The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter XIV:
On Avoiding Many Words

SINS of the tongue are such things as blasphemy, lying, filthy talking, violent and abusive language. These things are admittedly displeasing to God. They are sins, and therefore to be repented of by the man who wishes to enter into life. Outside of these altogether there lies a region of activity for the tongue which can neither be described as good or evil. The common intercourse of daily life, the talks of friends over the fireside, the passing remarks to acquaintances in the streets can neither be branded by the severest rigorist as sinful, nor, except very rarely, are they elevated into the atmosphere of the spiritual by any distinctly religious tone. For most men and women religion has simply nothing to do with their ordinary conversation except in so far as its precepts safeguard the talker from untruthfulness, uncharitableness, and so forth. The hermits took a different view of common talk. To them all talking, even talking about religion, was dangerous. They neither thought nor said that the intercourse of man with man was sinful. When they taught their disciples to learn the habit of silence, it was because silence was safe, not because talking was in itself wrong. It is clear at once that certain kinds of common talk are, as the hermits thought, dangerous. For instance, gossip -- the interested discussion of other men's characters and affairs -- is dangerous, because it tends to lead to uncharitable thoughts, and sometimes to untruthfulness. It is clear also that the most innocent possible conversation is dangerous at certain times. For instance, it is a dangerous thing to talk in church, because any talk there is likely to lead the mind away from its proper attitude of devotion. Some people, because gossip is dangerous, try to avoid all conversation about their neighbours. Many people, because talking in church is dangerous, avoid it entirely. The hermits simply applied the same reasoning to all conversation on whatever subject, at whatever time. In the first place they recognised that any talk involved the possibility of sin. Bitter experience led them to see that even a conversation on religion generally left a man some word to repent of. To avoid all unnecessary talking was therefore to avoid all unnecessary risk of sinning. Then also they recognised that conversation widened a man's interests in life and in the world. A man with wide knowledge of affairs, and a keen interest in events, is likely to be a good citizen of an earthly state. Precisely so far as his mind is absorbed by the interests of his country, his town, his neighbourhood, or his church, so far is it abstracted from the interests of that heavenly city whose builder and maker is God. This strangely ascetic thought finds frequent expression in the teaching of the hermits. They deliberately aimed at being strangers and pilgrims upon earth -- men who were merely passing through a foreign country. They wished to concentrate their interests in the land which they called their home, and therefore to abstract them from all the affairs of earth. They knew that every conversation tended to interest them in this world, to make them in heart less of strangers here and more of citizens. Therefore they taught: -- Peregrinatio est tacere -- our being strangers depends upon our remaining silent.

Once more. The hermits seem to have realized the curious truth that an emotion is weakened when expression is given to it. By our physical nature we are prompted to cry out when we are hurt, because the pain becomes more bearable if our feelings find vent in cries. Analogous to this is the fact that grief is lessened by the telling of it. He suffers less who openly mourns his loss than he who shuts his grief up in his own heart and endures in silence. The same law certainly works out in the sphere of religious emotion. The man who talks about his religious feelings runs a great risk of dissipating them altogether. No man has more need to "guard the fire within" than the preacher whose duty forces him to be for ever giving utterance to the most sacred feelings of his heart. I conceive that this is what the hermits meant by speaking of the mouth as the door of the heart. The mouth is not a door through which any evil enters. The ears are such doors, or the eyes. The mouth is a door only for exit. What was it that they feared to let go out? What was it which someone might steal out of their hearts, as a thief takes the steed from the stable when the door is left open? It can have been nothing else than the force of religious emotion within them. Words conveyed it to listeners, perhaps; they certainly took from the store within. Thus it was that the hermits not only avoided definite sins of the tongue, not only shrank, as many others do, from specially dangerous kinds of talk, but aimed at reducing to the narrow limits of what was absolutely necessary all talk, even talk about religion, and set up as an ideal a life of almost unbroken silence.


How the abbot Macarius bid his disciples flee from idle talking.

Once the abbot Macarius, after he had given the benediction to the brethren in the church at Scete, said to them, "Brethren, fly." One of the elders answered him, "How can we fly further than this, seeing we are here in the desert?" Then Macarius placed his finger on his mouth and said, "Fly from this." So saying, he entered his cell and shut the door.


The mouth is the antechamber of the heart.

A certain brother said to the abbot Sisois, "I desire to keep my heart safe from defilement." The old man replied, "It is not possible to guard our hearts while our tongues, by idle talking, open the doors that lead to them."


How a man, though he live among friends, may yet be a "stranger and a pilgrim " all his days.

The abbot Sisois said, "Our being strangers and pilgrims consists in this, that we keep continual guard over our tongues."


Silence and solitude are better teachers than much listening to other men and talking to them.

A certain brother asked the abbot Moses to speak some word to him. The old man replied, "Go and sit in your cell. Your cell is well able to instruct you in all things if you remain in it. As a fish that is taken out of the water soon dies, so a monk perishes if he remain long outside his cell."


How the value of silence was revealed to Arsenius.

The abbot Arsenius, while he still dwelt in the emperor's palace, prayed to the Lord, saying, Lord, show me the path of salvation." There came a voice to him which said, "Arsenius, fly from the society of men, and thou shalt be saved." When he was on his way to embrace the monastic life he prayed again, saying the same words. He heard then, also, a voice which said to him, "Arsenius, fly, be silent, be in quietness; these are the first steps in learning not to sin.


The abbot Moses praises silent meditation.

A brother in Scete once came to the abbot Moses seeking a word of exhortation. The old man said to him, "Why do you come to me to be taught. Go, sit in your cell. Your cell will teach you all things."


How safety is to be found in silence.

The abbot Nilus said, He remains unhurt by the arrows of the enemy who loves silence, but he who mixes with the multitude gets many wounds.


How an old man rebuked certain brethren for their many words.

Certain brethren who wished to visit the abbot Antony embarked in a vessel in order to travel to his hermitage. In the same vessel there was an old man who was also going to see St. Antony, but the brethren did not know him. While they sat in the vessel these brethren conversed about an exhortation which they had heard from the fathers, about the Scriptures, and about the work of their hands. All the while that they were talking the old man remained silent. It was not until they came to the place where they disembarked that they knew that he was going to see St. Antony. When they arrived the abbot Antony said to them, "No doubt you found this elder a good companion on your way." Then he said to the old man, "Did you find them good fellow-travellers?" He said, "They are good men enough, but their house has got no door to it. Anyone who wishes can enter into the stable and steal the steed." This he said, because whatever came into their hearts straightway found utterance through their mouths.


Of the extreme difficulty of bridling the tongue.

Once the abbot Sisois said, Truly for thirty years I have not sought God's help against any sins so earnestly as against those of the tongue. Whenever I pray I say this, "Lord Jesus Christ protect me from my tongue." Yet until now I sin through it, and fall through it every day.


Of the danger of idle talking.

The abbot Hyperichius said, The serpent whispered to Eve, and she was cast out of Paradise. He who gossips with his neighbour is like unto the serpent. He causes the loss of the soul of him who listens, and his own soul shall not be safe.


How he who is silent, prays.

The abbot Isaiah said, A certain priest was entertaining some of the brethren. While they were eating they talked without ceasing to each other. At last the priest rebuked them, saying, "Be silent, brethren. Lo, there is one among you who does not talk, and his silence ascends like a flame of prayer in the sight of God."

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