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American Religious Life in Historical Perspective

Chapter 9

Silence, Habit and Daily Order

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Bellarmine School of Theology
Chicago, IL

We come to the last phase of our analysis of religious life and personality development. The plan is to see under one theme those features that give strong external witness of religious dedication and communal living, and are a special sign of religious obedience.

Why concentrate on silence, habit and daily order? Because these three have always characterized religious life as approved by the Church and they are intrinsic to any authentic religious life that develops in the future.

Moreover these three are under severe fire in some quarters, which argue that silence should be replaced by communication, the religious habit by secular clothes, and daily order by a structureless spontaneity.

I should add immediately that I respect the good intentions of those who argue against silence, the habit and daily order. I can also understand some of the reasons for their attitude and the need—long felt but not seriously acted on—of adjusting rules of silence to apostolic needs; of accommodating the habit to prudent, present-day norms; and of making more flexible the often rigid horarium of the day.

But adjustment is one thing and rejection something else.

My plan is to take each of these elements of religious life and see them under the double aspect we set ourselves at the beginning: the historical and the cultural. What does the history of religious life show about the practice of silence, the wearing of a distinctive garb, and the following of a certain pattern of actions during the day? Then we turn the focus to contemporary American and ask the hard question: What values do these three still have in our culture and what adaptations should be made? All the while we keep in mind that our concern is not only with the imperatives of religious commitment or the demands of the apostolate, but also with the personal satisfaction of the individual religious—his (or her) sense of achievement and fulfillment in the service of God.

Religious Silence

The Bible recommends silence so often, in so many ways, that it seems almost excessive in its praise of not using the tongue. Among the ancients, Judith and Esther, Job and Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah, tell of the beauties of silence and of how it pleases the Lord to receive from His faithful the sacrifice of words unspoken and of thoughts that, for the love of Him, are not expressed.

But the great revelation on the meaning of silence came only in the person of Christ. He was the omnipotent Word of God whose utterance made the universe, yet He came into the world as the Infans, the speechless one, and remained so for months after His birth.

Until the age of twelve we have no recorded words of the Savior, and after that silence for another eighteen years at Nazareth.

During his short public life He spoke often, but He also did not speak with men during the long hours He spent in quiet conversation with His Father.

At two dramatic points in His passion, His silence spoke with an eloquence that will be remembered for all time. He did not answer the accusations leveled against Him before Pilate and He did not say a word while Herod and king’s court mocked Him as an ignorant fool.

No wonder the apostle James made the astounding statement that “the only man who could reach perfection would be someone who never said anything wrong” (James 3:2); he would be able to control every part of himself. James knew. He had seen Christ in action and watched the dialectic between the Savior’s speech and silence. Christ, he discovered, revealed Himself as perfect man in both ways: whenever He spoke, He had the right thing to say; when He was silent, He refrained from saying anything wrong.

In the History of Religious Life

Historians of language point out that nothing more surely reflects a change or development of culture than the new meanings attached to old words, as a new civilization comes into being.

Among the ancient Romans silentium essentially meant the absence of noise or sound. There was the silence of night and of quiet repose. Ovid wrote of the dead as “the silent ones” and Virgil spoke of the “silent shades” of those in the grave.

Then came Christianity, and all of a sudden things changed. The earliest exhortation to silence outside the Scriptures came in two letters of Ignatius of Antioch at the turn of the first century, urging the followers of Christ to imitate His practice of silence. “It is better,” he said, “for a man to be silent and be a Christian than to talk and not be one.” [1]

His argument was that professing the faith in a pagan society called for an extraordinary restraint of the tongue, notably through patience.

Eastern Monasticism

The origins of monasticism in the East and West reveal so strong a desire for silence that some have mistakenly looked upon the “Desert Fathers” as social misfits who ran away from a world they were unable or unwilling to cope with. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When Antony of Egypt in the third century entered the solitude of the Thebaid, his motive was to pray more effectively. We know from his classic life by Athanasius that Antony did plenty of talking in sermons and counsels to his brethren. But he always was particular with whom he engaged in conversation. His homely comparison to bring out this preference is perfect. On one occasion a military officer urged him to stay with the soldiers after Antony had preached to them about salvation. The hermit replied, “Just as fish exposed for any length of time on dry land die, so monks go to pieces when they loiter among you and spend too much time. So we must return to the mountain as fish to the sea. Otherwise we lose sight of the life of the spirit.” [2]

If the value of silence among hermits was to foster recollection, its practice in the earliest religious communities was intended to help bridle the passions. Legislating for Eastern monasticism even to this day, St. Basil described “The practice of silence is useful for novices. For if they tame their tongue, they will give good evidence of their self-control, and they will be able to learn most attentively from those who use the world wisely.” [3]

This was shrewd counsel. Basil assumed that the first requisite for learning is listening—and therefore not talking; and that among the passions in need of discipline, the yen to speak should be controlled from the fist days of the novitiate. He further implied that only a person trained in not speaking could later on be trusted with speaking wisely, and be worth hearing because he had something to say.

