Vows of Silence

A person held a vow of silence for ten years during childhood. I was wondering about the longest known vow of silence, how long was it, and what broke it?

I suppose I should say the absolutist vow…as a vow of silence could obviously vary in application. A total lack of speech or communicative sounds kind of silence.

I can’t speak to a vow of silence, but my great aunt was mute from when she went into a mental institution (1928) until when she died (1952). Up until that point she was completely capable of speech.


James Earl Jones was mute for a long time as a child. He is a stutterer today. And yet he is known for his magnificent voice.

I was mute for a short time in about 1963 or 1964 when I was in college. It couldn’t have lasted more than a day or two and my parents had me admitted to a hospital where I was diagnosed with depression. Or maybe I had been diagnosed before. That period is very blurred in my memory.

plnnr, if it’s any comfort to you, I could have spoken. That much I remember. I mean physically I was capable of speech. But emotionally I felt disconnected from any reason to speak or any way of being “present” in the person who would have done the speaking. It was as if I had gone away. I didn’t feel sad so much as I felt empty of me.

James Earl Jones stutters? I just can’t picture Darth Vader saying, “Luke, I am your f-f-f-f-f-f-f-father.”

Now, Fireclown, you behave.

Here’s your link.

There is a psychological condition called “selective mutism” where a person can speak but chooses not to. It is most common with severely abused children. I know from experience that you can make a child do a lot of things, but speech is not one of them. It’s a type of gaining control when you have none.

Torey Hayden is an expert in treating this condition, and has written several books about the children she has helped.

Some autistic children also stop speaking. The story of Jacqueline Susann’s son Guy is heartbreaking. One day he started screaming in the park and screamed for two days, then went mute. The only time he ever spoke again was a day when Jackie asked him “When are you going to talk.” The child said “When I’m ready.” He never spoke again.

Oddly enough, it’s not uncommon for stutterers to do just fine with a script or a song. It’s when they speak their own words that stuttering or cluttering happens.

Nicholas Brendan, Xander on Buffy, is another famous stutterer. Derek Jacobi another.

Country singer Mel Tillis has a severe stutter

Actual, total vows of silence, where one undertakes never to speak, are extremely rare. The actual vow of silence that occurs, e.g., in Trappist monasteries and on some religious retreats, is quite different. It is a vow not to speak unnecessarily, as an aid to meditation and the furtherance of an inward religious quest.

Things exempted from this sort of ‘vow of silence’ include:
[ul][li]Gesture, ranging from a nod of greeting to pointing to the salt shaker. Some Trappist and similarly silent monasteries have a quite complex code of gestures, ranging from “Please pass me today’s vegetable after you have served yourself” to “You have the cow-milking duty today.”[/li][li]Group prayer, response, etc. Participating in communal prayer is distinct from conversation. (In a way, it depends on Whom you’re talking to. ;))[/li][li]Emergencies and announcements. The object is to discourage casual ‘making conversation’ speech in favor of quiet for meditative purposes; obviously, that which is necessary for daily life or to save lives in emergency is not casual conversation.[/li][li]If you are the chosen interface with the outside world, dealing with guests or visitors, on a given day, you are released from your vow of silence for that day to facilitate your task. Interestingly, this is looked on as an onerous duty, not a vacation from the rule of silence.[/ul][/li]
Much like Jewish Sabbath rules, the eschewing of a given set of possible human actions is pursued, not for its own sake and legalistically, but instead in aid of what the practitioners see as a greater good, related to their religious faith.

A ‘Type-A’ businessman became overstressed by the demands of his business, and suffered a mild nervous breakdown. His physicians determined that his recovery would best be aided by sending him to be a guest at a silent monastery, where the only interaction he would need to deal with was the twice-daily prayers, which they felt would help bring him peace.

At this monastery, the abbot, though he kept to his rule of silence, had a sonorous baritone singing voice, and it was his custom to lead the prayers. And as a gesture of brotherhood, before the morning and evening prayer offices, he would chant out to the assembled monks, “Good morning, brothers” or “Good evening, brothers,” to which they would chant in response, “Good morning, abbot” or “Good evening, abbot.”

The businessman, being a guest, was permitted to sleep in through the morning prayers at dawn, but joined the monks for the evening service, and came to enjoy joining with them in the chants.

After a week or so, he decided to get up and attend the morning prayer service as well. And he joined the monks and entered the chapel with them.

The abbot sang out in his resonant baritone, “Good morning, brothers” and the monks chanted back “Good morning, abbot.” But the businessman, conditioned by the response at the evening service, chanted back, “Good evening, abbot” without thinking.

The abbot paused. Then he chanted out, “Someone chanted ‘evening’!” A pause. “He must be a stranger!”


Unca Cecil’s take!


He did not just say that, did he? Where’s Cecil’s vow of silence when you really need one? :smiley:

This reminds me of a Taoist parable I read once.

A man seeking enlightenment on the nature of the world learns of a monastery that is as famous for the wisdom of the senior clerics as it is for the strict vow of silence involved in their study. For the first five years the monks are only allowed to speak once a year, on the anniversary of their entering the temple, and then only to speak a single, two-word sentence to the Abbot. Deciding that such a program must surely yield results, he enrolls as an initiate.

After one year, the Abbot grants him his annual audience and asks him what he has to say. The man thinks it over, and then says, “Food… Terrible!” The Abbot nods sympathetically, and admits that their vegetarian diet is rather unvarying.

After another year, the Abbot again summons him in for an audience, and this time the man points to one of the straw mats the monks sleep on. “Bed… Hard!” The Abbot nods again, agreeing that the weave of the straw was tighter than customary, but was necessary to make the mats last longer.

On the third year anniversary, without even waiting for the Abbot to summon him, the man walks up to the Abbot and says “I… QUIT!”

“Well, that’s no surprise,” replied the Abbot. “All you ever do is complain.”

I don’t think Derek Jacobi stutters. He’s just famous for playing both Claudius and Alan Turing with a stutter. I can’t find a cite, but I distinctly remember reading an interview with him once, where he remarked about the number of people who thought he had a stutter and had lucked into the perfect role as Claudius.

You might be right. I’ve not read it in anything authoritative, mostly “Stutter/Stammer FAQ, Don’t worry, you’re not alone” sort of cites. At the time, I wondered if that was why his stammer as Claudius was so good - if he was able to somehow turn his natural, outgrown stammer back on. But I might simply have believed erroneous rumor. It’s happened before. :wink:

Nicholas Brendan, however, I’ll stand by: he did some print ads for the The Stuttering Foundation.

(Note: “stutter” and “stammer” refer to the same thing. “Stutter” is used in the US and “stammer” in the UK. “Clutter” (which I used before) is a similar, although not identical, speech disorder.)

Quoth Polycarp:

You missed one, for the Trappists at least. The monks may also speak if given permission by a superior in the order (typically the abbot/abbess or prior/prioress of the monastery).

For a while, our answering machine message was “We’re sorry we can’t come to the phone right now, we’ve all taken a monastic vow of silence. If you leave us your name and number, we’ll call you back when the abbot gives us permission to speak.”. But we had to change it, when an actual abbot did happen to call, and gave us permission.

On the subject of James Earl Jones, the stutter is actually the reason for his famous voice. For some reason, most stutterers only stutter with their natural voice: An assumed voice isn’t usually subject to it. Singing is one workaround; a voice like Jones’s is another.