The Value of Reticence

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The Value of Reticence

By | 2015-02-14T07:04:46+00:00 September 4, 2013|Bible, Culture, Theology|

Never, never, never talk theology or discuss the Church with those outside it. . . . People simply do not understand what you are talking about and they merely (a) get angry and (b) come to the conclusion that one doesn’t believe in the thing oneself and that one is simply doing it to annoy.

—Maurice Baring, in a letter to Hilaire Belloc

Of all the means of evangelization at our disposal, perhaps the least talked about is . . . not talking. I don’t mean simply closing one’s mouth, though that might help. I mean, when we are asked or given the chance to hold forth, expatiate, or spellbind, we might instead hesitate, demur, or even decline.

Consider the proverb,

When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. (Prv 10:19)

The Apostle James was especially keen on this point: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue . . . this person’s religion is vain” (Jas 1:26). Not many, he says, should become teachers of the faith:

Do not be too eager, brethren, to impart instruction to others; be sure that, if we do, we shall be called to account all the more strictly. We are betrayed, all of us, into many faults; and a man who is not betrayed into faults of the tongue must be a man perfect at every point, who knows how to curb his whole body. . . .

How small a spark it takes to set fire to a vast forest! And that is what the tongue is, a fire. Among the organs of our nature, the tongue has its place as the proper element in which all that is harmful lives. It infects the whole body, and sets fire to this mortal sphere of ours, catching fire itself from hell. (Jas 3:1–2, 5–6, Knox)

It’s not just that bridling our tongue frees us for other things, such as listening—though this is not to be passed over lightly. After all, how can we make our speech useful to others if we don’t know who they are or what they’re looking for? And how can we hope to discover these things without listening to them? And what if our listening is the very “word” they need to hear? What if, as is likely enough, they have something to teach us?

There’s more to it than that, though. Reticence (which is not opposed to friendliness, but rather seasons it) has evangelical value precisely because it respects (1) the freedom of another and (2) the value of that which is held back. Human beings naturally like to discover things “on their own” and regard what’s cheaply revealed as cheaply held. St. Thomas, famous for writing so clearly about the faith, nevertheless answers affirmatively the question, “Should divine truths be concealed by new and obscure words?”

“A hidden thing is more eagerly sought for; a thing concealed appears more worthy of veneration; that which is a long time sought for is held more dear.” Since, therefore, sacred writings ought to be regarded with the greatest veneration, it seems expedient that they be discussed with obscurity of speech.

The faith is a great mystery; our words merely catch at its shadows. It’s not something we can argue someone into for the simple reason that it’s beyond our power to prove. We can answer an objection here, remove an obstacle there, but ultimately faith comes from the Holy Spirit, sweetly moving the will from within. Thus, people who don’t yet know Christ—no less than we ourselves—rightly and instinctively distrust pat answers and slick explanations.

Of course, the great theologians are the first to admit the inadequacy of their work; and, if their words are “like straw,” who are we to play the know-it-all? Turning to poetry and the arts, we encounter the same limitations, as George Mackay Brown (for one) attests:

A Word made everything in the beginning. The uttering of that Word took six days. What is this poetry that I busy myself with? A futile yearning towards a realisation of that marvellous Word. What is all poetry but a quest for the meaning and beauty and majesty of the original Word? . . . I think that Shakespeare in his lifetime made perhaps the millionth part of a single letter of the Word. . . . This is my contribution to the Word—such a sound as a speck of dust might make falling on grass—no more.

Even when the Word walked the earth, wasn’t there a marvelous reticence about him? Living for so many years in such an ordinary way (“Is this not the carpenter’s son?”), always slipping away from the crowds (“And the people sought him”), concealing his identity (“And he strictly ordered them not to make him known”), speaking in obscure ways (“But for others they are in parables”), disappointing the overeager (“You know the commandments”), even playing hide-and-seek after the Resurrection (“It is the Lord!”): what was all this for, if not to whet our appetite for a mystery so great that, were it fully revealed, we would be helpless to refuse it?

Baring, in the quotation above, was indulging in a bit of hyperbole when he said “never,” but he knew what he was talking about. (He was a convert, after all.) Next time we find ourselves lecturing some poor hapless soul, let’s take his advice, and stop.

Image: Hans Holbein the Younger, Detail from The Artist’s Family

About this Brother:

Br. Charles Shonk entered the Order of Preachers in 2009. He is a graduate of Denison University, where he studied Latin, Greek, and Philosophy. He worked as a schoolteacher in New York City before entering the Order. On