St. Benedict

Western monasticism, beginning with St. Benedict, is often characterized as community centered and social, where the Eastern has always been more personal and ascetical. It is not surprising then that Benedict should have made a great deal of silence and speech in his famous Rule. He joined the two together in a synthesis that no one has yet improved upon, and placed the whole matter of communication by vocal sound into the context of humility.

Benedict’s teaching on the subject is the bedrock of Christian spirituality on the use of one’s voice in social intercourse. First recall that he has twelve degrees of humility, of which the ninth through the eleventh treat of silence and the use of the tongue.

The ninth degree of humility is that a monk refrain his tongue from speaking, keeping silence until a question is asked of him, as the Scripture shows, “The talkative man shall not be directed upon the earth.”
The tenth degree of humility is that he be not easily moved and prompted to laughter, because it is written, “The fool lifteth up his voice in laughter.”
The eleventh degree of humility is that when a monk speaks he does so gently and without laughter, humbly and gravely, with few and reasonable words, and that he be not noisy in his speech as it is written, “A wise man is known in a few words.” [4]

The genius of Benedict was to have shown how close is the connection between silence and humility. The two are inseparable. He understood that the reticence that reflects humility is neither sterile nor negative. It actively motivates a religious first to distinguish between what is worth saying and what serves only to inflate his ego, and then to act on the distinction by speaking only to benefit the neighbor and never to serve his pride.

Benedict was too wise to expect anyone only to answer questions and not take the initiative in dialogue. But he also knew, as the previous degree of humility makes clear, that each religious as a person wants to be distinctive. His natural impulse must be curbed so “A monk should do nothing except what is authorized by the common Rule or the example of his seniors.” [5] How does he decide when to speak and when to keep silent? By asking himself if what he intends to say is consistent with the life he has undertaken or corresponds to what the older and tried members of the community talk about in conversation.

Uninhibited laughter is only another form of uncontrolled speech. They generally go together. The man who talks too much is often an inveterate jokester, whether he sets the pace for others or allows them to make him into a congenial laugher.

Again, quiet humor or ready wit was not in question. What Benedict opposed was fatuous gaiety that renders a man unfit for the grave affairs of life. The impression of being constantly amused, which some people put on, is worse than empty. It is misleading. “Nothing more surely reveals true misery,” Benedict wrote elsewhere, than fictitious joy.”

More than once in conference to his brethren he suggested that the spirit of monasticism was inconsistent with the ways of the world. If a religious wants to play the role of polished entertainer in one company he will find it hard to behave like a rough ascetic in another. Dom Paul DeLatte tells the story of a possessed nun at Loudan who owed the fits of possession to a habit of high frivolity to which she used to give herself. There was no curing her condition until she got over this excessive gaiety. [6]

Not satisfied with prescribing restraint in speech and laughter, Benedict summarized the whole of a monk’s department by saying it should be reasonable. Another term would be “mature,” where the maturity implies completeness of growth and development in one’s dealings with others. By contrast it is not childish or puerile.

The immature religious is garrulous. He gives opinions without being asked; he anticipates with ready answers inquiries that are never made; he insists on talking long after others have caught on that silence was demanded; he goes on and on with his story. It never dawns on him that the secret of being tiresome is in telling everything.

From France to Ignatius

Consistent with the monastic spirit, Benedict wanted his followers to practice silence as a means of self-discipline and in the interests of community life. A new dimension entered religious life with the rise of two strongly apostolic orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans. Each contributed a different element, yet both were directly concerned with the apostolate.

Francis of Assisi was the most charitable of men, but he could not tolerate idleness. His first biographer, Thomas of Celano, relates how Francis “allowed himself hardly a moment of time to pass unused.” Once when he was staying in a cell at Siena, he called his sleeping companions one night to tell them he had just received a heavenly communication. He had asked the Lord to tell him how he could tell if he were truly a servant of God. He was informed, “You are then truly my servant when you think, speak and do holy things.” [7]

Applying this norm to his brethren, Francis warned them especially against useless conversation. “Much profit from prayer flows away,” he argued, “because of idle words after prayer.” To put teeth into his warning, he ordered that any of the brothers who catch himself speaking idle or useless words “shall be bound immediately to admit his guilt and say a Pater Noster for each unnecessary word spoken.” [8]

For all his gentleness, Francis was a sworn enemy of laziness. This worked both ways. His friars were not to indulge in vain talk in order not to waste time; and they should work hard so that “the heart and tongue may not wander to unlawful things or idleness.” [9] A wagging tongue loses precious time, and keeping busy avoids silly conversation.

Dominic was more of a legislator than Francis. Also the apostolate for his men was more intellectual. As professional preachers, his friars were to master the sacred sciences. From this need arose the most important innovation in the daily schedule of a Dominican priory—the substitution of study and mental prayer for manual labor.

