August 4, 2009


I've always been a talker. In my early years of religious life, however, I found my talkativeness dissipating, so since then I have consciously trained myself to speak less.

I think that most people talk too much. On the other hand, we don't spend enough time reflecting on the meaning and power of speech.

In these first couple years of my priesthood I have had a lot of opportunity to reflect on speech. Words are powerful. I pronounce the Eucharistic Prayer each day, and that act combined with my intention and the ordination the Church has given me, renews and commemorates on the altar the sacrifice of the Cross and the sublime self-giving of Christ. Whether I speak the words of absolution as a confessor or receive them as a penitent, the power and depth of that moment of speech is stunning.

As a confessor, however, I have also come to a new appreciation of the destructive power of speech. Indeed, I am convinced that much of everyday sin and some of the most serious sins of ordinary people are those committed through speech. Detraction and calumny, gossip, simulation and dissimulation, and lying to ourselves and others are all examples of the ways we hurt each other. They are embedded in the cultures of workplaces and religious communities. I have been surprised (and scandalized) as a confessor to find that a lot of people don't have a very well formed conscience in this area and often lack the moral vocabulary to examine their consciences about it. For example, many don't seem to know the difference between gossip and detraction, or between detraction and calumny. (I don't find every form of speech that we might call 'gossip' to be sinful, by the way.)

In the confessional, one of the passages of Scripture I find myself quoting most frequently is James 3:5, "...the tongue is a small member but has great pretensions."

Speech is one aspect of our creation in the image and likeness of God. This is why it is so powerful. We must remember that it was through speech that God created the universe: 'God said...and so it happened.' The core of our Trinitarian faith is the confession that from all eternity the Father speaks the Word who is the perfect image of himself. "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God." This is the Word that appears in Genesis as the creating power, and the Word become flesh in Jesus Christ. As those creatures made in God's 'image and likeness' we share in this power, this speech which is that the heart of both creation and redemption. That's why our words are so powerful. Human speech is close to the intense creative power of God and so has infinite potential for good in our relationships. On the other hand, when it turns wrong, it has a terrible destructive power. (Here we should note that this is much like our sexuality, through which we also experience the blessing of sharing in divine creativity but also the danger of terrible hurt.) Let us imitate the God who, from all eternity, speaks only the creative and reconciling Word.


Gabriella said...

My grandmother used to admonish us children continuously: "If you feel like opening your mouths to talk hurt or rubbish, open them instead to sing praise to Our Lord!" :)

carl said...

Father, would you mind terribly discussing the difference between gossip and detraction, and detraction and calumny? Thank you.

Brother Charles said...

Now these are my working definitions, subject to nuance and correction.

Gossip is semi-private speech between two more more parties, peers on some level, on the subject of a third party. It is often sinful and at least distracting, but has also been shown to serve some genuine purposes, particularly in close or hierarchical living and working arrangements (like religious life!)

Check out this article from the New York Times Science page

Calumny is when we spread information about a third party that is false and negative.

Detraction is when you reveal a sin or something else hurtful to the reputation of a third party for no reason, i.e. the person being told doesn't need to know.

Brother Charles said...

Calumny is false information, while detraction is true information that does not need to be known.

Jeanne said...

Would you believe I didn't know what those words meant, and that they were even sinful? This is from a graduate of Catholic grade school and college. I knew that gossip was sinful and lying, but not the rest. Wow. Thanks for defining it and bringing this to light.

timh said...

One of the definitions of ’to gossip’ is ‘to chat.’ Generally, an added adjective, such as ‘idle’ or ‘evil,’ with ‘gossip’ is when there’s trouble…
I’m partial to Luke 2:19 and translations that use the word ‘treasure’ with all the nuances of the word – a reminder to value life experiences and also to weigh carefully my thoughts before speaking or writing them.
Thank you for the additional points of view and scripture references on this topic.

Julia said...

Fantastic post, Father.

Even without sinning while talking (gossiping, lying, etc.), I know I can fall into simply being immoderate in speech - talking when silence would be best.

A lot of people my age (I'm 20) have almost no silence in their lives. Most people I know make cell phone calls while walking to classes because they can't stand those few minutes without stimulation. Why can't we remain silent for the ten minute walk to class?

Same problem with media (TV, computer, etc.). Why can't we enjoy time quietly loving God, without giving ourselves these distractions? I know I am guilty of this.

(Sorry for the mini-rant. Perhaps this is an example of being immoderate with language!)

Paul A. Zalonski said...

Not sure if this contributes to the discussion, but I thought the Rule of St Benedict would be helpful:

The ninth degree of humility is that a monk restrain his tongue and keep silence, not speaking until he is questioned. For the Scripture shows that "in much speaking there is no escape from sin" (Prov. 10:19) and that "the talkative man is not stable on the earth" (Ps. 13[14]9:12).

There may be something from the Franciscan patrimony of equal insight but in case there is not, the RB may assist. Peace!