Author: St. Louis de Montfort




I. Rhythms of Silence in Montfort’s Life. II. Canticle of Silence: 1. Silence as victory over evils of the tongue; 2. Value of silence; 3. Rules for speaking well; 4. A Message to sanctimonious people; 5. Prayer. III. Spiritual Dimensions of Silence According to Montfort: 1. Sanctification of silence; 2. Silence and spiritual maturity: a. Silence and Wisdom, b. Silence and cultivation of the Tree of Life. IV. Silence and Montfort Spirituality Today: 1. Need for silence today; 2. The Montfort spirit.

I. Rhythms of Silence in Montfort’s Life

A liking for silence was a constant in Montfort’s life, and many of the rhythms of silence were evident over the course of his life. Silence had a variety of meanings and motivations for him in the course of life’s trials. Sometimes his silence seemed an avoidance of the world, a tendency to isolation and inactivity. Actually, though, the silence of Montfort’s lived experience was a silence filled with reverence for God. It was a silence that not only led him to prayer, but flowered into an active zeal to communicate with others in order to glorify God. Even in childhood according to Grandet, his first biographer he was “distancing himself from the company of young people his age, from worldly persons, and [he was] avoiding taking part in their amusements,” and Louis Marie “would withdraw to some corner of the house to pray.”1

It is particularly interesting that his childhood experience of silence and prayer did not turn Montfort into himself. Instead, it caused him to become more unselfish, especially in to comforting his mother. He urged his younger sister and his companions to prayer.2

At Rennes, according to his hagiographer, Blain, Louis Marie was socially reserved.3 The example, influence, and training of the Jesuit shis teachers at the College fostered in him a taste for God. He was struck by the heroic silence of Father Gilbert, when the boys ridiculed him.4 In his youth, Louis Marie was regarded by his fellow student Blain as “born with a most profound memory, and with a constancy of prayer.”5

At Paris, this tendency to silence grew, since the director of his residence, Father de la Barmondière, “placing no limits on his own fervor, gave free rein to that of his disciple.” Then Louis’ fervor became “practically continuous, nothing could stop it, so strongly did he seem drawn to God. He prayed several hours a day, and gave a great deal of time to spiritual reading.”6

It is certain that under the influence of mystical authors like Surin, and following his own inclination, Louis Marie opted for the “science of the saints.” Silence, recollection, mortification, and austerities were its important ingredients.7 Even in his leisure time he chose recollection. He wanted only to converse with Jesus and Mary.

His superiors judged his intense life of contemplation to be dangerous. They prevailed upon him to relax during his periods of recreation. On a pilgrimage to Chartres as a seminarian, he experienced a remarkable time of union with God and the Blessed Virgin, interrupted only by the zealous deeds it moved him to perform. Kneeling before the Blessed Virgin in the underground chapel, “he persevered for six or seven continuous hours, from early morning till noon, motionless, and as if in ecstasy.”8 His companion was amazed at how a young person could be recollected for nearly an entire day without interruption. He was in awe at how Montfort remained in a kind of profound prayer of ecstasy.9

At the Saint-Clément residence for priests in Nantes, Montfort lived a special period of silence, devoting himself earnestly to the task of spiritual discernment. He had moved into the community of Father Lévêque, intending to be trained for the missions, but he had become disappointed: the community prevented him from realizing his hope. This difficulty thrust him into a period of deep discernment. In it he discovered the nature of his “secret attraction for a hidden life in which I can efface myself and combat my natural tendency to show off” (L 5).

