St. Benedict’s Rule, the Little Silence, and Family Life

If the monks who pray all day need a Little Silence to recoup, so do we.

Fra Angelico, “St. Benedict of Nursia” (c. 1437-1446)
Fra Angelico, “St. Benedict of Nursia” (c. 1437-1446) (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

The first time I that read the Holy Rule of St. Benedict, I was particularly struck by the adaptability of the Rule to family life. This is not to say that a family should follow the Rule to a T. Rather, in our home life we should emulate the virtues that are needed for the particular roles in a monastery. Also, a structured routine of prayer, work and planned relaxation is key for the formation of holiness. I have found that our whole family is happier when we have a routine, and that our routine helps us all learn the discipline required for forming virtuous habits.

One of our good college friends will soon be joining a monastery, and in discussing his future life, I asked him about the daily routine at the monastery. He described his day of waking early to pray, to eat breakfast, to pray, to work, to pray again, to pray more, to eat the afternoon meal, and then what they call “the Little Silence” (as opposed to “the Great Silence” at night). In the Rule, St. Benedict describes it in this way: “After the sixth hour, however, when they have risen from table, let them rest in their beds in complete silence; or if, perhaps, anyone desireth to read for himself, let him so read that he doth not disturb others.” (The Holy Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter XLVIII).

I stopped our friend when he got to “the Little Silence,” exclaiming that we have that in our own family routine. Everyday after lunch, the children spend an hour or so alone looking at books and quietly playing alone with toys. Those of napping age “rest in their beds in complete silence.” The goal of our own Little Silence is for the children to have time each day to learn to love books and time to learn how to be alone in silence. And it is a time for me, as the parent at home, to spend on quiet activities and spend some time alone as well. I think that any parent can appreciate the need to spend an hour or so in silence in the middle of the day.

After the Little Silence, Benedictines return to their work, pray, eat supper, wash up, pray, have recreation and then have their Great Silence. And in our home, that is about what we do with a little less praying and a lot more of getting children to bed. The Great Silence for us begins after the last child comes out of her room for the last time.

But back to the Little Silence: while we the laity live in the world, and contemplatives are called to a vocation more like that of life in Heaven, the afternoon period of rest and reflection is something that we could also incorporate into our lives. I know that for working adults in the world, a time of little silence is not always possible, but parents who are able to be at home with children can incorporate this into their day. For an hour or so of silence can help a child learn how to plan and use their time well, be comfortable in silence, and how to be responsible for the things that they have used when quiet time is over. It is a natural transition from napping to quiet resting, and perhaps the habit of structure in itself could foster a religious vocation.

And while I do not always spend my afternoon time in silence, I use it to do things that I am not able to do at other times of the day. I never use it for cleaning or cooking (except in cases of necessity), but take my Little Silence time to take care of myself. I do things like pray, exercise, shower, read, write, and sometimes sleep. And we have been doing it for so long that while my children do not always remember to stay in their Little Silence spaces and do not always remember to stay quiet, they habitually prepare, plan, and go into their quiet rest time without complaint.

It seems that every year my husband and I add to the monastic like routine of our home life as we grow older, have more children, and consider how to best raise our children to lives of holiness. And we always keep in mind that the routine of a child needs much more room for play than that of an adult whose daily activities should contribute to growing according to one's state. A child grows through prayer, play, and study within a well-ordered home life while an adult grows through work, leisure, and prayer while creating that structure for the child. The child plays while the adult works, but the child also learns how to be like the adult. And I figure, if the monks who pray all day need a Little Silence to recoup, so do we.

This article originally appeared Aug. 18, 2016, at the Register.