January 14, 2017

The Eloquence of Silence

By Alice von Hildebrand *
The Eloquence of Silence

There is a Latin proverb worth meditating upon: “si tacuises philosophus manssises.”

It eloquently tells us that our tongue can easily betray our lack of wisdom and our ignorance. All of us have ample reasons to think that had we remained silent, we would have been the beneficiary. Relatively few of us have reasons to say: I should have raised my voice and did not do it: when we should have defended an innocent person viciously attacked, when a dangerous error or heresy was being propagated. But on the whole, I believe that too much talking is the source of very grave harms done to others and to ourselves. Plato was right when he warned us that man is his own worst enemy.
Before briefly examining the many harmful uses of our tongue (a very small organ that as St. James remarks in his Epistle) which can cause so much harm, let us recall Iago, whose tongue poisons Othello and leads him to murder. Some remarks are called for.

Man is a creature, a weak and imperfect being much in need of help and who easily forgets why we have been given a tongue: “go and teach all nations.” Alas, how many of us recall this when we open our mouths. How wise are those who, before speaking, reflect, be it only for a moment, whether what they are going to say will benefit others (to communicate important information) or will enrich the hearers: sharing our knowledge of crucial truths, when a friendly interchange is the theme, or whether it is empty chatter which almost inevitably will spread scandals, harm the reputation of others, and distract us and others from what truly matters. Saint Teresa of Avila writes in her autobiography that when she was present, the reputation of the absent was never damaged: when we have nothing good to say about a particular person, silence is called for.

I am far from denying that there are many cases in which speaking is “the thema Christi”. It is the mission of preachers, of teachers, and of parents. There are things which we are duty bound to share: warning others of dangers whether spiritual or physical; but alas, rare are those who, before speaking, think for one moment whether the words which crave to flow out of their mouths will in fact benefit and enrich them. This is something that the great Saint Bruno, the founder of the Carthusian order in the eleventh century, understood so deeply. Is it by accident that the order he founded is the only one in the Church, so I have been told, that has never been reformed because it never was deformed, which, alas, happened to others? Silence can be an eloquent teacher. But we might ask the legitimate question: why has God given us a tongue? Obviously because it has a meaning in our lives; but alas, we often fail to understand its meaning, as the Evil one always encourages us to misuse our tongue for empty chatter or slander. Our tongue is given us to spread truth, to say words of love to others, to inform them of facts and things which are important for them to know. How wise it would be if when getting up in the morning, we would make a brief prayer begging God to give us the grace of using our tongue for his glory.

A lovely episode is related in the life of St. Louis of France, the greatest king of this great nation. He had invited several guests for dinner; among them was St. Thomas Aquinas, one of his great contemporaries in a century that has given us a rich harvest of saints. The conversation was lively but there was one person who never uttered a word: the “dumb ox,” as St. Thomas Aquinas was called. After the meal, King Louis gently remarked to him that when people are gathered together, the theme of Christ is a kind interchange of words. Laudable as silence is, there are cases when it can be a subtle lack of charity. King St. Louis understood this. On the other hand, when he visited Italy and came to the monastery of the Franciscans, where St. Bonaventure was the superior, he found the latter doing the dishes for his brothers. The two saints met, looked at each other for a time, and then King Louis left without having said a word, and yet they had a rich interchange: their common ardent love of God and of His Church. May we be given the grace of knowing when He wants us to speak and when silence is most pleasing to Him. This is an art that the saints have learned.

There are very different types of silence.

There is the eloquence of silence when the heart is too full to find adequate words. This applies when one received a great grace which overwhelms one to such an extent that words are totally inadequate. It can also be when one receives a declaration of love from a person that one deeply loves: that this gift is given to one. It is the fulfillment of one’s deepest human desires and renders one dumb – but the eloquent dumbness of gratitude. The human vocabulary, in spite of the genius of great literary writers, is gravely anemic. I recall witnessing a sunset in Sedona, Arizona of such overwhelming beauty that both my husband and myself stood at the window so moved that tears came to your eyes. This splendor which lasts only a few minutes is both a message and a calling. It is so glorious that it promises eternity while lasting only for a very short time, reminding us that we are still on this earth, the prisoners of time, and challenging us to use every moment of this ever vanishing time to prepare ourselves for eternity, when the beauty perceived will last forever.

This is a long chapter and I am quite conscious that I cannot treat it adequately. I will just allude to the veiled testimony of those who have received extraordinary graces. But on a purely natural level, many of us, hopefully most of us, have also experienced moments when we are so overwhelmed by an event, by a communication, that we are speechless. It can be a declaration of love; it can be to hear about the heroism of some people, it can be by being informed that God has performed a miracle – the healing of a very dear person whose death seemed imminent and who was healed in the twinkling of an eye, acknowledged by doctors that his or her healing cannot be explained by natural causes, and deserves to be called a “miracle.” A caveat is called for: experts in this domain constantly warn us that to be called a miracle we need the approval of the Church, for there are very many unexplainable natural phenomena which are not supernaturally caused. This is a domain in which being incompetent I leave to “experts.”