St. Dominic, therefore, made silence an essential feature of his way of life. The Constitutions he drafted were very demanding. “Let our brothers,” they read, “keep silence in the cloister, dormitory, cells, refectory and oratory of the brethren, except perhaps they speak something in a low voice, and whispers. Elsewhere they can speak with special permission.” [10]

Plenty of opportunity was given for recreation at appointed times, but during “regular order” the atmosphere necessary for effective study was to be one of silence.

When St. Ignatius came to organize the Society of Jesus, he borrowed many ideas from his predecessors—including their insistence on silence. But he changed the focus. His men, and those whom they would train, were to “maintain themselves in peace and true inward humility.” Then a typical Ignatian distinction, “Silence will be proof of this when silence is to be kept.” But there would also be the need for communication in the apostolate. So, “When they are supposed to speak, this peace and humility will be seen in the urbanity and spiritual tone of their language, the modesty of their countenance, the dignity of their walk and whole bearing, all of which should be free of any sign of impatience or pride.” [11]

Jesuit silence might mean physical abstention from speech; and then all the spiritual counsel since the Epistle of James would apply as ever before. But the “silence” could also be vocal or, for that matter perceptible in a thousand ways, provided a man spoke or acted in a way that showed he had peace of mind and internal humility of spirit.

Religious institutes that came into existence since the time of Ignatius have put into their existing rule or constitutions some provision for speech control—if only to say, as one modern community of active Sisters says, that “Silence is to be regarded as an exercise of piety and of great importance to foster union with God.”

Even secular institutes, though not technically religious orders or congregations, have recognized that a certain amount of silence is necessary for a successful apostolate.

Silence as Witness in American Culture

Critics of silence in religious communities argue against it as inconsistent with the American way of life.

If the enjoyment of liberty is typical of our American ethos, then insistence on silence is said to be a denial of liberty.

It is charged with inhibiting a fundamental human instinct, the desire to speak. It prevents the communication of ideas from one person to another. It forbids, instead of encourages, the interpersonal relations so necessary at any time but especially in our day. It tends to isolate one person from another. It turns a personality in on itself to close it off from the real world around. It serves to develop neurotic personalities that are forever studying their own psyche instead of opening their hearts to the people they meet. In a word, it contradicts the first premise on which our culture is built which is freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of speech.

As I read such criticisms of a practice that has the sanction of Scripture and a history as old as religious community life, I ask what provoked such a strong reaction.

It is partly explainable by the sometimes-wooden interpretation that used to be put on the rule of silence. Some of the stories you heard were undoubtedly apocryphal, but even if a fraction of them were true it was still unfortunate that basic charity was at times violated in deference to a literal and unbending practice of silence.

That is why renewal was called for and the Holy See mandated adaptation.

But I feel the grounds for continued agitation against any required silence in religious communities run deeper than reaction against extremes. It seems to me, as I read and listen to the critics that they are voicing a new philosophy of life. It is new, that is, in Catholic and conventual circles, though by no means new in the larger ones of American and Western thought.

It is implicit in our whole system of communications. Americans are forever communicating. We have more telephones, television sets, and multi-million circulation magazines and newspapers, than any other country in the world, and our statisticians keep giving us great figures to show how developed a country we are, compared, for example, with underdeveloped cultures (as we call them) like India or Pakistan. My estimate is there are more telephones in the city of Los Angeles (3 million) than in the whole subcontinental India.

No one is sorry we have all this communication, but someone should challenge those who speak of it as an unmitigated blessing.

Philosophies usually follow conduct. I am persuaded that an ideology is growing up which says, in effect if not in so many words, that the only valid (or vulnerable) source of knowledge is another human being.

When I see people rooted before a television set for hours per day, or reading Time or Newsweek from cover to cover every week, I conclude they depend on these media to tell them what is happening in the world and to tell them what to think.

The practice of silence should not exclude reasonable access to those and similar sources of information, but its premises run very deep. They affirm the existence of a Reality that transcends space and time. Communicating with this Reality may look like isolation from reality when a person is not physically talking or listening to someone speak.

But actually this apparent silence is communication, and so important in religious communities that without it, authentic religious life is impossible.

The so-called mixed religious life is the harmonious union of the contemplative life with apostolic activity. Every religious is supposed to attain a deep spirit of prayer and the interior life. Neither of these is possible without recollection and recollection is impossible without some habitual observance of silence. Silence should vary with the purpose of the community and the particular needs of he apostolate. But something like the ordinary silence prescribed by the Constitutions of religious communities to date cannot be removed from these constitutions without cutting at the vitals of all that religious life is supposed to be.

I will go further. What this country needs more than anything else is men and women who think and whose thought has been nourished by frequent, quiet intercourse with God during the day made possible through periodic silence. They need our witness of this quiet contact with Divinity by seeing us practice and having us teach them the hidden power of silence.

Religious Habit

I doubt if any phase of religious adaptation has aroused more controversy or produced more heartaches than the change of religious habit prescribed by the Vatican Council Decree on Religious Life.

