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Ch. 4: Monastic Vow of Perpetual Silence

A vow of perpetual silence was assumed by several religious orders; but it was observed with different degrees of austerity. Some monks passed their whole lives in profound silence; others spoke on certain days of the week; and others at particular hours of specified days. The modern penitentiary regulations respecting the conversation of prisoners seem to have been derived from the singular customs of the dumb brotherhood.

The members of the mute orders, perpetually concealing their features with their cowls, and their thoughts by their silence, appear to have concluded that secrecy was the substance of religion. He who could conceal the best, and preserve silence the longest, obtained among the devout the useful credit of possessing the most grace. The effusion of the Holy Ghost, which, by a prodigal distribution of tongues, and their clashing jargon, had set the primitive ecclesiastical council in an uproar, and which, by its powerfully stimulating qualities had turned so many cities upside down, had a very different effect on the silent orders of the Catholic Church. While to the former it communicated intuitive knowledge of all languages, to the latter it interdicted as profane the use of any. To pass an entire life without uttering a word, was considered by the dumb friars, as an unquestionable evidence of their having received the unutterable fulness of the Holy Ghost. Whether the primitive church and the Catholic orders were blest with the influence of the same Holy Ghost, or whether the divine spirit politely accommodates the nature of his unction to the demands of particular ecclesiastical exigencies, seems to require some proof, before it can be rationally admitted that profound silence and distracting discord are effects of the same cause.

But the question of truth and error is of a less intricate nature. Truth is candid, open and fearless; error is hidden, intolerant and cowardly. The one challenges investigation; the other denounces it; the one opens its breast to the scrutinizing gaze of the world; the other conceals its features from the most intimate associate. If such is the fearlessness of truth, and such the cowardice of error, the secrecy of the silent orders commends them less to the confidence which candor inspires, than to the suspicion which secrecy begets.

Secrecy is most generally adopted to cover objectionable designs; and, the profounder the former is, the more objectionable are the latter. I speak not of the secret signs by which benevolent societies recognize their members, but of those associations which, while they are professedly designed for religious purposes, conceal their principles and projects from public view. Although in some other respects secrecy may sometimes be suggested by discretion, yet it is often suggested by guilt. All that offend against the natural sentiments of propriety, shrink from the public gaze. Robbery, murder, and every other infraction of civil ordinations seek to shroud their intentions and machinations in the greatest secrecy. The traitor and the highwayman, afar from the searching scrutiny of the inquisitive, retire to solitary forests, inaccessible retreats, and dismal caverns, to hold their conclaves and plot schemes of blood and depredation. Evasion, prevarication and disguise are the inseparable concomitants of guilt. So secret is crime that its perpetration can generally only be established by circumstantial evidence. Secrecy is, therefore, naturally calculated to excite suspicion; it seldom means good; it generally means evil; sometimes robbery, frequently murder, often treason, always some plot so antagonistical to reason and the welfare of society that its projectors are conscious that publicity would endanger, and perhaps defeat its execution.

The shocking crimes which the pious monasteries concealed have frequently been divulged by those who have escaped from their cloisters, but what unutterable deeds the taciturnity of the mute monks sanctioned may not be so clearly proved as naturally imagined. That it was exceedingly profitable will appear evident upon a moment's reflection. These dumb friars were confessors, and as they never uttered a word, they acquired the confidence of the most desperate criminals. The Jesuits, who could not disclose the startling secrets of their order without alarming the fears of temporal princes, confessed to none but to the silent monks. All the devout who contemplated the commission of the crimes of murder, sedition, or treason, preferred to unbosom their designs to the taciturn fraternity, and receive through their agency the absolution and indulgence of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. But the connivance of the church at criminal deeds could be commanded only by the power of gold; and the amount requisite for expiation was always in proportion to the atrociousness of the crime. Now, as the commission of the highest misdemeanors most imminently endangered the life and liberty of the perpetrators; it is as easy to see the munificent pecuniary advantages which perpetual silence obtained for the monks, as it is to see that the most flagitious criminals would prefer disclosing their intentions to the most silent lips.

It may here be remarked, by way of explanation, that confessors are not bound, as is generally supposed, to inviolate secrecy. The secrets of the confessional may be communicated from one priest to another; and, when a confessor desires to make public use of any information which has been confessed to him, he adopts the artifice of requesting the informer to communicate the matter to him out of the confessional.