There is the silence of poverty: there are, alas, some persons whose spiritual horizon is so poor that it is strictly limited to basic human needs and cravings. But soon the topic is inevitably exhausted. There is nothing to be said.

There is the silence of shyness: I leave it to psychologists to speak about this interesting topic, for clearly there are very different types of shyness, but in all cases one hesitates about talking because one feels either that silence is more eloquent, or because the person facing one has the talent to render us dumb. St. Therese of Lisieux was very shy but this reserve was a rich message. Secrets of the king should be kept “secret.”

The silence of shyness can have several causes: insecurity, consciousness of one’s immaturity, displeasure about the questions, finding them indiscreet, being ill at ease when facing a total stranger, or finding the person addressing oneself as indiscreet or directly unattractive or pushy.

Worth meditating upon is the silence of Christ when questioned by Pilate. Once again, I prefer to refer to spiritual writers who certainly had words of wisdom to share with us. Yet, when asked whether He was the Son of God, He did answer: for truth was at stake.

There is, alas, the icy silence of hatred: one considers that the other person is not worth responding to because one despises him, and there may be cases in which he deserves to be looked down upon. There are also cases when silence is an expression of disdain, contempt, and clearly means to offend: you are too “low” in my esteem; to speak to you would be to honor someone whom I despise.

Another domain which also calls for silence is when a message is communicated to us as a secret, and this information should be kept unknown until the right moment has come to unveil it. This has happened frequently in the history of the Church, and has a deep meaning. God knows when is the tempus acceptabile. Lucia of Fatima did receive communications from Heaven that she kept to herself because she was told to.

There are also people placed in highly sensitive posts in a state and whose silence is a strict obligation, for revealing their knowledge could be the cause of much harm. Let me repeat: how wise is the Latin proverb quoted above. Let me also mention briefly professional secrets, such as those known by medical doctors. St. James told us that our tongue should be guided by loving wisdom. We should pray daily that God to guide our tongue before we speak. Christ’s words that we shall be held responsible for every single word that we have uttered should be the theme of homilies, yet I do not recall ever hearing one that reminded us of this strict obligation.

There is the silence of secrecy: let me limit myself to secrets – very personal information – that a friend shares with us with the urgent request that it would be communicated to absolutely no one else. A cynic is likely to inform us that this very request is most unwise: these “secrets” are those which are the most tempting to share with others; it is often made in a subtle, indirect way, but, alas, is in fact a betrayal.

From the sins of the tongue, deliver me, my Lord.

How very different and how meaningful that the one person closest to the Holy Virgin, Saint Joseph, never uttered a word; that is, St. Luke never mentioned a single one: his heart was so full that words were clearly inadequate. We know practically nothing about him except that the angels informed him that what was in the Holy Virgin’s womb was the fruit of the Holy Spirit. He is informed that he should save the Holy Virgin and her Son from the murderous hands of Herod and bring her to Egypt. He is informed, once again in dreams, that Herod was dead and he could go back to the Holy Land, but also told he should move to Nazareth. We know he was a carpenter. Clearly he was dead when Christ began his public mission, but we know nothing about his death. There are no adequate words in the human vocabulary to reveal the greatness of the role assigned to him. Silence alone is adequate, but in eternity we shall be given a deep insight into the greatness and sublimity of this most silent of all saints. Christ refuses to respond to one question of Pilate, who, irritated, reminds him that he has the power to free him or to condemn him. Then Christ reminds him that this power was not his own but given to him, telling him clearly that he was responsible for his decisions and morally commanded to use it justly. 

The eloquence of silence: for it is only in listening that we can open our hearts and our minds to God. This is something eloquently expressly by the loving child Samuel in the temple when he uttered the golden words: Speak, O Lord, your servant listens. At the end of the day how many of us can say: I have listened to His voice, and then followed His commands. There is one thing that I am convinced of: the Evil one has concluded an alliance with modern technology to wage war on silence. When I was a child and entered a store there was no radio blasting what is now called “music.” Today when you call a number and are put on hold and immediately our ears are blasted by what once again is called “music.”

How right was Plato when he wrote 24 centuries ago that moral decadence begins with music. How typical of decadence to call “noise” music: brutal sounds that systematically prevent us from “listening” and “thinking.” Am I wrong in saying that saints have been great listeners to God’s words, as little Samuel taught us? For if there is a physical law of gravity, there is a more dangerous one, and one occasioning many more “falls”: the spiritual law of gravity. This sheds light on the role that prayer should play in our lives, for it is “listening to God’s voice.”

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.