Before we go any further let us read the simple words of the decree:

The religious habit, an outward mark of consecration to God, should be simple and modest, poor and at the same time becoming.
In addition it must meet the requirements of health and be suited to the circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry involved.
The habits of both men and women religious that do not conform to these norms must be changed. [12]

Who would have thought that these few words could ignite such a conflagration?

I think a few words of commentary are called for before we get any deeper into the subject. First of all the decree does not say that all existing habits of all religious communities must be changed. It sets down certain norms and then says that where these norms are not satisfied the habit should be changed accordingly.

It would be very strange if every religious habit in the world was not a mark of religious consecration, poor and simple or modest, and did not meet the requirements of health nor was suited to circumstances and the needs of the ministry.

Moreover the change contemplated was to satisfy these norms and not, in fact or equivalently, to do away with the religious habit.

History of the Religious Habit

St. Pachomius who introduced communal religious life in Egypt was the first to establish a definite set of provisions regarding the habit. The Pachomian habit was a sleeveless linen tunic held together by a cincture, a tanned cloak, and a small thin cape to which was connected a hood bearing a special badge of the particular community to which the monk or nun belong.

St. Basil, who saw the special garb worn by the religious in Egypt, adopted similar attire for his followers in the East. Basil wrote at length on the value of a religious habit to help the one who wears it to realize his station in life and protect him from unbecoming conduct. Basil died in 379 A.D.

St. Benedict, contrary to what some writers claim, clearly meant to give his followers—men and women—a distinctive habit. Erasmus, for example, at the time of the Reformation, alleged that Benedict and his religious were dressed like everyone else. Erasmus was deceived by prejudice and his eagerness to cater to the Reformers who poured a library of abuse on the garb of men and women religious in the sixteenth century.

Scholars explain that St. Benedict was inspired by various contemporary customs, and that the exclusive use of certain articles was enough to make them distinctive.

In doing this Benedict touched on an essential of the religious state. He appealed to the evidence of history that special groups of people have always been distinctively dressed. And the more we know about present-day customs the more basic this instinctive practice appears. Soldiers and philosophers but especially religious teachers and ascetics in Islam and Hinduism, in Shinto and Buddhism, to this day dress with a certain distinctiveness and uniformity.

From the early 300’s we have many testimonies on the ceremony of veiling virgins and the garb of the religious women. St. Ambrose relates that his sister Macellina received the “robe of virginity” from the hands of Pope Liberius in Rome. Elsewhere Ambrose describes the many young women who came to be veiled in Milan.

According to earliest practices, the religious habit was not usually assumed until the novitiate was finished. What seems to have been the first papal document on the subject came from Pope Celestine in 428, who reprimanded the secular clergy of Gaul for trying to introduce a uniform habit for all clerics in the country.

Another first prescribing that religious wear their habit came from the Fourth Council of Constantinople in 870 A.D. And in 1215, Innocent III reaffirmed this law in the Ecumenical Council of the Lateran.

The most stringent legislation came at the turn of the thirteenth century, when Boniface VIII decreed the penalty of excommunication for anyone who presumed to remove his religious garb and without special permission appear in public in secular clothes.

After Leo XIII gave bishops the right to found new religious institutes, the bishops were required to send to Rome (among other things) an accurate description of the habit adopted by any new institute. The description was to appear in the Constitutions as a condition for approval by Rome.

After application had been made to the Holy See for approval of constitutions in the form of the habit were prohibited without authorization from the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars. It was the desire of the Holy See to curb the odd forms of religious habit that were being adopted. Notwithstanding the papal norms, adequate control was not attained over the practices of the religious institutes. Consequently, Pope St. Pius X (1903-14) issued the motu proprio Dei Providentis, demanding that bishops consult the Holy See before they found institutes. Explicit information had to be transmitted to Rome regarding the name, founder, purpose, scope, and religious habit of prospective institutes. The Pontiff wished to check the establishment of new congregations that would have no specific difference from extant ones, but would merely employ a new name or a new form of religious habit.

This brings us to the present day. Since the conciliar decree in 1965, there have been numerous changes in religious habit including some in which the habit was discarded altogether.

A year later, in 1966, Pope Paul VI published a motu proprio Ecclesiae Sanctae implementing certain conciliar decrees, including the one on religious life.

This later document allowed the introduction of some experimentation for a trial period, permitting, according to the needs of time and place the change of existing norms of Religious institutes provided always that the purpose, nature and character of the institute are maintained.

What has happened? In a matter of months such flurries of changes and counter-changes were introduced that in some quarters confusion became the order of the day.

As might be expected, Rome was not silent. Private letters to the individual heads of women’s religious communities, public statements to the Church at large and all the means of communication available have been used to call for balance, prudence and discretion along the whole gamut of experimentation with special attention to the religious habit.

