February 27, 2009

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Let’s renew our resolve to speak thoughtfully this Lent

The 40 days of Lent provide an opportunity to renew our conversion of heart. It is helpful to review the quality of our spiritual and moral life.

This week, I would like to propose for our reflection the use of speech.

Sins of the tongue flow pretty easily and, in some instances, are no less grave than other physical wrongs. Justice in speech is a timely topic.

In my view, justice in speech is a difficult virtue because we live in a culture that practices what I call “language inflation and easy gossip.”

I need to say that I am not anti-media; indeed, they render an essential service as channels of public communication. Yet, there are some developments that are not helpful.

“Language inflation” is most noticeable in media sound bites and newspaper and Internet headlines.

For example, we will read or hear that “Politician A blasts Politician B.” Further investigation indicates that Politician A simply disagreed with a policy proposed by Politician B.

Or another example: “The pope berates bishops.” Further investigation reveals that in a meeting with bishops the Holy Father asked them to encourage teachers of the faith to be faithful to the magisterium.

It seems like we have lost the art of ordinary discourse in favor of sensationalism.

It is normal fare these days to see a banner streaming across the bottom of the TV screen announcing “breaking news.” That used to be a signal that a truly tragic or dramatic event was happening. Now it could be any topic that is less than dramatic.

It is not uncommon for some public media reporters to invade the privacy of individuals under any pretext. Some media pundits foster an atmosphere of gossip or suspicion, especially if the lives of public personalities are concerned.

It is important to listen for the qualifying conditions expressed by words. For example, “The president might do this or that.” Or “Couple A and Couple B seem to be on the point of divorce.” Or “A catastrophe may be in the making if such and such doesn’t happen.”

My point is that language inflation and public gossip have a profound impact on our individual speech and discourse. We need to think and read and listen carefully. It is unfortunate if we allow sound bites or headlines to do our thinking for us and influence our way of speaking.

As individual Christians, we would do well during this Lenten season to see if there are ways in which we are guilty of the proverbial “unbridled tongue.”

How we speak about others is first and foremost a matter of justice. A person has a right to a good name, to respect and even to esteem. When we pronounce rash judgments about the behavior of others who live and work with us, we sin against justice. Recall that St. James wrote that the tongue can become an “unrighteous world” (Jas 3:6).

Every day, I read from a book of daily meditations titled In Conversation with God by Francis Fernandez (Scepter Press, London, 2003).

A few weeks ago, the author wrote concerning this topic: “The most frequent cause of defamation, of negative criticism and slander, is envy, which cannot tolerate the good qualities of others, the prestige or success of persons or institutions. People are also guilty of slander when they co-operate in its propagation by the printed word, or by means of any of the mass media” (Vol. 3, p. 119).

The speech of Christians is a common topic among a number of saints. Sometimes their admonitions are pretty sharp. St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer wrote that many persons, even those who think themselves Christians, on first impulse “think badly of someone or something. They don’t need any proof; they take it for granted. And they don’t keep it to themselves; they air their snap judgments in the winds” (Christ is passing by, #67).

St. Gregory of Nyssa said in one of his homilies that we ought not “to converse with torrents of words and not to allow the words that spring to mind to fall like hail, through speaking impetuously.”

His words echo the book of Proverbs, which is quoted by St. Benedict as he admonished his monks concerning speech and the value of silence.

In chapter six of his Rule, St. Benedict quoted the Book of Proverbs: “In a flood of words you will not avoid sin” (Prv 10:19). He also included a second quotation from Proverbs: “The tongue holds the key to life and death” (Prv 18:21).

The use of our speech is a matter of justice in our relations to those around us. My mom and dad taught what so many parents say: “If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything.”

Let’s renew our resolve to speak thoughtfully. †

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