Vow Of Silence

A vow of silence is usually a religious vow, usually taken in a monastic context, to maintain silence. Known as Mauna in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, the practice is integral to many Christian traditions as well. Apart from that it is also followed as a spiritual practice.

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.

Spiritual silence may be viewed from a threefold standpoint:

  • As an aid to the practice of good, for silence is kept with Man, in order to 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 the “idle silence” which St. Ambrose so strongly condemns.
  • As a preventative of evil. Seneca, 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.
  • Religious orders such as the Benedictines have insisted on this as one of the essential rules of their institutes.
Monastic Christian Christianity Religious Religion

Monastic Christian

In monasteries of many orders there are special places, called the “Regular Places” (church, refectory, dormitory etc.) and particular times, especially the night hours, termed the “Great Silence”, wherein speaking is more strictly prohibited.

Outside these places and times there are usually accorded “recreations” during which conversation is permitted, governed by rules of charity and moderation, though useless and idle words are universally forbidden in all times and places. Of course in active orders the members speak according to the needs of their various duties.

It was perhaps the Cistercian Order alone that admitted no relaxation from the strict rule of silence, which severity is still maintained amongst the Reformed Cistercians (Trappists) though other contemplative Orders (Carthusians, Carmelites, Camaldolese etc.) are much more strict on this point than those engaged in active works.

In order to avoid the necessity of speaking, many orders (Cistercians, Dominicans, Discalced Carmelites etc.) have a certain number of signs, by means of which the religious may have a limited communication with each other for the necessities that are unavoidable.


Religious examples

Despite the common misconception, no major Christian monasteries or religious orders take such a vow. However, most monasteries have specific times (magnum silentium, work silence, times of prayer, etc.) and places (the chapel, the refectory, etc.) where speaking is prohibited unless absolutely necessary. Even outside of these times and places, useless and idle words are forbidden. In active orders the members speak according to the needs of their various duties.

In the Indian religions, religious silence is called Mauna and the name for a sage muni (see, for example Sakyamuni) literally means “silent one”. In Buddhism, it is also explicitly stated that “one does not become a sage simply because of a vow of silence” due to the prescription for disciples to also teach the Buddhist doctrine. The vow of silence is also relevant in the training of novices and is often cited as a way to resist the allures of samsara, including those posed by the opposite sex. Buddhist monks who take a vow of silence often carry an iron staff called khakkhara, which makes a metallic noise to frighten away animals. Since they cannot speak, the rattle of the staff also announces their arrival when they start begging for alms.

Mahatma Gandhi observed one day of silence a week, every Monday, and would not break this discipline for any reason.

Non-religious examples

Additionally, a vow of silence can be made to express a bold statement. This type may be to make a statement about issues such as child poverty. An example of this is The November 30th Vow of Silence for Free The Children in which students in Canada take a 24-hour vow of silence to speak up against poverty and child labour. In the United States, the Day of Silence is the GLSEN’s annual day of action to spread awareness about the effects of the bullying and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) students. Students take a day-long vow of silence to symbolically represent the silencing of LGBTQ students. The Day of Silence has been held each year in April since 1996. From 2011 to 2017, the Day of Silence was held on the second Friday in April except for April 11, 2014; in 2018 it was observed on Friday, April 27. A more ancient example of a non-religious vow of silence is Pythagoras, who imposed a strict rule of silence on his disciples.

In pop culture

The 2006 film, Little Miss Sunshine, featured Dwayne, a Nietzsche-reading teenager, taking a vow of silence until he can accomplish his dream of becoming a test pilot. Garu, a character in the cartoon show, Pucca (TV series), was mentioned to have taken a vow of silence. The Poopsmith, a character in the long-running Web Series Homestar Runner, has taken a vow of silence, and has only had two speaking roles in the 19 years the series has been running. “The Cartoon”, a season 9 episode of Seinfeld, featured Kramer taking a vow of silence due to his tendency to bluntly reveal things and not keep them to himself. The 2009 movie G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra featured Snake Eyes taking a vow of silence. The 2011 movie The Hangover: Part II featured a Buddhist monk taking a vow of silence as part of the film’s plot. The 2017 television show The Good Place featured Jianyu, a Buddhist monk, taking a vow of silence. The HBO TV series Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 8, Episode 5) featured a character taking a vow of silence. The episode title was also called “Vow of Silence”. In the book The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (ねじまき鳥クロニクル Nejimakitori Kuronikuru), perhaps the character Cinnamon Akasaka has taken a vow of silence. In the BBC series Call the Midwife the Anglican nuns observe the Great Silence from Compline until the morning, as repeatedly referenced throughout all 9 seasons (as of December 2020).

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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