She’d done it again. She had just stabbed the back of another victim. She hadn’t wielded a knife, but you could say she had used a nasty weapon: her tongue. But this time, she was done. This would be the last time.
She saw a church and went inside. The confessional was open, and Fr. Phillip invited her in to encounter God’s mercy. He listened to her confession with a warm smile and granted her the mercy of God. But Fr. Phillip wanted to give the young woman a penance that would help her understand the impact of her words.
He told her to take a feather pillow and climb to the top of the church bell tower, where he then asked her to rip apart the pillow and watch the feathers float away. He asked her to come see him after she had finished.
She went and did as he had asked, and then she returned. Fr. Phillip said, “Very good. Now go pick up all the feathers.”
The young woman gasped and exclaimed, “That’s impossible!”
The saintly priest nodded his head and said, “Yes — just like it is impossible to take back the impact of all your careless words.”
That lesson from St. Phillip Neri is one she would never forget.
Let’s be real: Our words can hurt people, and we need to be more aware of it. Jesus said, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter” (Matthew 12:34 – 36).
If you’re anything like me, it’s not easy to be careful with our words. I know how easily I’ve fallen into the trap of complaining or trash-talking — whether it was pointing out the weaknesses of others, making fun of others at their expense or just catching up on someone else’s life while he or she wasn’t present. Such things aren’t why God gave us the gift of speech. Our speech should give life to others, not tear them down.
So what should we do when we feel these temptations? Here are a few suggestions to help you watch your mouth:
Start with your own heart.
Write down and pray about what you are thankful for each day, especially regarding the people with whom you come in daily contact. This will help you establish an attitude of gratitude. Remember, it’s from the “abundance of your heart that the mouth speaks.”
Several years ago, I was struggling with my team members. To keep myself from thinking or speaking against them, I started to pray for each of them by name each night, thanking God for putting them into my life. As I did, my heart began to change. I stopped talking and thinking poorly about them; I even saw all of the good they did and began sharing that with others. My heart was restored by the gift of thankfulness, and my relationships with my teammates were transformed.
Change the conversation.
Instead of complaining or speaking poorly of someone, start to point the conversation in another direction. Ask questions that bring out a new side of someone, such as “What are you passionate about?” Even if it’s just talking about the weather or sports, do anything you can to change the conversation. If that doesn’t work, just leave the conversation.
Find good friends.
Several years ago, a group of my friends and I would get together to have a drink and vent. What we found was that our venting was leading to discouragement, lack of peace and detraction about others we all knew. One of the men of the group was bold enough to suggest not getting together if we were going to go down the road of careless speech; we decided we would speak of things that would build each other up rather than tear others down. If you’re struggling to find friends who will do this for you, be that friend for others. They need you!
Pope Francis said, “I tell you the truth…I am convinced that if each one of us would purposely avoid gossip, at the end, we would become a saint! It’s a beautiful path!” (Angelus Address, Feb. 16, 2014).
If we commit to this path, we would be better friends, better co-workers, better students and better sons and daughters. We would spend our lives building people up and encouraging others with our words. We would find more peace and joy — and as Pope Francis exclaimed, we would become saints.