When I think back on my childhood growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s, I tend to see it with a lot of nostalgia. When I visit our Academy children, they can’t believe there was ever a time without computers and cable television! It is so hard to get them to see how happy things seemed back then when life was much simpler. We had less distractions, but more interpersonal interplay. Things seemed more secure (except with the Communist menace!)
There were some constants in growing up then. We often expressed them through a childhood jargon. Whenever we did a crazy thing and were confronted with it, we simply said: “It’s a free country!” As though that excused everything!
We had another expression that was said whenever someone attacked us verbally: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me!” This expression made it seem that we were invulnerable to what they were saying to us. But, it simply was not true.
Words can hurt very deeply. A well-chosen verbal attack can be like a knife. On the converse, words can also heal and give life. This is because a word can be a pathway into the inner recesses of the human being. It moves easily between the mind of the speaker into the inner recesses of the mind of the listener. Someone can give a physical blow that is felt on our bodies, but it cannot enter the soul. But the word can enter the inner precincts of the temple of our body and soul and hence can experience long term benefits or destructive results.
Hence the continuum between thought, word and action that is spoken about so much by spiritual writers. Georges Bernanos, the spiritual French novelist, has the saintly parish priest of his greatest novel “Diary of a Country Priest” say “Who knows how much evil is unleashed by an evil thought”. Words also have a similar power. They are not to be trifled with but must be chosen carefully and consciously. This is why there is so much emphasis in Spiritual literature on silence.
Silence, if it is deep and extends to the boundaries of the soul, is the prerequisite to hearing the Word of God, that is, the deeply personal communication of The Word of God who is Jesus. St. John of the Cross makes very clear in his writings that God really has spoken only one Word out of the eternal silence of the Godhead: That Word is Jesus. No other word before Him, even the words of Scripture, so totally expresses the Will of the Father than the Word of God, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.
It is this Word that sanctifies the daily communication of all believers and makes of our thoughts and words vehicles of Divine Presence. But, in a contrary way, when our words bear the marks of the beast, that is the devil, they can sow seeds of destruction in the world and unfortunately also in the Church.
Our words proceed from the silence of our hearts. Words, and then actions, are the overflow of what is in the heart. Hence, the Biblical emphasis on the power of thoughts. Jesus goes so far as to say that it is possible to commit adultery and even murder from the thoughts that dwell in the interior of man, or what Scripture simply calls ‘the heart’.
The saints, without exception, take up this interiorization of the moral life. They emphasize the need to be vigilant regarding what happens in the heart and mind of each of us. All the evils of the world, as well as all the blessings, proceed from the arena of the heart. The genocide of the Holocaust began as a thought in the mind of the young Hitler. Conversely, as did the idea of the Jesuit Order in the mind of St. Ignatius.
Thoughts are powerful and have long lasting consequences.
Our words also, once they escape from the womb of our interior life, can have lasting effects. How often have we regretted words spoken in anger, that once out, can never be brought back! Words have tremendous power and should be used with extreme care for they can be destructive.
On the other side, words can have a great power for good. God Himself used words in the Scriptures to point out the way for humanity to grow in grace.
One word can destroy and another can console.
It has been a steady theme in Spiritual literature to be ever vigilant of thoughts and their expression in words since, from that creative matrix, both woe and goodness can emerge. Sticks and stones do break bones, but the violence comes from the human heart in words can also be destructive. And life giving as well.
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