Friday, August 22, 2008

On Speaking

"So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath" (James 1:19, emphasis added [of course, there is no emphasis in Scriptural passages!])

Calvin "Silent Cal" Coolidge, thirtieth president of the United States

Calvin Coolidge is not known for being one of our greatest presidents, but he is famous for being a man of very few words. One time, when Coolidge was attending a formal dinner, one of the guests told him, "I made a bet that I could make you say at least three words to me." Coolidge's response? "You lose."

When I was in grade school, I did not have much in common with President Coolidge. I remember constantly receiving "C's" in conduct (and in handwriting too, but that's another story!). For those of you who are not in the U. S., a "C" is a mediocre grade. And why did I get "C's" in conduct? Because I talked too much!

As I have grown older, I have found that I like talking less and less. I have become by nature a man of few words. Sure, I can talk (and talk a LOT) when I have to, but my preference is to hold my peace.

The second conflict that St. Anthony mentions in the eleventh saying in his section of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers is that of speech. All of us battle with the use of our tongue in one way or another. Some of us, like me in my childhood days, struggle with using it too much. Others who are not talkative by nature still struggle with controlling what they say. A few of us struggle with both.

The Scriptures abound in warnings about how and how much we use our tongues. My favorite passages about speech are found in the book of Proverbs. I thought I would share some of them with you. I'm quoting from the New King James Version, because I haven't yet gotten used to the different numbering system in the new OSB.

First of all, several of the Proverbs teach us of the general importance of guarding our tongue:

He who guards his mouth preserves his life, but he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction (13:3)

Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles. (21:23)

Others speak of the trouble that misuse of the gift of speech can cause:

A fool’s mouth is his destruction, and his lips are the snare of his soul (18:7; see also chapter 3 of the epistle of St. James)

Still others tell us of the importance of being, in St. James' words, "slow to speak:"

Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him (29:20)

Are you the type of person who finishes other peoples' sentences? I must confess that I am often guilty of this. Or do you spout off your opinion before you really know enough abobut a matter? Here's what Solomon has to say about these practices:

He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him (18:13)

Remember Cliff Claybin (sp?) from the TV show Cheers? He delighted in showing everyone how much he knew about any subject, whether he really knew anything about it or not. Like Cliff, some people always have to put in their two cents. Regarding this, the Proverbs tell us:

A prudent man conceals knowledge, But the heart of fools proclaims foolishness (12:23)

A fool has no delight in understanding, but in expressing his own heart (19:3)

Many of the Proverbs show us that there is wisdom in simply reducing the quantity of our words:

He who is devoid of wisdom despises his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his peace. (11:12)

He who has knowledge spares his words, And a man of understanding is of a calm spirit. (17: 27)

In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, But he who restrains his lips is wise (10:19; this is one of my favorites -- the more we talk, the more likely we are to sin with our tongue)

Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; When he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive. (17:28; this is another one of my favorites -- if we will just shut our traps, people will think we are wise. And we might even become wise over time!)

Finally, not only must we fight against speaking too much, but we must guard what we say. Many of us have a tendency to use our tongues like a sword. We use sarcasm and ridicule to put others down. As St. James writes, "No man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so." (James 3:8-10).

Solomon concurs:

There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, But the tongue of the wise promotes health (12:18).

St. Paul's words to the Ephesians are also helpful: Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.(4:29).

Here in the South, we have a saying: "God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason!" So, brothers and sisters, let us go on a "diet of words" (a permanent one!) and let us use our words to build others up, rather than tear them down. As the old song says, "If you can't say something nice, say nothing!"

I'll try to be the first person to take my advice!


Clint said...

I know you find this hard to believe...

but I also try to not speak as much as I once did. Occasionally I am successful in that endeavor.

You have given me much to think about...

d.burns said...

Oh, whould the politicians and politial pundants take some of that advise.

Paul said...

Oh never mind;

charlene said...

Fr. James,
Thank you for another helpful column that can help us grow closer to our Lord.
Forgive me if I point out that in general, women often think men are already too silent. Example: Wife says, "I look terrible." Husband says, "(silence)". Hint: The CORRECT answer is "You will always be beautiful to me dear." Seriously thouth, I think there are times when we are called to speak just as we are called to silence. I think that if we want to learn, we must ask questions of those with greater wisdom even if we fear appearing stupid. I also think that we must guard against being silent to injustice. And we must always listen with our hearts for opportunities to bring healing with our words to those arround us.

In the past year, I have come to realize how much we "speak" with our countenance. We aren't off the hook here if we are silent but our face has disapproval written all over it.
Thank you for your written words Father, and God bless.

Fr. James Early said...


Everything you said is correct, at least in my humble opinion. Neither the Scriptures, the Fathers, nor I mean that we should never say ANYTHING or that we should be as silent as "Silent Cal." (And anyway, I'm sure he had times when he had to speak quite a bit. I'm sure he gave many speeches.)

The point of this post is that many of us simply talk too much and listen too little. And even those who talk little (like myself most of the time) often say things that are not helpful to others or to our own salvation. I often struggle with the "acid tongue syndrome."

Certainly, there are times when we need to, indeed we MUST, talk. And you are right: sometimes in the marital context, husbands especially need to talk to their wives more.

I hope that this has helped clarify the point of the article. If not, try again.

charlene said...

Father James,
I think this was a case of "I always mean what I say, but don't always say what I mean." I understood and agreed with everything you said and kept saying, "Oh yes, that is my sin Father is describing." Because I also find myself not speaking when I should, retreating into silence when I am embarrassed, afraid or weak, I simply wanted to add an asterik for myself and those like me: "No fair hiding behind Father James's words." Forgive me for not being more clear. I have thoroughly enjoyed catching up on the past two weeks of posts. God blees.