Let us act in conformity with that saying of the prophet: “I said I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I have set a guard to my mouth; I was dumb, and was humbled, and kept silence from good things.” If, then, according to the prophet, we ought for the sake of silence sometimes to refrain from speaking good words, with how much more caution should we not avoid speaking evil words, lest we incur both the guilt and the penalty of sin? The maintenance of silence being, then, a matter of so great moment, let even the perfect brethren be rarely permitted to speak, though it should be for the purpose of mutual edification, for it is written, “In the multitude of words there shall not want sin”; and again, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” For to speak and to teach is the province of the master, whereas that of the disciple is to be silent and to hear. Therefore, if the brethren want anything from the abbot, let them ask for it with all humility and lowly reverence: so that all unnecessary conversation may be avoided. But as to jests, or idle and jocose words, we utterly condemn them, and forbid the brethren to utter a single word of this kind, under any circumstance.
It is idle to think that by means of words any real communication can ever pass from one man to another. The lips or the tongue may represent the soul, even as a cipher or a number may represent a picture of Hans Memling, but from the moment that we have something to say to each other, we are compelled to hold our peace. And if at such times we do not listen to the urgent commands of silence, invisible though they be, we shall have suffered an eternal loss that all the treasures of human wisdom cannot make good, for we shall have let slip the opportunity of listening to another soul, and of giving existence, be it only for an instant, to our own—and many lives there are in which such opportunities do not present themselves twice.
It is only when life is sluggish within us that we speak, only at moments when reality lies far away, and we do not wish to be conscious of our brethren. And no sooner do we speak than something warns us that the divine gates are closing. Thus it comes about that we hug silence to us and are very misers of it, and even the most reckless will not squander it on the first comer. There is an instinct of the superhuman truths within us which warns us that it is dangerous to be silent with one whom we do not wish to know, or do not love; for words may pass between men, but let silence have had its instant of activity, and it will never efface itself—and indeed the true life, the only life that leaves a trace behind, is made up of silence alone.
– “Conservations” in Lapham’s Quarterly