The dumb friars, not less artful than secret, elaborated a system of sacred gesticulations, by which they managed to express their wants and desires with as much force as they could have done with their tongues. Although grimace and gesticulation were more clumsy and less varied in their signs than is vocal articulation, yet by this means the dumb monks contrived, as occasion suggested, to describe, command, supplicate, scorn, imprecate, curse or bless. This odd device was well adapted to the non-committal policy of the religious orders, as it enabled them to affirm, deny, impugn, slander; to threaten any dignity, anathematize any power, and commit any crime of which language is capable, without incurring responsibility, violating any legal enactment, rendering themselves amenable to any tribunal, or answerable for the breach of any code of honor.

The adoption of this ingenious device to avoid compliance with unnatural obligations, affords an instance of the singular duplicity into which the subtilty of pious craft may betray human nature. The misfortune of being born a mute is justly classed among the most deplorable calamities that can afflict a human being. The natural privations of such a person elicit in his favor the condoling sympathies of all considerate persons. Yet in order to accomplish secret purposes of ambition or cupidity, the dumb monks resigned the most important advantages with which Nature had enriched them, and gratuitously assumed all the disadvantages that the greatest calamity could have imposed. If there was nothing reprehensible in the taciturn fraternity but this curious departure from the natural use of the human faculties, it alone would be sufficient to subject them to the suspicion of the candid, and the aversion of the prudent.

The tongue, it must be confessed, is sometimes an unruly member, but it is also the noblest blessing of the human organism. It is among the most prominent characteristics that distinguish the human from the brute creation. It is mostly by the means of the judicious employment of speech that the ignorant are instructed, the afflicted consoled, and the cause of truth and freedom defended. It is by it that error is detected, vice intimidated, and superstition and despotism are exposed. The interchange of opinion, the animating power of debate, the searching inquisition of truth, the spontaneous sallies of wit, the exhilarating effusions of humor, the burst of eloquence, the lore of philosophy, art, science, all the natural overflowing of the soul, find in the varied and expressive functions of speech their most available avenues for the outlet of their respective treasures. Speech is a reflective blessing; it blesses him who exercises it, and him upon whom it is exercised. None can use with propriety their vocal powers without improving them; none can instruct without being instructed; none can advocate truth without being enlightened by its beams. It is a means which all possess of imparting consolation; which enriches the more prodigally it is dispensed; which the poorest may bestow on the richest; which is always the cheapest, often the most valuable, and sometimes the only one that can avail. When speech is free and un-trammeled by the fetters of intolerance, it is the most efficacious mode of improving the moral and intellectual tone of society. It is more powerful than legal enactments, and has been more successful than dungeons, racks, and all the prescriptions of tyranny combined. Laws may interdict and gibbets terrify, but neither can convince the understanding, nor purify the sources of action. But freedom of speech enters the soul, converses with the intellect, sifts opinions, and moulds the nature of man into order and justice. She enters the halls of legislation and erects right into law. She enters the court and gives equity to judicial proceedings. She enters a community and breaks the iron of slavery, bestows equality on all, and enthrones in power public opinion. She enters a nation of slaves and makes them a nation of sovereigns. She is the great redeemer of the moral world. Her touch has healed its disorders; her voice has calmed its storms; her spirit has reanimated its dead. Such being her mission, none but impostors need fear her scrutiny; none but bigots need dread her vengeance; none but tyrants need tremble at her approach.

Yet, notwithstanding the immense advantages the power of speech confers on its possessors, the silent monks have resigned all right to its use and sought an equality with dumb brutes. Whatever motives of religion may have mingled with the consummation of this atrocious folly, it atones not for the good it has prohibited the monks from doing, nor the luxurious pleasure it has obliged them to forego. If it is consistent with the secret designs of any religious order to iron the faculties of speech in eternal silence, it is not consistent with the designs of Nature, the dictate of reason, nor the progress of man. If it is consistent with the obligations of any religious organization to prohibit the exercise of those powers by which error is checked, truth promoted, virtue fortified, and the world enlightened, it is not consistent with the obligations of man, the purest instincts of his being, and the noblest virtues of his nature. If it is consistent with the principles of any version of religion to view with dumb indifference the errors it might correct, or the sorrows it might heal, it is not consistent with the instinctive prompting of knowledge or of natural sympathy. And if such designs, obligations and principles are consistent with the faith and practice of the Catholic Church, she is a curse to the world, at variance with the general interests of society, opposed to the most sacred rights of man, an enemy to human knowledge, to human progress, and to human sympathy. A slavery so abject, an absurdity so gross, and a despotism so monstrous, as that which she sanctions, should consign her reverence to contempt, and her holiness to the scorn and ridicule of all enlightened nations and ages.