On Silence and Losing Control (A Lenten Reflection)
Like most students, I didn’t know exactly what I was signing up for when I decided to take a class on St. Thomas Aquinas last spring. We were going to read part of the Summa, specifically focusing on his account of the virtues and vices—that much I knew. Understanding this medieval thinker was probably going to be difficult work—that, I also knew. What I wasn’t expecting was that our professor would have us engage in spiritual disciplines that would expose my weaknesses and challenge me in ways that few classes ever did.
Throughout the semester, we practiced spiritual disciplines in tandem with the scheduled reading. During the week that we covered the virtue of charity, we memorized 1 Corinthians 13. When we read about the vice of gluttony, we fasted. When we read what Thomas had to say about the vice of vainglory, we practiced silence. These simple practices changed and illuminated the way in which we experienced the topics we were reading about. Moreover, they nicely reinforced and overlapped with the season of Lent. Each week, we (including the professor, because she was doing the practices also!) kept a journal and recorded the impact that the practices were having on us.
I remember the practice of silence being particularly challenging. We had been reading about the vice of vainglory, which is the excessive desire for attention and approval from others. In practicing silence, we didn’t cease talking altogether (on a college campus that would be virtually impossible) but only talked when it was absolutely necessary. When others talked to us, we would do our best to deflect all attention away from ourselves, our desires, our plans etc.
Practicing silence made me learn new things about myself. Now that I wasn’t able to talk about myself so much (e.g. complaining about my day, bragging about an accomplishment), I realized how much I was captive to doing that very thing. I liked to show off to others, especially on Facebook. As a philosophy student, I liked to win arguments and get the last word in a debate. More importantly, engaging in this discipline made me realize how little I genuinely listened to others. Conversations seemed so different when I wasn’t in control.
I wonder how many of our difficult conversations in the church, such as the one on science and faith, are characterized by our desire to dominate the conversation? Do we spend a sufficient amount of time listening to those we disagree with? Do we always feel the need to get the last word? Lent is a good season to engage in practices that expose the bad habits sometimes hidden within us. These practices are like medicine that helps us on the path of sanctification. I entered my class seeking to master information. I left learning more about my disordered desires and about how that impacted my education and my life.