free of any sign of impatience or pride.

Jesuit silence might mean physical abstention from speech; and then all the spiritual counsel since the Epistle of James would apply as ever before. But the ‘silence’ could also be vocal or, for that matter, perceptible in a thousand ways, provided a man spoke or acted in a way that showed he had peace of mind and internal humility of spirit.

Religious institutes that came into existence since the time of Ignatius have all put into their existing rule or constitutions some provision for speech control—if only to say, as one modern community of active sisters says, that ‘Silence is to be regarded as an exercise of piety and of great importance to foster union with God.”

Even secular institutes, though not technically religious orders or congregations, have recognized that a certain amount of silence is necessary for a successful apostolate.

Silence as Witness in American Culture

Critics of silence in religious communities argue against it as inconsistent with the American way of life.

If the enjoyment of liberty is typical of our American ethos, then insistence on silence is said to be a denial of liberty.

It is charged with inhibiting a fundamental human instinct, the desire to speak. It prevents the communication of ideas from one person to another. It forbids, instead of encourages, the interpersonal relations so necessary at any time but especially in our day. It tends to isolate one person from another. It turns a personality in on itself to close it off from the real world around. It serves to develop neurotic personalities that are forever studying their own psyche instead of opening their hearts to the people they meet. In a word, it contradicts the first premise on which our culture is built, which is freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of speech.

As I read such criticisms of a practice that has the sanction of Scripture and a history as old as religious community life, I ask what provoked such a strong reaction.

It is partly explainable by the sometimes wooden interpretation that used to be put on the rule of silence. Some of the stories you heard were undoubtedly apocryphal, but even if a fraction of them were true it was still unfortunate that basic charity was at times violated in deference to a literal and unbending practice of silence.

That is why renewal was called for and adaptation was mandated by the Holy See.

But I feel the grounds for continued agitation against any required silence in religious communities run deeper than reaction against extremes. It seems to me, as I read and listen to the critics that they are voicing a new philosophy of life. It is new, that is, in Catholic and conventual circles, though by no means new in the larger ones of American and Western thought.

It is implicit in our whole system of communications. Americans are forever communicating. We have more telephones, television sets, multi-million circulation magazines and newspapers, than any other country in the world, and our statisticians keep giving us great figures to show how developed a country we are, compared, for example, with underdeveloped cultures (as we call them) like India or Pakistan.

No one is sorry we have all this communication, but someone should challenge those who speak of it as an unmitigated blessing.

Philosophies usually follow conduct. I am persuaded that an ideology is growing up which says, in effect if not in so many words, that the only valid (or valuable) source of knowledge is another human being.

When I see people rooted before a television set for hours per day, or reading Time or Newsweek from cover to cover every week, I conclude they depend on these media to tell them what is happening in the world and to tell them what to think.

The practice of silence should not exclude reasonable access to these and similar sources of information, but its premises run very deep. They affirm the existence of a Reality which transcends space and time. Communicating with this Reality may look like isolation from reality when a person is not physically talking or listening to someone speak.

But actually this apparent silence is communication, satisfying communication, and so important in religious communities that without it, authentic religious life is impossible.

The so-called mixed religious life is the harmonious union of the contemplative life with apostolic activity. Every religious is supposed to attain a deep spirit of prayer and the interior life. Neither of these is possible without recollection, and recollection is impossible without some habitual observance of silence. Silence should vary with the purpose of the community and the particular needs of the apostolate. But something like the ordinary silence prescribed by the Constitutions of religious communities to date cannot be removed from these constitutions without cutting at the vitals of all that religious life is supposed to be.

I will go further. What this country needs more than anything else is men and women who think, and whose thought has been nourished by frequent, quiet intercourse with God during the day, made possible through periodic silence. They need our witness of this quiet contact with Divinity by seeing us practice and having us teach them the hidden power of silence.

Silence, after all, is not abstention from speech but selectivity of whom I am speaking with. If as a religious I wish to inspire others to use their speech more wisely, I must myself have learned from experience that the most profitable use of one’s powers of communication is in communicating with God. From conversation with Him I can turn to conversation with men, and then the speech will be what God wants it to be, the communication of the truth. I will indeed be telling others what God has first told me—so that when I talk to people it will be God speaking through me. Like Christ, I too will not be speaking of myself, but be sharing with the world only what the Truth, who became man in the person of Christ, has been sharing with me.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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