Later, after the failures in the Poitiers and Paris poorhouses, he would wonder “whether, in order to abandon himself to this powerful attraction [to prayer], he should not refrain from, or at least suspend for a time, the functions of the ministry.”10 But Montfort came to see this ostensible calling to the eremitical life as a temptation against the apostolic vocation which won out in him. He wrote, “my own inclinations . . . have always been and still are for mission work” (L 11). Montfort himself testified to the meaning of silence when, in 1702, at Poitiers, he was the object of criticism and persecution because of the reforms he had introduced in the poorhouse: “During this painful period, I kept silent and lived in retirement putting my cause into the hands of God and relying on his help. . . . To this end I went for a week’s retreat to the Jesuits” (L 11). Montfort’s silence was not a simple absence of words or activity. It belonged to the mystical dimension of “Yahweh’s poor,” who, in trusting silence, looked to God for salvation (Lam 3:26; Ps 37:7; Isa 10:15). It was a silence filled with trust in God Alone, a silence bound to the Cross, the consequence of evangelical choices. Whenever he met the Cross, then, Montfort did not complain but turned to silence, accepting with reverence God’s will. This was how the missionary behaved when the vicar general of Poitiers publicly reprimanded him for indiscreet zeal.11 Not that Montfort was insensitive to humiliations and crosses; the famous case of the Pontchateau calvary was proof enough of this. On September 13, 1710, he received an emissary of the bishop of Nantes who ordered him not to proceed with the blessing of the site. The missionary traveled all night to Nantes to speak to the bishop, who confirmed what he had ordered Montfort to do. Father Olivier attested that a few days later, while reading a letter in which the bishop demanded that he destroy the Calvary, Montfort burst into tears.12

Periods of silence punctuated Montfort’s life. Sometimes it was by necessity, at other times it was by choice. The bishops prevented his missionary activities, but he profited from these periods of rest by living a life of more intense prayer and by writing the works that extended his preaching on the subjects dearest to his heart: Wisdom, the Cross, the Rosary, and so on. He also tasted the “eloquent silence” (H 157:13) of a nature as yet unspoiled by the heavy footstep of man. The Mervent woods, the hermitages of St. Eloi and St. Lazare, are three places dear to Montfort and to the Montfort tradition. They remind us of the missionary’s determination to alternate between proclaiming the Word in action, and listening in silence. Montfort’s silence was always the silence of the contemplation of God Alone, “the silence of adoration and wonderment in the presence of the Ineffable, a silence of ongoing availability to God, a silence in the spirit of the beatitudes, which Wisdom has taught us in order to set us free from the blindness in which sin has cast us” (LEW 153).

Montfort’s writings later explained his idea of silence and furnish us with a key for the interpretation of the silent rhythms that punctuated his existence.

II. Canticle of Silence

Montfort devotes an entire metrical composition, forty-nine couplets long, to silence: “The Wisdom of Silence” (H 23). We shall use this canticle as a starting place in order to enter into Montfort’s idea of silence. This hymn, like those on other virtues, actually constitutes a little treatise. A very precise order has been observed in its mode of presentation. The marginal notes offer us (although, unfortunately, they break off at couplet 31) the essential structure of the canticle, which has five parts. After giving a basic definition of silence, “the closing of the mouth and heart to creatures in order to be perfect and to glorify the Lord” (H 23:1), Montfort dedicates several couplets to illustrating the five points of his idea of silence.

1. Silence as victory over evils of the tongue (2-11)

Inspired by the well known passage Jas 3:5-10, against intemperance in language, Montfort groups together the motivations which guard a person against the inordinate use of the tongue. He disciplines this “little piece of flesh” (H 23:3) and uses a flood of metaphors to do so: “poisoned dart,” “sword soft but deadly,” “terrible monster” (H 23:3, 4, 7). Montfort lists the sins committed by the tongue: swearing, cursing, outbursts, blasphemy, and so on. He concludes by calling the tongue the “compendium of all iniquities” (H 23:5) and proposes silence as the “infallible remedy” for this great evil (H 23:7). Putting the title of the canticle to use, Montfort contrasts the chatterbox with the wise person: the former is a “big ball full of air, . . . an empty pot” (H 23:8-10).

