Silence is (Sometimes) Golden

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July 1, 2013 by lucieromarin

Silence has many uses and fosters many virtues. No one became ever became a saint while filled with interior noise. This, however, does not mean that every use of silence is commendable, and I’ve been thinking for some time about the intersection of holy silence and …well, less holy silence in my life and in the lives of my friends.

Fallen human nature being what it is, people injure one another, and that includes those people who purport to be religious. (I say ‘purport’, because religion is the virtue by which we give to God the good that is due to Him. It’s an annexed virtue of justice. If you’re doing ill deeds with hand or tongue, you’re not giving God the good which is due to him, so you’re not religious, no matter how many prayers you recite. Just saying!)

How, then, are we supposed to respond to injuries caused us by fellow church-goers? I’ve come to notice one strain of thought (and I’m happy to report that this one, for a change, is not predominant amongst trads, though you will find it there, too), which is something along these lines: “Don’t talk about these things. I’m sorry you’ve suffered, but think of the saints. Blessed Mary of the Cross never publicly spoke against her bishop; she kept silence. Think of the evils in the world and preserve peace in your community.”

Now, to a limited extent, the ability to bite your tongue when someone annoys you or does you a mild wrong is nothing more than a sign of maturity; your best friend at work is not the person constantly bad-mouthing other people or flying off the handle at the slightest provocation. You certainly can’t work in any form of customer service if you can’t handle bad manners! What we have here, though, in the advocating of complete silence as a kind of spiritual duty in response to injury, is something else. Not only does it put the whole burden of peace on the injured party; it implies that there is some kind of moral defect involved in wishing to discuss wrongdoing in the first place. Furthermore, it turns a Christian community into the wrong kind of refuge for sinners. We’re meant to be a refuge in the sense that anyone, no matter what his past, can be invited to make amends, to begin again, and to learn to see himself as a potential saint. The kind of refuge, however, in which persons can persist in their sin because they will never be called to repentance, partly because the injured parties will never tell anyone what they’ve done, is a cult.

Now, I know that St Mary of the Cross did not speak ill of her bishop, and I also know that St Gerard Majella chose not to defend himself when he was falsely accused. But several things must be noted. First, the bishop was St Mary’s legitimate superior; he made a poor judgement, but he wasn’t wrong to be making a judgement in the first place. She acted out of respect for legitimate authority, which authority is not held by Random Layman. Second, in neither case was there any cover-up.  It is true that neither saint said a single negative word about their detractors, but it is also true that they never concealed their detractors’ actions; they let themselves be vindicated by the eventual manifestation of truth. They did not refuse vindication. Most important of all, both saints freely chose their response. No one made them choose silence; St Gerard, in fact, was asked by his superiors to defend himself; he chose to refuse that request.

In other words, the fact that a few saints made a difficult choice freely does not mean that someone else can tell you that you have a moral obligation to speak to no one about a wrong done to you, just for the sake of an imagined community reputation. Peace is the tranquillity of order; where people are forcing themselves to endure someone else’s defects because their superiors don’t want a fight, you do not have true order, so you do not have peace.

Who, then, can you talk to? I’ve just argued against suppression; now I’m going to argue against gossip-mongering, politicking and vengeance. You know why I’m going to argue against them? It’s not just because they’re sinful, (and no one really needs me to explain that – we all know it!) it’s because they’re bad strategy. If someone has hurt you once, and you spend the next five years trashing him to anyone who will listen, not only does it mean that people will get bored of listening to you; it also means that he owns you; he commands your time and your tongue. You go round trashing someone, it gives her a chance to fight back, and what if she’s better at it than you are? Eventually, it makes other people wonder if you are actually the nutcase, especially if they don’t see what you’ve seen; you end up no better than those poor crazy people who can’t talk about anything than the evils of Vatican II. Listeners who would sympathise end up just wishing you’d get over it.

There’s another reason I think of it as bad strategy, and I’m pretty sure it’s part of the reason why the saints chose silence over speech. See, in these situations, the evil isn’t really the person; the evil is the evil. You focus on the person, it turns into a discussion about the person. It turns into one of those ranting exchanges you see on weird blogs, where, after the five hundredth comment, the central point has been lost. The saints chose to focus on the evil, rather than on the evil-doer. Then they concluded that Our Lord could deal with the evil better than they could, so they left it to Him. This is not the same as believing that Christians in general have a moral duty never to address wrongs or to protect the good names of wrongdoers.

So; you have the right to talk about the things that hurt; you just need to find the most efficient (for want of a better word) and classy way to do this. Tell the priest who can act upon the information. Talk it over with your director. Keep a journal (and then become famous so it can be published posthumously to great acclaim and ultimate vindication.) The fact that you don’t need to talk about it on national television doesn’t mean you can’t talk about it with friends. Turn the experience into poetry or great literature or music – but instead of pursing it in a spirit of vengeance, create something to speak to and heal other people who know what you mean. Better still, invest so much time in the other parts of your life that make you happy that one day you wonder why you ever thought that person was important.

Personally, I find it much, much more difficult to keep silent about injuries done to my friends, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be reconciled to those injustices. But they, too, have made their choices.


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