It is a matter of the deepest moment, the Apostle tells us, to consider the prominence of the part played in our moral lives, either for good or for evil, by that apparently insignificant organ, the tongue.
A mettlesome horse exposes his rider to danger; but a prudent horseman puts a bit in the mouth of his steed; he curbs its spirit, and is master of all its movements. See those large vessels driven by the violence of the wind; a very small apparatus, the helm, enables the pilot to guide them according to his will. So is it with the tongue; like the bit, like the helm, it is capable of producing the most wonderful effects. Is not a single spark enough to set on fire a whole forest? Again I say, so is, it with the tongue. A wicked tongue can be compared to a spark thrown out by the fire of hell: it spreads evil through all our being, even to its inmost recesses.
There are no animals, how wild soever, but can be tamed by the power of man; yet he seems incapable of mastering his own tongue; it is a permanent source of difficulty and trouble. Take even a religious-minded man who uses his tongue to praise his Heavenly Father; he will employ it also to injure his fellow-man, made, like himself, to the image of God. A blessing and a curse proceed from the same lips. That should not be so. Cast an eye over all nature and see if there be a single spring that yields both sweet and bitter waters. Does the fig-tree produce grapes, or the vine figs?
Who among you wishes to be wise and well disciplined? Let his behaviour prove that he has learned the value of gentleness and wisdom. Let him not think much of his progress in virtue, if he nourishes within his heart feelings of bitterness or animosity, for in that case his judgment would be an illusion. His apparent wisdom would not be from above, but from below - worldly, earthy, even diabolical - for a factious and jealous spirit can breed only trouble and evil of every kind. The wisdom that comes from above engenders modesty and the spirit of peace: it is condescending: it yields to the wishes of others: it is fruitful in charity and good works: it abstains from criticism and abhors all dissimulation. Those who work for peace will reap in peace the fruits of justice which they have sown.
What need is there to add that experience confirms this teaching of St. James on the good or evil use of speech? But experience also reveals the general inattention of men, even of practical Catholics, to this grave subject. They seem to take little heed of the serious obligation imposed upon them, demanding, as it does, in the interests of their own perfection and in those of social concord, that they maintain an active and unceasing control over their words.
My dear friends, do not, then, be indifferent to the smallest sins of the tongue. A light word that wounds a fellow-creature, one which you consider quite insignificant, may perhaps have for him a disastrous effect that cannot be foreseen by you. You may have come across the following anecdote about St. Philip Neri. No effort of his had been able to convince one of his penitents of the harm done by her heedless tongue; so one day, in the hope of succeeding at last, he gave her a severe and very puzzling penance.
She was to go through the streets of Rome plucking a fowl, and strewing its feathers along her path. She obeyed with great docility, and then came back to the saint to ask him the meaning of this strange injunction. "Go home now," he said, "and on your way pick up all those feathers which you cast to the winds." "Do you think I am mad?" asked the lady. "Not less mad," replied the confessor, "than when, after casting to the four winds of public opinion your calumnies, slanders, and indiscreet words, you flatter yourself that a tardy regret on your part will restore to your neighbour the good name of which you have robbed him."
Besides, it is no exaggeration to say that this carelessness about the sins of the tongue is in a great measure the reason why so much discredit falls on numbers of pious people, and through them on religion itself.
The object I have in view just now is not so much to dwell on the harm that rash words can do to our neighbor, as to induce you to strive after your own personal perfection. I wish to inculcate an earnest solicitude for proper control over the expression of your thoughts. St. Charles Borromeo was aiming at this when, in his "Rules for the General Direction of Seminaries," he wrote:
"As silence contributes greatly to the maintenance of peace and piety, and wards off many an occasion of discord, they [the Seminarists] shall not hold conversation except in case of necessity, especially before and after prayers, Mass, examination of conscience, and reception of the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist. This does not apply to recreation-time, when they may talk, though not too loudly, upon any useful subject.My dear friends, if we insist so strongly on the need of battling against the sin of light words and heedless actions - an insistence which to your inexperience may seem an exaggeration - yet believe us when we say with Bossuet: "We do not blame you so much for the mistakes themselves as for the source from which they spring."
"They shall refrain from vain or improper talk, from all carping at one another, and from all words that might be in any way wounding; neither shall they say anything to their own credit unless they can thereby render service to their neighbor."
The spirit of solitude is necessary for the soul's elevation. Concentration of thought - what Bossuet calls "application" - is the only means by which we can attain to the spirit of solitude.
On the other hand, the connection between our thoughts and our words is so close that reflection naturally begets moderation and sobriety in speech; while, inversely, this attentive control over our words reacts on the application of our higher faculties to the invisible realities which form the chief object of our moral and spiritual life, and are the goal of our earthly pilgrimage.
Consider, then, with piety this advice of St. Bernard; meditate on it; let it penetrate into your daily lives: "Love silence," he says; "love to practise it, and to listen." Be careful not to sin by the tongue. In this way only can you safeguard the inner and higher part of your being, and secure the most favorable dispositions for listening to the voice of God.
Adapted from Cardinal Mercier's Conferences
delivered to Seminarists at Mechlin, 1909