Tongues of Fire
As preachers of the Word-made-flesh, the apostles of Jesus Christ understand the power of words. They know our voices can praise the Lord and announce His marvelous works. Therefore they sharply admonish us not to sin with our tongue. St. James writes in his Epistle,
Consider how a small fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. This need not be so, my brothers. (James 3: 5-10)
A few of St. James’s insights stand out. The tongue and its sins are little—a small fire—but have grave consequences. Words of gossip, slander, backbiting, or tale-telling are small and seem harmless. We say them often. Our celebrity culture encourages them. Our lives in the workplace, in the family, or in religious community give us many occasions and incentives to use them. So what is their harm?
From St. James we learn that it is twofold. First, evil words injure our neighbor. They do so by damaging his reputation, blackening his name, or endangering his friendships (see St. Thomas, ST IIa IIae q. 74). A malicious tongue thus can wreak havoc in another’s life. Moreover, as the Epistle suggests, sins of the tongue tend to consume our whole lives. It is easy to become a habitual gossip. It is easy to rationalize and think we are doing good by bringing forth the hidden faults of a co-worker, a family member, or a religious brother/sister. These sins can be disguised as everyday conversation. They can harm our relationship with God. St. James teaches, “If a man who does not control his tongue imagines that he is devout, he is self-deceived; his worship is pointless” (James 1:26). The apostle alerts us to our verbal hypocrisy. We fool ourselves if we liberally speak ill of our neighbor and yet pretend by our words to converse with God in prayer and to worship Him in the liturgy. St. James assures us, however, that “this need not be so.” But how do we avoid the sins of the tongue?
A good start is to contemplate the truth. To that end, consider two exemplars—one of vice, the other of its counteracting virtue. Don Basilio is the proud, slimy, and hypocritical music instructor in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. In this crafty character, Rossini manifests the man of unbridled tongue. Basilio flatters, slanders, and delights in manipulating others’ reputations for his own gain. In the opera’s narrative he counsels Doctor Bartolo in his schemes to marry young Rosina, who loves and is loved by Count Almaviva. In his principal aria, La calunnia è un venticello (Calumny is a gentle breeze), Basilio explains his preferred tactic—to defame the Count in the eyes of his beloved. In a delightful interplay of text and music, Basilio’s aria (English, Italiano) is a keen description of the sins of the tongue. He sings that the soft, sweet, slanderous words insinuate themselves into the listeners’ minds, take over their thoughts, and are soon passed on to others in a continuing crescendo of rumor. Then, like a thunderous downpour or a cannon blast, the words fall on their victim, destroying his place in society and even making him long for death. Let us listen to this aria, reflect on the character-type who sings it, and be wary of the little malicious words we are so often tempted to say about our neighbor.
Silence is the essential tongue-taming virtue. St. James himself counsels, “Let every man be quick to listen [and] slow to speak” (James 1:19). Of all the saints, St. Joseph is the highest exemplar of this lowly virtue. Indeed, the Evangelists relate not a single word from Joseph precisely to emphasize his quiet soul. Certainly this does not mean he was mute. Rather, it signifies that Joseph was ever attentive to the Lord, ready to do His will. We can imagine the things he learned and how holy he grew as he lived in the company of the Word Incarnate and the Seat of Wisdom. And we can conjecture a little concerning what he did say. This just Israelite surely chanted the psalms and blessed his family’s meals. He always had a kind word and helpful tips for the customers who came to his workshop. St. Joseph spoke loving words to Mary, surely even complimenting her. Mysteriously, Joseph also taught the Child Jesus how to work, how to pray, how to be a man. And through his silence and his words, St. Joseph ever worshiped the Lord. So in this month dedicated to him, let’s ask St. Joseph to free us from idle and malicious words and to teach us that deep silence whence the Word speaks.
Image: Sandro Botticelli, Calumny of Apelles