“The eleventh step of humility is that you speak gently and without laughter, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising your voice, as it is written: “The wise are known by their few words.” RB 7:60-61
Speaking is a primary way in which we communicate and interact with others. The words communicate and community are from the Latin root con for together. Communication has a potential to build up relationships and undermine our relationships in community and with individuals. Humility can help us to choose to speak and communicate with love to support our relationships.
Benedict knew that monitoring and restraining our speech would give us an opportunity to train ourselves in humility and in loving interactions within our communities. When we speak gently, we consider the other person with honor and treat him or her as Christ. With our words, tone, and gestures we can hold the other person in the place of Christ with respect and love. This gentleness helps others to hear us; our tone of voice or mannerism can open or close a listener. We can also listen gently to the other person and receive their words with reverence and attention.
The Book of Proverbs concludes with a poem about the worthy woman (Prov. 31:10-31). The poem honors her as a “woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Prov. 31:30). The woman’s qualities and actions described in the poem embody wisdom and her reverence for God, for her family, and for all. Recall that the first step of humility is keeping a reverence or fear of the Lord before our eyes always (RB 7:10). We can thus look to this woman for a lesson in humility and as well as wisdom. She shows us what humility of speech looks, sounds, and feels like: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (Prov. 31:26).
In addition to gentleness, Benedict encourages us to speak with brevity. Silence leaves a welcoming space in which all can be heard. It can teach us to respect and listen to others rather than trying to fill up the empty space with our own words and self-importance. The silence can teach us to speak succinctly, with no need to dominate a conversation of speak endlessly.
Humble people often consider their words carefully before speaking, so that when they do choose to speak, they speak with wisdom. Some people consider three questions when they discern whether it is better to speak or whether it is better to left something unspoken: Is it loving? Is it true? Is it necessary?
Step 11 invites us to use our speech in a loving and humble way that supports our relationships and helps us to journey together to God (RB 72:12). Let us follow the example of Christ our Shepherd and the worthy woman by striving to speak with kindness and wisdom.