Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Tis better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. Abraham Lincoln. And on the same subject, I have often regretted my speech, but never my silence. Publilius Syrus. From Thomas Carlyle:Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. And lastly, also from Carlyle: A man's silence is wonderful to listen to.

Having felt somewhat akin to a fool for the last few weeks, and generally guilty of talking far too much, I decided earlier today that I would abstain from speech for a day or two. I wouldn't talk, unless it was absolutely necessary.

I've done this before. Back in the 90's, I often traveled to Florida for a month at a time and avoided talking. I could spend an entire day speechless, save for an occasional please or thank you. I didn't know why I did it, but I realized the silence had good uses. Much later, I heard about silence fasts, as practiced by many Eastern and Western religions, and I met a former Trappist monk and writer who had spent four years in the order and, by his own recollection, had not uttered more than 1000 words aside from prayer.

Now I do it because I find myself too easily moved to emotions and confessions bordering on the foolish. If I keep my peace for a day or two, try not to influence others' actions, avoid giving unwanted and unneeded advice, I have a better chance of staying out of harm's way and remaining uninvolved in things that do not and should not involve me.

Part of it, also, is based on the inescapable fact that right now everything I touch seems to turn bad. My decisions, too often foolish and ill-advised, have brought me (and others) nothing worth remembering. Plus I am tired and wont to utter gibberish.

I'm in good company, though. Throughout history men and women have forsworn speech as a way to attain a level of spirituality unavailable to talkers. Recently, I reread the words of Father Daniel, the Abbott of a group of Cistercian monks whose order has been on Caldey Island in a monastery established in the 6th century. He wrote, "To be a Cistercian is just to get on with life as it presents itself from moment to moment, to try to be ‘here’. That can be quite a job. So often I think about yesterday and plan for tomorrow. In fact, what it comes to is the ‘here and now’, to be receptive and available. That is for me to open my heart for the presence of life... to my own self, to be open for the presence of God. All the practices throughout the day helps me to open the door of my heart."

Certainly this is good advice. I often treat the present as an unwanted guest, so eager am I to be in the past or the future. And when the present is less than agreeable, my immediate reaction will be sadness, anger, resentments. Better to be Thoreau-like and accept that "Silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointment."

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