2. Value of silence (12-20)

While the first point urges an avoidance of the sinful use of the tongue, the second dwells in a positive way on the “excellence of silence.” The basic idea was that silence was not some empty, sterile thing but a reality filled with hidden treasure, fostering a high spirituality. Silence is the “divine training school” of divine thoughts and intense joys (H 23:12), “a divine school for learning to speak well” (H 23:13), “the father of prayer, . . . the companion of wisdom, . . . the book of the wise and the ignorant” (H 23:14-16). Silence interiorized a faith which without it would become “sterile and wavering” (H 23:17). Saint Louis Marie gives concrete examples of silence: God, Who spoke very little ad extra, “outside,” but so much ad intra, “within”; Christ, who “for thirty years kept silence”; Mary, who “stored up in her heart the most divine words”; the saints, for whom silence was a “beatitude” (H 23:18-20). Montfort adds that the lesson of silence also comes from the “sages of Greece,” who preserved their quiet precisely in order “to obtain the gift of a great wisdom” (H 23:20).

3. Rules for speaking well (21-32)

Having convinced the reader of the importance of silence, Montfort moves on to outlining the practical norms: “how” and “when” to speak. Surely one must speak “prudently,” in order to avoid irreparable evils; “rarely,” in order to accord listening the primacy; “truly,” without lying; “charitably,” in order to edify; “wisely,” without being persistent; “modestly,” or in a low voice; “humbly,” without adopting a magisterial tone; and “holily,” without hypocrisy or human respect (H 23:23-29). As to times and places, Montfort specified that one should avoid speaking in church, since it would be “an irreverence” to God (H 23:31-32).

4. A Message to sanctimonious people (33-43)

Taking as his point of departure the question of speaking in church, Montfort delivers a humorous diatribe against sanctimonious people. Playing on words, he bemoans the “blindly devout,” who ceaselessly chatter and risk “holily to be damned by devout language” (H 23:33). His description of a devout chatterbox is well done: “Talking of every idle thing, / prattling ‘round the clock, / gazing first this way, then that, / racing from street to street, / nosing into any novelty / O pious one and lost!” (H 23:24). Tirelessly, Montfort proceeds in this tone, with women especially in mind: “Oh, yes, the nasty thing loves to talk! / she cannot shut her mouth! / bad talk, grumbling, babbling / Her one sole business!” (H 23:37).

He poetically attacks the “faddish devout” person. He could not abide her pretentious patristic references (“She cites Augustine, Jerome, Hilary”) publicly displaying her knowledge. Noticing, however, that she has gone too far, she decides to break off: “I’m saying too much, I’ll stop” (H 23:43).

5. Prayer (45-49)

Montfort feels a need to conclude the hymn by imploring God to help him to control his tongue and begin then to practice silence. He asks for the strength to curb his tongue, and for a “burning coal” to purify his lips. Taking up once more his initial idea of silence, Montfort proposes to close off his senses to creatures and to open his heart to God Alone: “Lord, speak to my heart!” (H 23:46). A speech addressed to God Alone is the wise person’s ideal (H 23:47).

On this note, of contrasting God and creatures, Montfort brings his Canticle of Silence to a close. Precisely because of this note, it should to be situated in the Saint-Sulpice period, when the influence of Surin and Boudon especially encouraged Louis Marie the seminarian to concentrate on prayer and silence.

III. Spiritual dimensions of Silence According to Montfort

The topic of silence also appears in Montfort’s other writings—sometimes from different points of view not considered in Hymn 23. We shall try to point them out, grouping them under two aspects dear to Montfort’s heart.

1. Sanctification of silence

Montfort insisted on the exterior observance of silence. To the Daughters of Wisdom he recommended they be very firm in “keeping silence and seeing that it is kept in the community and in the school” (L 29). He regarded silence as necessary in the schools (RW 282), given children’s tendency to laugh and shout. He asked the missionaries of the Company of Mary to keep silence, especially during meals, and when they retired for the night (RM 34, 72, 77). He recommended that the Daughters of Wisdom “faithfully observe silence at all times save during the two hours of recreation after meals and whenever charity, obedience or the duties of their office require them to do otherwise” (RW 75). As we see, it was not a question of setting rigid rules and observing them mechanically. Silence was not an absolute value but something to be ruled by charity and obedience. When a Sister interrupted her silence because her task demanded it, she should not see herself at fault (RW 262). With his practical sense, Montfort put the Daughters of Wisdom on their guard not only against the “longing women ordinarily have to talk” (RW 82) but also against “being so taciturn by their misplaced silence that they become ordinarily burdensome in any conversation” (RW 229).

