There was once a young man who was beginning his spiritual journey in the religious life. He sought the council of an old man who was well versed in spirituality, and asked him what all he must do to live a disciplined religious life. The old man opened his Psalter and read the first verse of Psalm 39: I said, I will keep watch upon my ways, so that I do not offend with my tongue. “STOP!” cried the young man as the older was about to proceed; “when I have learned that I will come and receive further rules.” And so he went away and at the end of six months, the older man, curious about the progress of the younger, sought him out and asked, “Are you ready to continue with the other lessons?” “Not yet,” he replied. “I have not yet mastered the first one.” Another five years passed and curiously the older man again sought out the younger. This time the young man replied, “I have no need of the other lessons, for, having learned that first rule, to master the tongue, I have gained discipline and control over my whole nature.”[i]
The past couple of Sundays, we have been hearing portions of the Letter of James. I am struck by one of the Letter’s reoccurring themes: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness; if any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.[ii] Considered “Wisdom Literature” of the New Testament, the author of the Letter is admonishing his audience to put right words into right action. Certainly, he seems to know something about the nature of speech. His use of metaphor instantly captures our imaginations and brings into focus a truth that is both easy to comprehend yet difficult to master. This morning we read: Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. Bits in the mouths of horses, small rudders guiding large ships, great forests being set ablaze by small sparks: all of these poetically call into question our mastery over this small, unruly member of our body: the tongue. With it, he says, we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. You might summarize this major theme of James’ Letter this way: words matter. What is your experience of this? What metaphor would you use to illustrate the power of speech? How have you come to know that words matter?
If you are like me, you may know the experience of having been bullied as a child. You may have been singled out for ridicule based on your looks, your clothes, your interests, or your intellect. Perhaps you have been at the receiving end of verbal abuse from a teacher, mentor, employer, or someone whom you have held in high esteem. Maybe you have felt dismissed by a friend, family member, or spouse and have felt unworthy of love, respect, and dignity. According to an article published online by Psychology Today, verbal aggression not only damages self-esteem but also has been found to alter the development of a child’s brain. Other studies show that emotional pain effects the same part of the brain as physical pain and how verbal aggression can be internally absorbed by the body. The article also states that the effect of verbal aggression is greater than the expression of love. Author Peg Streep goes on to summarize the science this way: Words are powerful: They can lift us up and beat us down, soothe us or wound us.[iii] Once we have been subjected to effects of violent verbal communication, we learn that it is a powerful weapon in which we can put in our own arsenal just in case we need it.
But words can also inflict pain when they are not intended to. When you are not intentional about this very powerful gift of creating and communicating, you are apt to speak without realizing the damage you are inflicting. In retrospect, I can see many instances in my own life where I have hurt others with careless words. An early member of our Society, Fr. Arthur Hall SSJE once wrote: “Think of the party spirit fanned; the anger and heat which is provoked; the suspicion suggested; the evil report spread; the scandal circulated; the dissolving of friendship; the widening of a breach that might have been healed—all through reckless, thoughtless, idle speech!”[iv]
I can think of no other time in my life when I have been aware of the power of words than today. Our public discourse is evidence of a great epidemic of toxicity that is not only setting our country ablaze, but more acutely, our world, not only with the tongue, but with fingers typing away at keyboards through the medium of social media. In our modern culture, powerful language now reaches farther faster. In as little as a ‘tweet,’ we see how speech can be used to create either thoughtful uplifting speech, or used to attack and denigrate those who would think differently than ourselves. How can we as Christians, who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ change this trend? How can we take James’ suggestion to put right words into right action? How can we reclaim the holiness of words to emulate God our creator when He first spoke: Let there be……and there was……and it was good?
- Well first, I think we can begin locally in our immediate relationships and to be constantly aware of our desire for conciliatory speech, especially when confronted with what we call here at the monastery “a difficult conversation.” It might be helpful to notice your thoughts and emotions especially when you are responding to someone. We are created in the image of God, with the ability to create. We use words to give expression to those thoughts and emotions. Are you compelled to respond from a place of hurt, anger, fear, shame, or confusion? Are you aware of tension in your body? Do you feel defensive or as if you have been delivered an unexpected punch and need to protect yourself? If so, you may want to remember a popular acronym used in 12-step recovery: H.A.L.T. Halt if you feel hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. If you are experiencing any of these stimuli or something else that is disorienting, it is possible that you will be unable to respond with a clear and calm mind and with the intention of conciliatory speech. Perhaps it would be best to state your need to think about the situation to the other person so that you have the time to attend to your bodily needs, process the information and then in turn respond in a way that emulates our Creator, using words that bless and heal, rather than injure and maim.
- Second, when you are taking time to process the situation, approach the problem from a place of curiosity. Why do you feel defensive? Did you hear what you thought you heard or is your reaction tied to something else from your past? Sometimes situations can look like, smell like, taste like, and feel like a troubling experience that occurred in another place and time. That memory has been stored in recesses of your mind and body and has somehow resurfaced in the heat of the moment. If you are unprepared to proceed with the desired intention of holy speech, then take the time you need to prepare some questions that will help you better understand how you and the other person have arrived at this place. You may need to get reoriented in order to find your way forward safely and with care.
- Third, remember that the person confronting you is beloved of God just like you. They are deserving of the very same respect and dignity that you are. In an interview given to a group of young adults in 2017, former first lady Michelle Obama said: “When you have a voice, you cannot use it any kind of way. Most of your first, initial thoughts are not worthy of the light of day. You can’t just slash and burn up folks just because you think you’re right. You have to treat people as if they are precious: all of them, even the ones you don’t agree with.”[v] If you are not in a place to approach the other person as beloved of God, you may want to take the time to pray for them. Prayer is a sanctifying act. In the Chapter of our Rule of Life on the Practice of Intercessory Prayer we read: Father Benson taught that “in praying for others we learn really and truly to love them. As we approach God on their behalf we carry the thought of them into the very being of eternal Love, and as we go into the being of him who is eternal Love, so we learn to love whatever we take with us there.”[vi] That is powerful stuff, and God will burn off the dross of bitterness and resentment, and help us to love our brother and sister.
- And lastly, be aware that the most powerful words that we can use in all of human language is: I’m sorry; or I forgive you. When Jesus was nailed to the hard wood of the cross, in the throes of pain and suffering, He prayed to God say: ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’[vii] Contrition is a very powerful tool in putting us in right and holy relationship with God and others, and is a fresh beginning, a clean slate, and new opportunity to use words to create, bless, and heal.
Using the acronym H.A.L.T., taking time to process the situation, asking questions in order to get reoriented, praying for the other person, and practicing contrition, will give you the ability to respond in a way that protects the dignity of both you and your adversary, or rather you and your brother or sister in Christ, insuring that you both can proceed in the spirit of right relationship as children of God. Words matter!
[i]Hall, A. C. A. Self-discipline: Six Addresses. New York: J. Pott, 1894. Print.
[ii]James 1:19-20, 26
[iii]Streep, Peg. “5 Things Everyone Must Understand About Verbal Abuse.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 19 Feb. 2017, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/tech-support/201602/5-things-everyone-must-understand-about-verbal-abuse.
[iv]Hall, A. C. A. Self-discipline: Six Addresses. New York: J. Pott, 1894. Print.
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