|The story is often told of the most unusual penance St. Philip Neri assigned to a woman for her sin of spreading gossip. The sixteenth-century saint instructed her to take a feather pillow to the top of the church bell tower, rip it open, and let the wind blow all the feathers away. This probably was not the kind of penance this woman, or any of us, would have been used to!
But the penance didn’t end there. Philip Neri gave her a second and more difficult task. He told her to come down from the bell tower and collect all the feathers that had been scattered throughout the town. The poor lady, of course, could not do it-and that was the point Philip Neri was trying to make in order to underscore the destructive nature of gossip. When we detract from others in our speech, our malicious words are scattered abroad and cannot be gathered back. They continue to dishonor and divide many days, months, and years after we speak them as they linger in people’s minds and pass from one tale-bearer to the next.
The Power of Our Words
We often do not realize the power of our words. Our words can be used to buildup or to tear down. We can have a positive impact on other people’s lives when we use our words for good. Consider how much we appreciate it when someone takes time to express words of gratitude, honor, or praise; or how enriched we are when someone takes a genuine interest in our lives. Conversation that focuses on what is good and honorable can edify other people’s lives and help strengthen the community.
Very often, however, our speech is used in a destructive way. St. James states “the tongue is a fire,” and he describes how easy it is to fall into sinful speech: “No human being can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men” (Jas.3:6, 8-9). St. Paul exhorts us: “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10). Yet many people fall into negative humor, constantly pointing out others’ faults, albeit in a joking fashion. Young people today, instead of outdoing one another in showing honor, often imitate characters on popular TV shows and YouTube videos and try to outdo one another with a witty quip that pokes fun at another person.
We tear down others when we point out their weak points, criticize them, or complain about them when they are not present. We may, for example, start off speaking positively about someone, yet add a “but” in the middle of our sentence that precedes our mentioning a certain fault or annoying point we think that person possesses. “He’s a great guy, but sometimes he talks too much.” “I love mom, but sometimes she can get on my nerves.” Such detraction is not necessary and diminishes the honor that is due to the other person.
This article was featured on my Podcast last week: All Things Catholic with Edward Sri — listen here!