I quote at length from a statement made this year by the Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Religious. This congregation is under the direct supervision of the Holy Father and as I know from working at the Vatican, is the Pope’s authentic spokesman for religious throughout the world:

In her wisdom the Church confides to the chapters the task of studying (after consulting with the members of their institutes) what changes are necessary in their constitutions.
It must be noted, however, that the motu proprio Ecclesiae Sanctae does not authorize experiments that would obscure the meaning of religious life and its function in the Church (17) or that would create confusion or disorder in the said institutes or give scandal.
Caution is therefore necessary in introducing changes and it is worthwhile to consult competent authority in order to obtain pertinent orientations. Institutes that have acted thus have assured themselves of an invaluable assistance that enabled them to take definite constructive and beneficial decisions.
The reference just mentioned demonstrates and explains why changes affecting the form, nature, or character of the institute are forbidden.
According to the norms of the motu proprio Ecclesiae Sanctae the constitutions cannot be altered so that religious consecration appears subordinate to apostolic activity. Such a shifting of values could have extremely grave consequences because religious consecration should be, on the contrary, the propelling force of every activity and hence of every apostolate.
To cite a particular instance, the chapter is not empowered to decide, for example, as an experiment, on the suppression of community life in the institute, or the suppression of the religious habit, and the use of secular clothes.
With reference to the religious habit it seems necessary to point out that it must conform to the norms of the decree Perfectae Caritatis. It may be changed (but not suppressed) and may not be left to the free choice of various people or the caprice of certain individuals.
The laity who venerate and respect those consecrated to God, expect that modesty and reserve, that edifying note of austerity and that external proof of poverty that enhance the service of Religious and render more attractive their vocation to virtue and goodness. [13]

No religious who is serious about her loyalty to the Holy See can afford to ignore these directives. They are not a free option but are meant to be embraced with Christian generosity.

Present Situation

As I view the matter, there are two issues at stake: the wearing of a religious habit but changing it to meet contemporary needs and the removing of a religious habit to wear secular clothes.

Since I am at liberty to express my own judgment in the matter, I shall do so. I have received a number of questionnaires from religious communities that are slowing adopting secular dress. What follows is a sample questionnaire, with my answers and pertinent comments:

Questionnaire for Evaluating Experimentation in the Area of Religious Dress

(For Priests Only)

  1. “Do you favor secular dress for the religious who teach in your Catholic schools?”

    Comment: Secular dress deprives the Sister-teacher of an effective witness to her religious life.

  2. “Has secular dress as worn by some religious helped clarify for you the meaning of religious life and its function in the Church?”

    Comment: Quite contrary, it serves to obscure its meaning and function.

  3. “Do you think that a religious uniform of some type constitutes a significant barrier to meaningful communication between non-Catholics and religious?”

    Comment: Emphatically, No—as I have been told by non-Catholic leaders. They are saddened to see religious in secular dress.

  4. “Do you think that a habit (a religious uniform) gives witness to the non-Catholic community?”

    Comment: Very much so, as I have been told more than once.

  5. “Would secular dress be an influencing factor in your directing a well-disposed girl to a community?

    Comment: No, in the sense that I would not direct the girl to such a community.

  6. “Is secular dress as worn by religious a help to you in recruiting candidates?

    Comment: My experience is that secular dress deters young women from entering the convent.

  7. “Do you think secular dress encourages prospective candidates?”

    Comment: It discourages them. “Why enter,” they say, “when I can be apostolic in the world?”

  8. “In your judgment, does the use of color in the religious uniforms improve the apostolic effectiveness of religious women?”

    Comment: No, if by color is meant such color and design as typifies women in the world.

  9. “If color for religious uniforms is adopted would you suggest:” a) That the choice of any color be left to the individual sister? B) That the community as such decides upon two or three professional colors? C) That one color is used by all?

    Comment: That one color be used by all as it is too powerful a medium of expression to be left to each one’s choice and too valuable a means of showing religious community not to be used as a unifying factor.

  10. “Has your regard for religious women in their professional capacity increased within the last few years?

    Comment: No, due to a) greater freedom from convent structures, b) their dress, c) their increased involvement in civic affairs.

  11. “Within the past few years, has your respect for religious as dedicated spiritual persons aspiring to Christian holiness increased?”

    Comment: No. Religious dress is not a matter of option for religious institutes. The Church’s highest authority wants it adapted to modern needs, but not secular dress. Any community that adopts secular dress for its members will not be blessed by God, if for no other reason, at least because He wants religious to be obedient to the Church, through which alone they are assured of the graces they so desperately need always, but especially in our time.

On the further question of what norms I consider necessary in the adjustment of religious habit to modern times, I offer the following as the result of much thought and consultation.

In my opinion, whatever changes are made, the new habit should be distinctive of the institute, uniform for all members of the community, modest in being not unnecessarily revealing, simple and therefore not elaborate in cut or tailoring, inexpensive as an apt sign of religious poverty, convenient for wear all day long and in any ordinary occupation, symbolic in retaining such features as the veil to signify consecration to God.

It is possible, and I have seen it in operation, where the new attire for religious women is so lacking in one or more of these elements as to be equivalent to secular dress. In that case, my judgment on secular dress would apply proportionately.

