“The tongue can be a powerful instrument or a serious stumbling block in our quest for holiness.”

As part of my move to full-time Catholic speaking and writing and setting a foundation for a new apostolate of sorts, I have been sifting through many of my old talks and articles. It has shown me where I have grown, spiritually and professionally, as well as given me a chance to return to some thoughts and projects that never had the chance to be nurtured.

During one of these organization sessions, I found a reminder of a time a few years ago when I lost my voice for several weeks. I damaged my vocal cords about ten years ago, so it doesn’t take much for me to lose my voice. This particular time, however, the loss was long-lasting and frustrating. It meant going on full-vocal rest to protect this valuable asset.

It was frustrating because I wasn’t in control. People kept asking me how I felt, and I felt, more or less, fine. But that didn’t mean I could (or should) speak. It was humbling because I had to admit that I couldn’t do anything I had committed to do for almost two weeks. And it was annoying because I couldn’t have fun with friends. For a girl who loves to talk, going on full vocal rest means becoming hermit. If I’m with someone, I talk to them.

Like many frustrating experiences, it taught me a lot. It taught me – or rather, reminded me – that I like to be in control and get frustrated when I am not. It reminded me of the beauty of slowing down and resting. And it taught me the beauty of silence.

I struggle with stopping to think before I speak. Suddenly, my thoughts couldn’t come tumbling out of my mouth. Rather than regretting my rash speech or trying to bite my tongue before sharing my (probably unwanted) opinion, all these things were just staying inside my head – where they are a lot less dangerous and easy to fight.

Forced to ration my speech even as my voice was getting stronger, I had to think carefully about what I wanted to say. Is it worth saying? I found myself weighing that constantly. Was my opinion at that moment really worth the strength and strain on my vocal cords? Should I share my thoughts on that situation? Was what I about to say edifying and constructive?

Is it worth saying?

Perhaps you struggle with the exact opposite – not speaking up when you should, not sharing your insights with those around you. But for someone who goes into the confessional regularly to confess sins relating to gossip, it was a beautiful ten days.

Years later, I had almost forgotten about those days. So I have to admit that I lost the habit I had originally wanted to nurture: thinking before I spoke. Before the words come out of my mouth, to discern, is it worth saying?

I’m constantly reminded of the warning of St. James, who compares the tongue to the bit of a bridle, a rudder of a ship, and a fire. The tongue is small but powerful. “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” (James 3:3-5)

James also points out that we use the tongue to both curse and bless. We use the tongue for criticism and gossip, and for prayer and praise. Do I use my tongue one minute in Mass and the next to gossip at coffee and donuts? Do I use my tongue one minute to praise God and the next to criticize my neighbor? 

“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.” (James 3:9-10)

The tongue is a “little member,” but can do great damage. It can also do wonderful things. We are fickle human beings, and our tongue can be an instrument for such good… and such harm. It can be a powerful instrument or a serious stumbling block in our quest for holiness.

In our current era, with digital and social communication, we must expand James’ meditation on the tongue beyond the physical, bodily definition of tongue, vocal cords, and sound. What he says about the tongue can easily be applied not just to my voice and speech, but also to the words I write and type. Does the message I communicate – whether sounds from my mouth or words on a screen – lead myself and others to holiness? Are they worth typing?

Lord, give me the strength, wisdom, and right judgment to speak words that edify, heal, and teach; words that help build up your kingdom and not tear it down; words that bring peace and truth and not falsehoods and corruption. Lord, before I speak (or type), may I stop to ask: is it worth saying?

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