Silence and speech ought to be regulated, Montfort went further and demanded that silence be sanctified. “Sanctify your silence” (RW 85). How was one to sanctify silence? While linking silence both with Wisdom and with the Cross (TD 273; LEW 200; H 100:45), Montfort preferred to join silence to prayer to “your holy silence and your continual prayer” (PS 3:2): “They will . . . engage in silent prayer” (PS 3:4). “I love to pray in secret, in silence” (H 12:24). “Sanctify your silence by vocal or mental prayer, according to your inclination” (RW 85). The silence that St. Louis Marie wanted was an open space for an encounter with God in prayer.

For Montfort, the special places of silence were in the outer world and within the inner “I.” In the presence of natural creation—in the shadows of the forest, beside clear waters, at the mouths of deep caverns, and amidst all the beauties of nature, he experienced an “eloquent silence” (H 157:13) and cried out, “What silence! What talk!” (H 155:12). Nature actually conveyed spiritual messages, which sometimes protested the pollution generated by human beings: “These immobile rocks / look innocent enough / but condemn the cities / with their air so vile!” (H 99:24). While God was everywhere, there was a special inner, hidden place where the divine presence reigned: the human heart. Montfort made Augustine’s invitation his own” In teipsum redi: return within thyself!” when he said: “Let us all return within ourselves, / in secret, in silence, / to see God present there / more than in any other place” (H 24:39).

2. Silence and spiritual maturity

Montfort’s discourse on silence was connected with the Marian Christocentric spirituality that he lived and taught to others. From this standpoint, silence was necessary for acquiring Wisdom and for the cultivating of the “Tree of Life.”

a. Silence and Wisdom.

First, it was Wisdom Incarnate that furnished us with the example of an ineffable, paradoxical silence. The mystery of the Incarnation brings us into the silence of that wonder-filled nine months’ sojourn for Jesus in Mary’s virginal womb; “From the outset He would fain / repose in silence there, / to offer Himself to the Father Eternal / upon the altar of her heart” (H 134:2).

Montfort’s hymns spoke of the manger of Bethlehem as the paradox of the Eternal Word of the Father, reduced to the silence of a tiny, speechless infant! Montfort manifested his astonishment in Bérullian terms: “The Eternal is one day old. / The Word falls silent” (H 57:1). All wrapped in silence, little Jesus was nonetheless eloquent with his smile and his tenderness, which ravished the hearts of the shepherds and the magi (H 9:5). Montfort insisted: “This dear child, today / speaks to us in His silence” (H 61:2) and revealed to us, in poverty, his immense love. As a grown-up, Jesus continued to give us examples of a life of silence, when he kept silence for thirty years at Nazareth (H 23:18) and sojourned for forty days in the desert: “All without drinking or eating, / in silence, in prayer” (H 16:7).

If silence marked the coming of Wisdom among us, then it ought to typify, as well, those who go in quest of Wisdom. For Montfort, it will not do merely to declare that “the sage is a silent one” (H 23:11). One must endow silence with a Christological dimension: “Be silent with others, so as to converse with the divine Wisdom” (LEW 200). It was not surprising that Montfort insisted on “mental prayer,” which, as words fall still, “disposes the soul to listen to the voice of Wisdom, to savor his delights and possess his treasures” (LEW 193).

b. Silence and the cultivation of the Tree of Life.