Daily Order

I have saved the subject of daily order to the end because I consider it of special importance for the religious life, for a balanced development of personality and for successful work in the apostolate.

Let me say first what I mean by the daily order. By the daily order I understand the whole tempo of daily undertakings: of prayer and community life, of study and recreation, of apostolic duties and personal needs, of eating and sleeping, of life in the religious house and outside the community residence—all under the one aspect of order.

This order will differ somewhat from day to day, and week to week. Yet over-arching these differences will still be order, like concentric circles, each containing those smaller than itself and contained by the larger beyond.

Another name for this order could be rhythm, where the operative element is a certain recurrence or periodicity; or harmony, where the essential notion is consistency and unison; or finally, pattern, where the thing that stands out is planning and proportion.

While I have no intention of going into all these phases, I really intend to cover under one heading three distinct aspects of this matter of order in religious life: daily program, personal orderliness, and cultivation of good habits.

Daily Program

I like to call the first phase a daily program. It is more or less determined by the community itself: certain times for rising and perhaps retiring; times for Mass, silence and community prayers; a time for meals and recreation. Some of this has always been part of communal living in any society and must be in the religious state. Any congregation that in practice would eliminate such a program cannot hope to continue as a religious community. This is not restructure but destruction of community life.

Historically this has been so common and so universally accepted that no one should question its necessity even today.

But again, voices in some quarters want to remove all of this. Any kind of horarium is against the spontaneous freedom that should typify the people of God. A prescribed daily program, no matter how minimal or flexible, it is argued, inhibits the free flow of ideas, stultifies creative personalities, produces a “goose-step mentality,” unfits the religious for dealing with the world, burdens the mind with trivial details, creates conformist nobodies, kills originality, pre-fabricates one’s thinking, smothers the easy and relaxed outlook that should characterize a religious man or (especially) woman, and forces the members of a community into a stereotype that is neither male or female but something in between.

I have read and heard perhaps fifty versions of this lugubrious tale of woe, urging the elimination of any kind of definite and required daily program for religious communities. I have yet to see one of these criticisms that are perfectly rational. If there is a stereotype among the critics, it is generally those who are living undisciplined lives themselves and are now either defending their own conduct or trying to impose the same on others. The only problem is that they are being taken seriously.

No one is recommending a Spartan regime that accounts for every three minutes of the day. If any community operated this way in the past it cannot (even if it wanted to) operate this way now. People are not automatons and the extremes of Spartanism you have heard and read about, I am convinced, were not so common as the critics of a daily order would lead us to believe.

Sixteen centuries of religious community experience should be worth something. As you read St. Benedict’s elaborate schedule of: how many Psalms are to be said at the night hours, how the night office is to be said in summer, the daily manual labor system, the order of the community—your first impulse is to admire the prodigious structure and then explain it away as monastic, or medieval, and ignore the deeper lesson it is meant to teach us even now.

St. Vincent de Paul was anything but monastic and the way of life he opened for religious women was deliberately planned to be apostolic. Yet from the very beginning he sensed the need for some basic structure of communal activities to insure that there be a community at all. His Daughters of Charity had prescribed times for rising and retiring, prayer, general and particular examinations, spiritual reading, Mass and general silence.

I know exactly what some religious communities are doing today—dropping all specified times for any communal activities. And I also know what is happening in those communities. Mass is not attended, Communion is not received, meditation and examination of conscience are not made—and defections are burgeoning like mushrooms after a heavy rain.

Then to add insult to injury, communities are accused of being over-structured still, of having superiors around who pretend to take the place of God.

No one with a shred of sense or any knowledge of modern times is advocating what the Church never advocated in the first place. It was generally only the accumulation of custom on custom sanctioned by customs, until the 465 laws of the Mosaic Code seemed like moral laxism compared with the regulations of some communities.

But you cannot erase all format of a daily communal life without suffocating that life with rampant individualism. My prayer is that communities will wake up to what is happening before it is too late.

It is not enough to say, as some do, that religious who do not pray or do not go to Mass on their own, in the absence of some prescribed daily order, are simply immature. I consider that injustice. One of the reasons a person enters community life, and part of the grace of vocation, is to be helped through life to do what I know I should do—assist at Mass daily, perform daily mental prayer, and so one. Not to receive this external grace of common life is to be cheated and no amount of talk about developing mature people by having them do these things on their own is relevant. God will not prosper communities that have adopted the psychologies of the world and deprive their members of what authentic religious life has always been in the Church.

Personal Orderliness

No amount of community structure, however, will produce an orderly religious unless he or she seriously tries to develop such regularity in his or her life. The second phase of our subject then is personal orderliness.

We all know from experience and observation the difference between an orderly and a disorderly person. We also know this means more than just keeping a tidy room or having one’s attire always neatly pressed.

