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All writers on the spiritual life uniformly recommend, nay, command under penalty of total failure, the practice of silence. And yet, despite this there is perhaps no rule for spiritual advancement more inveighed against, by those who have not even mastered its rudiments, than that of silence. Even under the old Dispensation its value was known, taught, and practised. Holy Scripture warns us of the perils of the tongue, as "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" ( Proverbs 18:21 ). Nor is this advice less insisted on in the New Testament ; witness : "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man " (St. James 3:2 sq.). The same doctrine is inculcated in innumerable other places of the inspired writings. The pagans themselves understood the dangers arising from unguarded speech. Pythagoras imposed a strict rule of silence on his disciples ; the vestal virgins also were bound to severe silence for long years. Many similar examples could be quoted.
Silence may be viewed from a threefold standpoint:
- As an aid to the practice of good , for we keep silence with man, in order the better to speak with God, because an unguarded tongue dissipates the soul, rendering the mind almost, if not quite, incapable of prayer. The mere abstaining from speech, without this purpose, would be that "idle silence" which St. Ambrose so strongly condemns.
- As a preventative of evil . Senica, quoted by Thomas à Kempis complains that "As often as I have been amongst men, I have returned less a man" (Imitation, Book I, c. 20).
- The practice of silence involves much self-denial and restraint, and is therefore a wholesome penance , and as such is needed by all.
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