Tongue Control

February 08 2018 | by

DURING his last year in office, Winston Churchill attended an official ceremony. Several rows behind him, two gentlemen began whispering. “That’s Winston Churchill.” “They say he’s getting senile.” “They say he should step aside and leave the running of the nation to more dynamic and capable men.” When the ceremony was over, Churchill turned to the men and said, “Gentlemen, they also say he is deaf!” Quite a pointed story on spreading gossip and detraction.

Remember Pinocchio, the wooden puppet granted life by a fairy because Geppetto, who carved him, wanted a son? When Pinocchio misbehaved and then lied about it, his nose grew longer. Contrite, he would promise to be good, but always misbehaved, lied, and his nose grew longer and longer. The nose was considered “a passage of for the spirit and to the heart.” Pinocchio’s problem was his heart.


Restless evil


Saint James the Apostle observed, “… no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be” (James 3: 8-10).

Once four worship team members went on vacation. One evening, they decided to tell each other their biggest sins. The guitarist said, “Well, it’s embarrassing, but my big temptation is that I never pray.”

“My sin is worse,” said the pianist. “It’s gambling. One Saturday instead of practicing piano, I went to the race track to bet on the horses.”

“Mine is worse still,” said the vocalist. “I sometimes can’t control the urge to sing raunchy songs.”

The drummer was quiet, then suddenly started running. The three caught him and said, “You aren’t leaving until you tell us your sin.”

“My temptation is worst of all,” the drummer confessed. “I love to gossip. I can’t wait to tell the whole church about you guys.”

In this humorous example, the drummer realized that gossiping is worse than laxity in prayer, gambling and impurity because gossip ruins reputations. Saint Anthony called gossip “running down” other people: “…there are people who would be ashamed to tell lies about another, but they do not mind running them down under a cloak of faint praise and (worse still) they even do this in confession” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals I, p. 356; translation by Paul Spilsbury; Edizioni Messaggero Padova).

Sharing St. Bernard’s insights, Anthony explains “that a gossip’s tongue is crueler than the blade which pierced the [dead] Lord’s side”… because gossip is intended to “to cause death. The thorns that pierced his head, the nails that pierced his hands and feet, were not more harmful” than the tongue of a slanderer, which pierces the very heart” (Sermons I, p. 357).


Fake news


How would Saint Anthony react to the current ‘epidemic’ of fake news? Fake news sounds real until one checks facts and sources. Fake news spreads just as quickly as gossip because people are quick to believe scandal. A later apology that the scandal never happened doesn’t undo the damage. People remember scandal, not apologies.

Jesus noted, “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth – this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11).

Saint Anthony advised us to listen while controlling our tongue. We should also control our fingertips that type gossip, although neither tongue nor fingertips commit sin. Sin comes from the heart and mind and makes itself known through words.

“Let every man, then, be swift to hear. By nature every man should be swift to hear, for the ear is an organ that rapidly seizes and draws in sound. . . . And slow to speak. Nature itself teaches that this is so, because it has enclosed the tongue by a kind of double door, so that it may not wander freely. Nature has put two sets of doors in front of the tongue, the teeth and the lips, to indicate that no word should go forth without great care. The man who said: I have set a watch on my mouth, and a door round about my lips, [Ps. 140.3] closed those two doors discreetly” (Sermons I, p. 355-56).

If lips and teeth are two doors to guard the tongue from speaking thoughtlessly, what guards fingers from thoughtless typing? The distance between fingers and keyboard. While our tongue always goes with us, we need to consciously take our iPad, iPhone, and laptop. Thinking “What would Jesus say?” before using these devices may help us use them charitably.


Detraction and flattery


Anthony separates two types of sin: detraction and flattery. “And note that the door of the lips, not just of the teeth, should be closed. A person closes the door of both teeth and lips when he refrains from both detraction and flattery. But the tongue (which James calls an unquiet evil, full of deadly poison [Jas 3.8], and the fire that kindles the wood of virtue and inflames the wheel of our nativity [ibid. 5,6] breaks both the first and the second door, and goes like a harlot into the street, talkative and wandering, not bearing to be quiet [Prov. 7.8, 10, 11], and disturbing everything” (Sermons I, p. 356).

Wasting time talking, texting, or emailing seems harmless until one considers Anthony’s citing of St. Bernard’s insights: “No one can reckon of little account the time wasted in idle chatter. This is, indeed, the acceptable time, the day of salvation: yet words escape and cannot be recalled, and time flies and cannot be mended, and the fool does not even notice what he is losing. Let us talk together, they say, at least for an hour: but the Creator’s grace gave you that time to gain pardon, to seek grace, to do penance and to earn glory” (Sermons I, p. 357).


Impurity and anger


Anthony also alludes to sins involving impurity. “The Philosopher says, ‘Do not speak what is disgraceful: little by little words destroy shame’” (Sermons I, p. 357). The more people discuss impure behavior, the less sensitive they become. Exposure destroys shame until people don’t even realize that certain behaviors are shameful.

Anger is another sin spewed out by the tongue. Anger “obscures the mind so that it does not see what is true… The anger of man worketh not the justice of God” (Sermons I, p. 357). Social scientists identify three types of anger.

  1. Aggressive anger: directed at another person to hurt emotionally, physically, or psychologically. This includes physical harm, yelling, ridicule, shaming.
  2. Passive anger: a person internalizes anger and avoids dealing with the situation that contributed to it. Anger is expressed in trying to get even, holding a grudge, being mean, spreading nasty rumors, not speaking to the person, damaging property.
  3. Assertive anger: the best way to communicate angry feelings. Anger expressed directly in a non-threatening way. “I feel angry when you…” is an example of assertive anger.

Anthony shares valuable insights on ‘tongue control.’ “Sometimes I regret speaking, but never being silent.” “Use your ears more often than your tongue.” So let every man be slow to speak, and then he will be able to imitate the justice of the saints, for as James says: if any man offend not in word the same is a perfect man [Jas 3.2] (Sermons I, p. 357).

Updated on February 08 2018