It means what the word implies: an orderly way of life in which certain other things and in which important items like spiritual reading, daily Rosary, answering mail, preparing class, are completed in a certain sequence. The sequence may vary, of course, and unexpected things will come up to require adjustment here and postponement there. But in general there is a tempo that becomes part of my life and my way of doing things and this remains basically the same. It may be called “the pattern of life” and those who acquire it have found a great treasure.

The secret of developing an orderly personality is planning. Those who plan their days and weeks become orderly; those who do not plan remain disorderly. The few exceptions to the contrary only prove this rule.

Some small bookkeeping here is necessary. Most people do not have good enough memories to know what they had planned to do at nine on Saturday morning or whom to call at eight in the evening. This could very well be part of my daily or twice daily self-appraisal that used to be the traditional examination of conscience. Having an address book, a date book, an agenda list, are such obvious aids that anyone who does not use them is not serious about living an orderly life.

Some find keeping a journal helpful. I do not like the term “diary.” Not only has it become associated through literary usage with self-reflective vanity, but also it suggests something effeminate which is not the same thing as womanly. A journal is different. It can be matter-of-fact or imaginative, but its main purpose is to keep some record of thoughts and inspirations as my personality grows under divine guidance. Some of the greatest men and women religious of the Church’s history kept journals, and we can hardly lose by following their example.

Yet, I prefer not to include keeping a journal as essential—though some find it useful—to cultivating a pattern of life.

So valuable is this acquired regularity that it is good even for one’s physiology.

One of the country’s leading authorities on intestinal and stomach disorders and the author of several books in medicine, was questioned, “What advice do you have for people who come in seeking a formula for living to a fine old age?” His answer should be written into the custom book of every religious community.

In a word, regularity. At an early age, or at a later age if he hasn’t thought of it yet, a man should formulate a regime for himself—not what somebody tells him, but what he finds is good for himself.
A man should stress the principle of regularity. After all, he expects his organs to be regular. He expects his heart to beat regularly, the functions of his body to proceed regularly. Is it asking too much of the possessor of these organs himself to be regular? I don’t mean that he has to make his life miserable—quite to the contrary. Regularity can make his life very simple.
Let him proceed to get up at a certain hour—every day the same hour—have his breakfast at the same time.
Then let him proceed to regulate and organize his work at the office. Let him regulate his lunch, so that he hasn’t an early lunch one day and late lunch the next. Let him regulate his drinking and smoking to times when this will not interfere with his thinking, his efficiency. [14]

It is instructive to hear the values of a regular, planned life. It is also imperative for religious to give them the buoyancy that I have seen in people who live pattered lives. It spares them the tension so typical of those who insist on living from one stimulus to the next, whose lives are exciting, one surprise after another but whose only pattern is not being ready for anything God keeps putting into their lives.

Cultivating Good Habits

Our third phase of order underlies the previous two. The minimal structure that is offered to me by the community is filled out by my own planned living, which conscience tells me is willed by God and strongly urged by the Church.

But in order to foster (and maintain) a patterned life and not feel submerged by even the least regulations in the community, I must have learned how to cultivate good habits.

Habit has been called second nature. That is an understatement. It is ten times nature and the degree to which a man recognizes this is the measure of his self-development. William James called habit the flywheel of society and its most precious conserving agent. Yet just because habits are so important, it is useful to avoid confusion on the meaning of terms. Clarification here may also help in the acquisition of the greatest asset in the moral life.

Generally speaking, a habit is a permanent quality according to which a person is well or badly disposed in regard either to his nature or to his activity. In moral theology, it is a relatively stable disposition that inclines a faculty rightly or wrongly to act with ease, readiness and satisfaction in a certain way. If the habit is good is it is a virtue and if bad, a vice. Virtues may be either natural and acquired or supernatural and infused. Acquired virtues or habits are obtained by repeated acts of the operation. But the power of acquisition is not limited to virtues since we can also acquire bad habits by the same process of repetition. Infused virtues are specially conferred by God (infudere = to pour in) through supernatural means; they are not acquired by our efforts.

Although not commonly distinguished among psychologist, theologians carefully separate habits from automatisms that pertain to the sense faculties and not, as do habits, to those human powers which are controlled by the intellect and will. An automatism is like a habit in exhibiting the same regular way of acting, but unlike habits, it is present in the sensitive or motor powers of the body and is not under the domain of the mind and free choice. In fact automatic behavior is defined as doing something without conscious direction or intention, as may happen among the lower animal species. Automatisms may also be induced by means of repetition.

The secret of moral development is to make habitual, as early as possible, as many good actions as we can and guard against growing into ways that are morally bad as we guard against the plague. The more of the details of our moral life we can hand over to the effortless custody of habit the more surely we shall cultivate virtue and perfect our highest spiritual nature.

In the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving of an old one, psychology recommends four great maxims to remember. They have been summarized by William James in a way that apples perfectly to the cultivation of the Christian virtues.

First we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong an initiative as possible. At the outset, a man should accumulate all possible circumstances that reinforce the right motives; make engagements incompatible with the old way; take a public pledge if the case allows; in short, envelop his resolution with every aid he knows.

This will give his new beginning such momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.