Montfort revealed his secret of holiness in The Secret of Mary. It is an abbreviation of his Marian doctrine and spirituality anyone can understand and appreciate. In its conclusion, he included a little code for the spiritual life, entitled “Care and Growth of the Tree of Life” (SM 70-78). He identified six counsels for cultivating this Tree. He developed the primary forms of behavior in a Christian who welcomed Mary into his or her life and wished to be receptive, open, and available to God. He nuanced that complex attitude which gives birth to authentic silence, and which manifests its profound wealth. The Tree is planted in the soul by the Holy Spirit. It is one’s gift of oneself to Jesus through Mary’s hands. It must be cultivated. To this end, Montfort exhorts us to rein ourselves in, to enter and to remain in an atmosphere steeped in silence: the silence of a gaze directed on God, of attention to God, of contemplation (SM 72). It is plain, then, that one cannot rely on one’s simple human talents, or on the support of other people. One must impose silence on the instinctive need for human props. One must have recourse, instead, to the help of Mary (SM 71). If one’s gaze is fixed on God, the divine light shows the obstacles that harm the cultivation of the Tree of Life useless pleasures, vain occupations and it shows the soul the need for mortification and self-control. Here Montfort’s reference to silence is explicit. One must “keep a guard over the tongue, and mortify the bodily senses” (SM 73). In order to cultivate the Tree of Life, continual prayer is very important, a prayer overflowing with faith, and made strong by public prayer and the Sacraments (SM 96). At this point, Montfort foresees that “the storm-winds of temptation will threaten to bring it down, and snow and frost tend to smother it” (SM 77). This was the fate foreseen for TD as well. It will be buried “in the darkness and silence of a chest” (TD 114). This should not be surprising for it falls into the divine logic of the first being last and the last first. The fruit of the Tree of Life is Jesus, who is, was, and will always be the fruit of Mary. Happy the soul “which savors the sweetness of Mary’s fruit and preserves it up till death and then beyond to all eternity” (SM 78)!

IV. Silence and Monfort Spirituality Today

In view of man’s need for silence today, Montfort’s thoughts on it seem especially relevant.

1. Need for silence today

It is clearly evident that in today’s world, there is an urgent need to rediscover an atmosphere of silence. We live in a noisy society with a pop culture overwhelmed by the deafening sound of its music. Noise camouflages the ceaseless, unconfessed fear of discovering an inner void. Carl Jung, the celebrated psychologist observed: “Most people fear silence when the continual noise assaulting their worldly antennae falls still. For one must constantly be acting, speaking, whistling, singing, coughing, or mumbling something. The need for noise is all but insatiable, even if at times the noise is unbearable.” Personal growth is arrested by such a banal form of existence. People may never achieve authentic existence because they remain mired in world of chatter. “Prattle is the shame of language,” Blanchot said.13 One must agree: chatter is “speaking for speaking’s sake emitting noises, not sounds; and unfortunately, in our day babbling has become our speech, from the politician to the theologian.”14 Yet everywhere we see a quest for silence and for great relaxation. People are fond of taking vacations in a rural atmosphere, far out in the country, where the air is pure. This may be in order to “defend ourselves,” says Romano Guardini, “against the everlasting flow of chatter that floods the world, like a person afflicted with bronchial congestion who earnestly wants to breathe freely.” The attraction to yoga, Zen, a technique enabling a so-called immersion in the river of being, the quest for spiritual masters of the East, for experts on the inner rather than on the outer world, all seems to be on the upsurge. Schools of prayer, hermitages, and charismatic groups of all forms and types are multiplying. Nor do we lack books on silence, or theological symposia on silence. What we do lack is more people who will seek their mysterious silence in the authentic “eternal silence” of the Father, Who is the “hidden depth of utterance, the goal and native land of the obedience of faith in the Verbum, the Word.”15 The need for silence is evident. On one level it is a need with its origin in the stress of physical and psychological fatigue; in discouragement, in the bitter, unaccepted realization of one’s own limits, helplessness, failures. On a deeper level it is a call to rest in God.

Fruitful silence is taught by Holy Scripture: “It is good to wait in silence for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam 3:26). “Silence before him, all the earth!” (Hab 2:20). Silence implies casting our gaze upon God, upon His transcendence, upon His love. This is the faith of silence. It listens in order to respond in prayer and obedience. It is a humble silence, which defeats selfishness and discovers God, the Absolute, the Ineffable.

