The Value of ReticenceBR. CHARLES SHONK
Of all the means of evangelization at our disposal, perhaps the least talked about is . . . not talking.
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.
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.
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:
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?"
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:
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.
Br. Charles Shonk. "The Value of Reticence." Dominicana (September 4, 2013).
Reprinted with permission of the author, Br. Charles Shonk, O.P. and Dominicana.
Dominicana is a publication of the Dominican Students of the St. Joseph Province, who live and study at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. The blog is updated every weekday, and the journal appears twice a year.
Br. Charles Shonk, a Dominican friar and candidate for the priesthood, is a student of theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Prior to entering the Order of Preachers, he studied Latin, Greek, and Philosophy at Denison University and worked as a schoolteacher in New York City. See Br. Shonk's previous blog posts here.
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