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What’s the deal with monks taking vows of silence?

Dear Cecil:

I got a certain morbid thrill from watching the Spanish nuns who were briefly released from their vows of silence to act as cheerleaders for the pope during one of his visits. This led to curiosity about vows of silence, and I asked my parochial-schooled husband about the matter, but he claimed to have no knowledge of the subject. So it's up to you: why do some monks and nuns have vows of silence? Do the vocal chords atrophy after, say, 50 years of this? Do you get expelled if you talk in your sleep? And how about everyday, mundane activities and communication? How do you get someone to pass the sugar (or hair shirt)? Sign language? Scribbled messages?

Joyce K., Seattle

Cecil replies:

Dear Joyce:

Let’s eschew snottiness here, Joyce. There are many among us who would profit from a little enforced quietude. Jesse Jackson, for instance.

Silence teaches self-discipline, and has been a prominent feature of many religious and monastic regimens down through the ages, in both Eastern and Western cultures. Although there are Indian ascetics who claim (via notes, I presume) not to have spoken a word in years, usually silence of this kind is not total.

Trappist monks, for instance, sing hymns and recite prayers on a daily basis, and are permitted to talk when addressed by superiors, when a work assignment demands it, or when escorting guests. Casual conversation is forbidden, but brief dispensations are granted on special occasions. A rudimentary sign language is used when necessary. Talking in your sleep, needless to say, is not punished, and most minor infractions will earn you nothing more serious than some extra penance.

Occasionally, however, more elaborate punishments are prescribed. In one monastery, for instance, talkative monks are assigned lower-status jobs in the monastery shop, where the community earns extra income anodizing such things as animal figurines. Obedient monks are permitted to apply zinc to lions, eagles, and other imposing creatures. “Loose lips,” however, zinc sheeps.

Cecil Adams

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