A linguistic Lent

I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. – Matthew 12:36-37

My spiritual director once advised me to attend to my use of words during Lent. I was to reflect at the end of each day how I had used my words either to reveal or conceal God. I was also to pray each morning asking God to use my words to good effect throughout the day. He cited Pythagoras’ famous saying: “Be silent, or say something better than silence,” saying this was a good rule to live by. He gave me four pithy Scriptural texts for evaluating my speech:

Matthew 5:37: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

Ephesians 4:29: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.”

James 3:1: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.”

Luke 12:2-3: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.”

The first quote was to remind me to avoid deception and duplicity, and practice truthful sincerity. The second counseled me to use my words for building others up and conveying grace. The third placed in stark relief my high calling as a teacher who will have to give an account on the Day of Judgment for how I used my influence and walked my talk. The fourth is about the radically public nature of all words and deeds. Sirach 23:18-19 makes a similar point:

The man who dishonors his marriage bed
says to himself, “Who can see me?
Darkness surrounds me, walls hide me,
no one sees me. Who can stop me from sinning?”
He is not mindful of the Most High,
fearing only human eyes.
He does not realize that the eyes of the Lord,
ten thousand times brighter than the sun,
observe every step taken
and peer into hidden corners.

When I spent time on that last quote from St. Luke’s Gospel throughout Lent, it gave me a radically new vantage on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Here’s what I wrote:

When I reveal my secret sins to another human being, one who mystically represents Christ, I anticipate right now the all-disclosing nature of the Final Judgment in the world to come when all will be known to all. Orthodox theologian Fr. Tom Hopko said it this way: “Confession is a Sacrament of the Age to Come, when even the secrets of the heart will be revealed to the whole of creation. Which is why it demands brutal honesty. I say to those who confess: get it all out now and expose it to the mercy of God, who will swallow up all your perverse words and deeds in forgetfulness.” Over the years, I have become increasingly aware that every word I speak echoes on into eternity. I often think that each and every one of my words will become a song in His presence: either a hymn of blessing or a dirge of cursing.

Scripture scholar N.T. Wright says that humanity, made in the divine image, is given the vocation of making audible and visible God’s “countenance” toward the world. All living and non-living creatures are meant to encounter in us God’s provident oikonomia, i.e. the manner in which He tends to this vast cosmic garden He has established. Human beings alone of all creatures are made to be priests, mediators between creatures and the Creator; and by the Incarnation, Christ has brought that vocation to perfection. We have been gifted with the singular power of giving voice to God’s Word of blessing toward creation and, in turn, the power to bless, praise and thank the Creator on behalf of all creation. This is why Jesus says, “on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” Being made in the image of a Speaking God means no word is a throwaway word.

So let’s get to it. By our words, at every moment, let’s become the eloquence of God.

8 comments on “A linguistic Lent

  1. Melissa T says:

    Thank you for making a return to posting earlier than anticipated…your posts are always thought provoking and edifying! Being mindful and intentional of the words we speak, so they can become a ‘hymn of blessing’–well, that seems doable. It’s the thoughts and words that are held in our hearts that proves to be more of a challenge- we think they are safe, hidden and we have mastered control over them because we have not uttered them aloud…the bitter reality is, they will be revealed one day. It’s frightening really, the fact that our words and thoughts- left un-confessed- will be considered, as you eloquently phrased it, a ‘dirge of cursing’. Will be filing this one for further reflection—thank you Thomas!

    • Lovely thoughts, Melissa T! Two nuances I would add: (1) This insight should make us aware but not scrupulous about our mis-thoughts and mis-words and mis-deeds, as we submit it all to a merciful Judge; and (2) in Confession we need only confess our seriously sinful thoughts/words/deeds/omissions, and leave the rest to our very public Confiteor (I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters…my thoughts and in my words…). A holy fear is always good for all Christian life, but a scrupulous one is not. Just had to say that, though I believe you already get that! Peace and joy, sister in Christ.

  2. Lisa Potter says:

    Hmm so Tom in the end you were right, Vermont is not for me. I am moving back to Tallahassee; I even bought a house. Being in Vermont has been fruitful in so many ways but it is time to come home. I hope to catch up with you when you’re in Tallahassee.

  3. SR. Mary Assumpta says:

    Here is another line that was once told to me, reflect before you select. In other words choose your words well. This has been a help for me when engaging another in conversation.

  4. numberonesinner says:

    When the kids were younger and we would watch particularly chosen movies and shows the happy and sad themes would invariably bring an emotional response from me concealed of course except for the quiet tears … well the kids were made aware of this by my bride who would say” someone bring your dad a tissue”… well the years have hardened me and I only tear up ninety five percent of the time. ,but after watching your blind videos must ask for someone to please pass the tissue… oh how blessed are we..thank you dr. kneel.. P.B.W.Y.A.A.

    • NOS! You make me think of Pope Francis’ words with your sensitivity to the real beauty of love: “God chosen to take up our story and to journey with us, becoming man, assuming the condition of a slave and making Himself obedient even to death on a Cross. God takes this course for love! There’s no other explanation: love alone does this. Today we look upon the Cross, the story of mankind and the story of God. We look upon this Cross, where you can try that honey of aloe, that bitter honey, that bitter sweetness of the sacrifice of Jesus. But this mystery is so great, and we cannot by ourselves look well upon this mystery, not so much to understand – yes, to understand – but to feel deeply the salvation of this mystery. First of all the mystery of the Cross. It can only be understood, a little bit, by kneeling, in prayer, but also through tears: they are the tears that bring us close to this mystery.”

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