Friday, February 15, 2008

The Tongue is a Fire!

Dear Parish Faithful,

During last Thursday's Bible Study, we read and discussed the following passage from the Epistle of St. James:

If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body ... For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature can be tamed and has ben tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue - a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.

My brethren, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish? Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (JM. 3:3-12)

Quite an incredible passage about the dangers of a loose tongue! Truly, as St. James writes, "The tongue is a fire!" The tongue is a weapon of "mass destruction" that when loaded with angry, bitter or sarcastic words, and carefully aimed at a human target, is capable of striking a direct hit that will obliterate the flimsy defensive measures meant to withstand the blast. These attacks can be aggressive, defensive or preemptive. When both belligerents violate the latest "peace treaty" and begin to bombard the other at will, then the ensuing carnage can be great, and the scars and wounds from the "fallout" can take a long time to heal. The "cold war" to follow, characterized by wariness, suspicion and a readiness to mobilize and deploy the stockpiled arsenal immediately if need be, can be protracted and costly. At times, in a miscalculated and ill-conceived display of hawkishness, one side may turn these weapons loose on a "neighbor," not just the "enemy." I wlll let yet you judge for yourselves as to how exaggerated that description of a "war of words" actually is. For my part, I believe that the childhood chant "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names/words will never hurt me" is far from the actual truth. Hardly anything challenges our capacity to forgive more than overcoming the hurt we absorb from the words of others - friend or foe.

That is because the gift of the word is a powerful gift that God has given to human beings created in His image and likeness. The eternal Word of God is creative and life-giving, and we also speak words in imitation of God. The word is meant to communicate encourgement, consolation, trust, knowledge, wisdom, truth, warmth, and love between human persons. But the greater the gift, the more harmful its misuse and abuse. Hence, words can also communicate enmity, hostility, envy, jealousy, anger, falsehood, judgement, hypocrisy and hatred. The sins we commit always distort the original purpose of our existence and relationships. This is no truer that when applied to the words that slip off our tongue carelessly and thoughtlessly.

St. James was directing his words to a newly-established Christian community. Was he simply warning his community of a danger they were perfectly aware of; or was he rebuking some members of the community for their loose tongues that were causing havoc? I like to say that if someone in a parish has the perverted desire to undermine the integrity of the community, all that person has to do is so start spreading gossip around in furtive conversations with other parishoners, about other parishoners. I believe that that is magnified if the gossip if about the parish priest. Gossip means insinuations, harsh judgement, negative characterizations - if not character assassination - half-truths, one-sided accounts of disagreements, etc. Often, gossip begins innocently enough, but it has an undeniable tendency toward intensification. It starts slowly, but then accelerates as it spins out of control. Before you know it, a "deadly poison" has been unleashed and "a great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!" If gossip gets around then feelings are hurt and relationships spoiled. And these words are not fogotten, but rather they accumulate into a cesspool of resentment and estrangement. Speaking directly with someone about an offense or disagreement - real or perceived - honestly and reasonably does take some courage and even entails something of a risk; but again, that is much better than the risks of loose gossip. Bringing it to the parish priest in confidence, or even in Confession, can also be very helpful. Our role as pastors is to be as objective and impartial as humanly possible and to hopefully find insights into situations through which the healing grace of God can work effectively.

Perhaps the best we can do at times - since St. James wrote that "no human being can tame the tongue" - especially when angry with someone, is to find another person with whom we can confide and "let off steam" if something is bothering us. We then can break the waves of our troubled minds against the rock of a faithful listener - spouse, priest or friend - and our words will stay contained and go no further. Usually, a certain relief will follow. Often, we then realize that is wasn't such a "big thing" after all.

It is wonderful to be in a community in which this does not appear to be a concern. But we always have to protect what is good with vigilance and care. Coming up in Great Lent, we will again pray to God on a daily basis that He will take from us the spirit of "idle talk" (lenten prayer of St. Ephraim). That reminds us of the importance of how we choose to use our words. The teachings, exhortations, and admonitions of the evangelists and apostles are meant to instill genuine Christian virtues into our communities. Yet, these virtues do not exist abstractly, but are embodied within the lives of flesh and blood members of the Body of Christ. Let us make every effort to "bless the Lord and Father" and not to "curse men." As St. James wrote, "brethren, this ought not to be so."

Fr. Steven

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