2. The Montfort spirit

Montfort lived this gospel silence before God Alone. He listened to God’s Word. The lesson emerging from Montfort’s life is that one must learn to alternate between silence and word, between contemplation and proclamation, between direct dialogue with God and missionary activity among one’s brothers and sisters. Montfort portrayed silence in its various dimensions, presenting it as a positive reality, as a path to Wisdom and as a basic factor in spiritual growth. Human beings must discover that it is essential that their lives lead to God, and to live in God’s presence. Otherwise they will remain outside life, like a fish out of water, Montfort says (H 24:19). Silence has meaning and fecundity if it is conscious of the presence of God. Montfort sings this for thirty-nine couplets, in which he sets forth the motivations and counsels concerning the “holy practice of God’s presence” (H 24). And above all, Montfort proposes silence before the mystery of God and assimilation of the Wisdom of the Gospel. “The mystery of Christ as Eternal Wisdom, incarnate in Mary for man’s salvation, is the radiant center of Montfort spirituality, the ‘unifying’ viewpoint that imparts a particular coloration to a way of living the whole Christian life.”16 In the elements and nuances of the particular Montfort shading of the Christian life, we find, doubtless, that intimate silence of the soul that, in Montfort’s school, reveals a secret of sanctity in an incarnational spirituality. Here is the mystery of contemplative silence, of wonder in the presence of a God “truly lavish with himself in his desire to be with man!” (LEW 71). Through the mighty realism of his couplets, a style of his era, Montfort displayed a vision of the specific, concrete sufferings of the Passion, suffered and endured by Jesus without a murmur. Piously, in seven hymns (H 128-34), he sang of the silence of the incarnate word in the Eucharist. We note the nuances in feelings Montfort expressed about various aspects of Jesus’ silence in the Eucharist. They are praise, wonder, gratitude, and lament at humans’ incomprehension, and desire for reparation by a great love. And Father de Montfort’s silence is a contemplation of the pleasure and satisfaction of Jesus in his Eucharistic relationship with Mary. Sister Marie Louise of Jesus, Montfort’s disciple, contemplated this mystery of silence in a mystical state, feeling called as she did to become an image of the silence of God throughout eternity and the silence of Jesus in the Eucharist.17 And this is the silence of Wisdom, says Montfort. Silence is the guide and guardian of the soul, the fuel of its flame. Silence and Wisdom are inseparable (H 23:15). Only through an experience of authentic silence, an interior attitude of freedom, humility, and contemplation, can we fully grasp Montfort’s call to center our lives on the quest and contemplation of Wisdom, who has become flesh for us. Here we discover the mystery of Mary, her place willed by God in the divine salvific plan: “An associate of unique nobility, and the Lord’s humble handmaid” (LG 61). In his spirituality, Montfort proposes attitudes to be fostered by “special interior practices for those who wish to be perfect” (TD 258-65). Montfort’s proposal cannot be lived apart from a profound silence: a silence of the soul that allows itself to be guided by the Spirit of God, Who has power to lead it to the gift of mystical silence. This is the gift to which Montfort himself testifies when he says: “Behold the unbelievable: / I carry Our Lady in the midst of me, / graven in strokes of glory, / Although in the darkness of faith” (H 77:15).

I. Chiari

Notes: (1) Grandet, 3-4. (2) Ibid., 2-3. (3) Blain, 2. (4) Ibid., 2- 4. (5) Ibid., 8. (6) Ibid., 25. (7) Itinerario, 178-79. (8) Blain, 100. (9) Ibid., 101. (10) Ibid., 117. (11) Grandet, 92. (12) Grandet, 161-62. (13) M. Blanchot, L’amitié (Friendship), Gallimard, Paris 1971, 145. (14) M. Baldini, Le dimensioni del silenzio nella poesia, nella filosofia . . . (The dimensions of silence in Poetry, in Philosophy, Etc.), Città Nuova, Rome 1988, 9. (15) B. Forte, Teologia della storia: Saggio sulla rivelazione, l’inizio e il compimento (Theology of History: Essay on Revelation, the Beginning and the Fulfillment), Edizioni Paoline, Cinisello Balsamo, Italy 1991, 63-64. (16) A. Bossard, Le mystère de la Sagesse éternelle incarnée en Marie pour le salut du monde (The Mystery of the Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom in Mary for the Salvation of the World), in DMon (September 1986), 2. (17) Lettres de Marie Louise de Jésus, private printing, Generalate of the Daughters of Wisdom, Rome 1981, 11.

Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).

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