Secondly we must never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in our lives. Each lapse is like letting fall a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind up again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the moral system act in the right way.

Some success at the beginning is indispensable. Failure is apt to dampen the energy to keep trying whereas past successes nerve one to future vigor. Goethe, who was no Christian, understood this well. When a man asked him about an enterprise but mistrusted his own powers he was told, “You need only blow on your hands!” The implication was that will-effort at the start is connected with insured success.

Experts differ in individual cases about the wisdom of tapering off in abandoning such habits as over-eating or other defects of weakness. However, the majority would agree that abrupt acquisition of the new habit is the best way, provided there is a real chance of carrying it out. We should be careful not to give the will so stiff a task as to insure its defeat at the outset; but if only one can stand it, a sharp period of suffering and then a free time seems the best thing to aim at, whether in giving up a habit like eating to excess or in simply changing one’s hours of rising and retiring. The surprising thing is how soon a desire will die if it is never fed.

The third rule is to seize the first possible opportunity to act on every resolution we make. No matter how full a reservoir of maxims we may possess, and no matter how good our sentiments may be, if we have not taken advantage of every concrete chance to act our character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. A character has been defined as a completely fashioned will; and a will in this sense is an aggregate of tendencies to act in a firm, prompt and decisive way upon all the principal moral emergencies of life.

Since we are speaking of acquired habits, the tendency to act becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the frequency with which the actions occur and the personality ‘grows’ to their use. When a generous resolve or a fine glow of charity is allowed to evaporate without bearing practical fruit it is worse than a chance lost; it works in such a way as positively to hinder the discharge of future resolutions and moral emotions. There is no more pitiable character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion but who never does a manly act of courage or generosity. Never should we allow ourselves to have a noble feeling while reading a book or saying a prayer or hearing a talk without expressing it later in some active way. It need not be anything heroic and may be as trifling as speaking kindly to a stranger or visiting a sick friend but if carried into practice it will add to the cumulative effect.

Lastly and surprisingly for those who fear the very word ‘mortification,’ we must keep the faculty of effort alive in us by a little gratuitous exercise every day. In a world to grow in virtue we should be systematically ascetic (or heroic) in little necessary points; every day do something for no other reason than that we would rather not do it so that when the hour of dire need arises it may find us nerved and trained to stand the test.

For the natural man, mortification of this sort is like the insurance he pays on his house. The tax does him no good at the time and possibly may never bring him a return. But if the fire does come the premiums he has paid will be his salvation from ruin. So with the person who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will remain standing like a tower when everything around him is shaken and when his softer friends (who may have ridiculed his conduct) are winnowed like chaff in the wind.

For Christians and religious, the motive for periodic self-denial is not only to develop strength of character. It is also to grow in virtue because such is the will of God; and the inspiration to practice mortification is higher than mere self-improvement. It is again the will of God, manifest in the teaching of Christ: “If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine he must leave self behind. He must take up his cross and come with me.” (Matthew 16:24)

Masters of asceticism agree that if we realized we are bundles of habits we would do more to cultivate them. We are literally spinning our moral fate, good or evil, and it is very hard to undo. Every stroke of virtue or vice leaves its mark upon the soul.

The principle beneath the development of a habit is that every action tends to repeat itself. Do it often enough—just do it—and it becomes part of your life. The reward for those who are willing with God’s help, to work at it is the reward promised to those who put order into their lives. They are at peace; and peace, we know, is simply the tranquility of order.


We still have a brief epilogue. It is very short and its purpose is only to reduce to a few words all that I have been trying to say in the book.

Our theme - in spite of appearances to the contrary - was personality development in the religious life.

Religious life, like all life, must grow to keep alive and yet unlike other forms of life this one is not meant to die. It is really the life of God in our souls, whose distinctive species is the practice of the counsels, whose teacher is the history of men and women who passed on their religious ideals to us, whose goal is eternity, or better, the eternal community of saints on high and whose model and motivation is Jesus Christ our Lord.


Chapter 9: Silence, Habit and Daily Order

  1. St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistles, “Letters to the Ephesians,” 15.

  2. St. Athanasius, Life of St. Anthony, p. 85.

  3. St. Basil, Regula major, 13.

  4. The Rule of St. Benedict, “De Humilitate,” 7.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Dom Paul DeLatte, Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedit, (London: Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, 1921), p. 126.

  7. Thomas of Celano, St. Francis of Assisi, (Chicago: Herald Press, 1963), pp. 166-7.

  8. Ibid., p. 167.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Constitutione prime ordinis Fratrum Praedicatorum, I, 17, pp. 203-04.

  11. Constitutione Societatis Jesu, III, 1, 4.

  12. Decree on the Renewal and Adaptation of Religious Life, 17.

  13. Cardinal Ildebrando Antoniutti, Address to Union of Major Superiors of Italy, January 21, 1968.

  14. Joseph F. Mantague, “Can You Work Too Hard?” US News and World Report, February 26, 1968, p. 71.

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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