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Be a force for good

Penelope Wilcock suggests we take inspiration from monastic traditions and learn to speak and listen wisely

New Year is a good time to re-calibrate, set the pattern for the months ahead — because it’s the beginning.

When God began, he started with a word, “Let there be light”.

So in re-setting our future patterns for living, it makes sense for us to start with what we say, too. Because we are made in God’s image, our words have power. So does our silence.

Monastic tradition has given me some very helpful pointers about speech and silence in daily living, even in family life. In a monastery, after Compline (the late evening worship closing the day), the community moves into the Great Silence until after breakfast and morning worship the next day.

There’s wisdom here! People are most irritable and inclined to be snappy when they are tired or hungry. Arguments and ill feeling can start as a result. In a family home, we might not impose total silence after 9pm and before 8am, but we might decide to keep conversation light and simple, not discussing contentious matters, between those times.

An old-fashioned monastic phrase is “custody of the eyes”. It basically means minding your own business! Monks and nuns expect to pay attention to the needs of others, noticing and helping when required; but giving each other privacy, not prying, is essential to community wellbeing.

I remember when my children were little, making humorous apology to my next door neighbour for yelling at the kids. “I have never heard you shout at your children,” she said firmly. Slightly taken aback, it later dawned on me she was being kind — she chose not to hear my occasionally raised voice! It’s not just what we say, but what we hear and see that makes good neighbours.

Then there’s the matter of what we say about each other. Much damage is done by talking behind people’s backs, and Jesus in his teaching encouraged us to sort our differences privately and directly (Matthew 18:15). One caveat, though: abusive people rely on silence to prey on others. Don’t gossip, but do have a trusted circle you can rely on to sound out impressions and observations. Someone else’s perspective can shine a helpful light to stop resentments developing and predatory behaviour travelling. Discreet warnings can keep the vulnerable safe.

In 2018, may your words bring blessing, your silence cover others with kindness, and your circles of trust nurture wisdom and security.

Putting it into action

• How might you develop the idea of the Great Silence? Could you get ready for bed (pyjamas, hot drink, reading book) before you’re too tired to interact politely? Could you set a time for children to go to their rooms before they’re tired enough for arguments and tears? What would work in your home?

• How could you imagine practising “custody of the eyes” (and ears!) with your neighbours, family, or fellow church members? When is it helpful to notice or sensible to comment, and what is it better for you to decide not to hear or see? Where does kind concern for others cross the boundary into nosiness?

• What sort of things should you talk over discreetly with your trusted circle, and what should you draw a veil over? Who is in your trusted circle? What is it about those people that makes you feel you can confide in them and respect their opinions and advice? What number limit should such a circle have?

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