One area where I think this is especially true is in the use of speech. Writing from the tradition of religious life is full of admonitions, warnings, and invitations to ascetical practice (we would say 'spiritual practice') in the use of speech. The dangers of gossip, detraction, and idle chatter have long been recognized. And yet, in the course of my own training and formation in religious life, I have never heard anyone recommend examination of conscience on these sorts of things, nor indeed much concern for their harmfulness at all.
I was thinking about this and confessing to God my own sins in this area as I said my prayers this morning. In the Office of Readings today, St. Columban reveals that he knew well these temptations and dangers: "Men like nothing better than discussing and minding the business of others, passing superfluous comments at random and criticizing people behind their backs."
It's a very destructive business, and not only rampant but more or less uncriticized in religious life as I have experienced it. Here's a real-life example: Apparently two brothers had a tense and unsuccessful conversation. This conversation was reported to me several times by various other brothers. In each case, the details, setting, and motivations presented were different in such ways as to present one of the brothers at fault and the other innocent. In one telling one of them was totally open and good, and the other dismissive and cruel. In another the analysis was reversed. What really happened? I don't know. But what I do know is that in the reporting of the incident it got to be about blaming rather than anything spiritually useful. The devil is quite happy to make use of our idea of right and wrong, so long as it convinces us that what is wrong with our communities is someone else's fault.
Thus we never see the one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggressivity and hypocrisy. (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 115-116)
Beyond all of the well-known negative effects of gossip, detraction, and calumny, the ultimate spiritual problem is that we become to one another not the persons created by God, but the narratives that are told about us. We begin to treat each other according to this constructed identity, because it's easier than getting to know each other in all of our complexity. At worst, we can begin to act ourselves either in conformity or reaction to this false and shallow caricature of our true self. If we do this long enough, we can even forget who we really are. Because this false self is also unknown to God, we will also always feel like there is something fundamentally amiss with our prayer life, but not be able to name it.
Let us rather accept the admonition of our holy father Francis: "Blessed is that religious who takes no pleasure and joy except in the most holy words and deeds of the Lord and with these leads people to the love of God in joy and gladness." (Admonition XX)