Whether it’s a monk only talking to complain or SNL’s skit about a monastery’s Super Bowl bets there quite a few jokes out there concerning silence in the monastery. But why should monks be quiet? Why is that even a thing? Well, according to chapter six of The Rule of Saint Benedict the answer is actually pretty simple:
‘”[I]n much speaking thou shalt not avoid sin”‘ (Saint Benedict pg. 25).
I’m sure we’ve all said something really stupid because we weren’t thinking. (I know I have!) So what’s the easiest way to prevent your monks from constantly putting their feet in their mouths? By telling them to keep quiet of course! After all, idle talking can lead to sinful thoughts and sinful thoughts lead to sinful actions and sinful actions lead to an eternity in hell.
However, this doesn’t mean that most monks never spoke or talked to other members of the community. Later in The Rule Saint Benedict gives instructions on when monks can talk to each other and when they shouldn’t. Even in this chapter, Saint Benedict gives guidelines for conversations. For example, “if anything has to be asked of the Superior, let it be done with all humility and…reverence” (Saint Benedict pg. 25).
Saint Benedict uses this chapter not only to warn his monks about sinful thoughts but about “bad speech” (Kardong) in general. Bad speech also includes “buffoonery [and] idle words” (Saint Benedict pg. 25). In Terrence G. Kardong’s commentary on The Rule, the Latin text is translated as “crude jokes and idle talk” (Kardong). Either way, Saint Benedict doesn’t want his monks saying things that “move [you] to laughter” (Saint Benedict pg. 25) or that are “aimed at arousing laughter” (Kardong). (I’ll note that these quotations are different translations of the same sentence.) Kardong speculates that Saint Benedict wasn’t crazy about laughter not because he was a killjoy, but because “much ancient comedy was obscene” (Kardong). Given that monks are supposed to be chaste, it is understandable that Saint Benedict wouldn’t want dirty (thus sinful) jokes told in his monasteries.
The Rule’s chapter about silence isn’t just about avoiding saying sinful things or laughing at things holy monks shouldn’t. It’s also about learning when to talk and when to listen:
“For it becometh the master to speak and to teach, but it beseemeth the disciple to be silent and to listen” (Saint Benedict pg. 25).
Like students listening to their teachers, monks should listen to their abbot. The abbot is supposed to be an “inextinguishable fount of wisdom” (Kardong). And the only way to truly listen and learn is to keep quiet.
The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.
(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)
Benedictus, and Terrence G. Kardong. Benedicts Rule: a Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996.
(You can find part of this book here.)