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All writers on the spiritual life uniformly recommend, nay, command under penalty of total failure, the practice of silence. And yet, despite this there is perhaps no rule for spiritual advancement more inveighed against, by those who have not even mastered its rudiments, than that of silence. Even under the old Dispensation its value was known, taught, and practised. Holy Scripture warns us of the perils of the tongue, as "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" ( Proverbs 18:21 ). Nor is this advice less insisted on in the New Testament ; witness : "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man " (St. James 3:2 sq.). The same doctrine is inculcated in innumerable other places of the inspired writings. The pagans themselves understood the dangers arising from unguarded speech. Pythagoras imposed a strict rule of silence on his disciples ; the vestal virgins also were bound to severe silence for long years. Many similar examples could be quoted.

Silence may be viewed from a threefold standpoint:

  • As an aid to the practice of good , for we keep silence with man, in order the better to speak with God, because an unguarded tongue dissipates the soul, rendering the mind almost, if not quite, incapable of prayer. The mere abstaining from speech, without this purpose, would be that "idle silence" which St. Ambrose so strongly condemns.
  • As a preventative of evil . Senica, quoted by Thomas à Kempis complains that "As often as I have been amongst men, I have returned less a man" (Imitation, Book I, c. 20).
  • The practice of silence involves much self-denial and restraint, and is therefore a wholesome penance , and as such is needed by all.
From the foregoing it will be readily understood why all founders of religious orders and congregations, even those devoted to the service of the poor, the infirm, the ignorant, and other external works, have insisted on this, more or less severely according to the nature of their occupations, as one of the essential rules of their institutes. It was St. Benedict who first laid down the clearest and most strict laws regarding the observance of silence. In all monasteries, of every order, there are special places, called the "Regular Places" (church, refectory, dormitory etc.) and particular times, especially the night hours, termed the "Great Silence", wherein speaking is more strictly prohibited. Outside these places and times there are usually accorded "recreations" during which conversation is permitted, governed by rules of charity and moderation, though useless and idle words are universally forbidden in all times and places. Of course in active orders the members speak according to the needs of their various duties. It was perhaps the Cistercian Order alone that admitted no relaxation from the strict rule of silence, which severity is still maintained amongst the Reformed Cistercians (Trappists) though all other contemplative Orders ( Carthusians, Carmelites, Camaldolese etc.) are much more strict on this point than those engaged in active works. In order to avoid the necessity of speaking, many orders (Cistercians, Dominicans, Discalced Carmelites etc.) have a certain number of signs, by means of which the religious may have a limited communication with each other for the necessities that are unavoidable.

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Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

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