Of the Circumstances Necessary for Speaking Well

by admin on February 13, 2012

SET, O Lord, a guard to my mouth, and a gate of circumstance to my lips (Psalm cxl. 3), a gate wherewith my lips can be closed. The blessed saints and doctors of the Church, Ambrose and Gregory, speaking of the many evils and mischiefs that follow from the tongue—whereof Holy Scripture is full, and the Sapiential Books particularly— and strongly recommending to us the observance of silence by way of escape from so many mischiefs and dangers, say: What, then, are we to do ? Are we to be dumb ? We do not mean to say that, say the saints, since the virtue of silence does not consist in not speaking. As the virtue of temper­ance does not consist in not eating, but in eating when necessary and what is necessary, and for the rest abstain­ing; so the virtue of silence does not consist in not speak­ing, but in knowing how to be silent at the proper time and knowing how to speak at the proper time. They quote to this effect that saying of Ecclesiastes: There is a time to speak and a time to be silent (iii. 7). Thus much discre­tion is needed to succeed in doing each of these things in its proper time; for as it is a fault to speak when it is not proper, so also is it to fail to speak when one ought to speak.

These two things, say the saints, the prophet gives us to understand in the words quoted: Set, O Lord., a guard to my mouth. What dost thou ask, holy prophet? A gate where­with my lips may be closed. St. Gregory well observes that David does not ask for a wall in his mouth, and to have it closed with stone and mortar, so that it never should be opened, but a gate that is opened and closed at proper times, to give us to understand that we must be silent and shut our mouth at the right time, and open it at the right time, and that here in this discretion lies the value of silence. The same is what the Wise Man asks, saying: Who will set a guard on my mouth, and a seal on my lips, that I may not come to fall by them and my own tongue condemn me! (Ecclus. xxii. 3; xxviii. 28). So many circumstances and conditions are necessary to speak without mistake, that the Wise Man with reason fears to be lost through his tongue and asks for this discretion to know how to open and shut his mouth at proper times; for the failure of one circum­stance is enough to cause a mistake; and for one’s speech to hit the mark and be good, all the circumstances must concur without one failing. There is this difference between good and evil, between virtue and vice, that a concurrence of all circumstances is necessary for virtue, without one being wanting, whereas for vice the failure of one is suffi­cient. Bonum ex Integra causa, malum ex singularibus defectibus.

St. Basil, St. Ambrose, St. Bernard, and others lay down in common the circumstances that are necessary to speak well. The first and chief is to look carefully first at what one has to say. Nature herself gives us clearly to under­stand the caution we should observe on this point. She has guarded and screened off the tongue not by one gate and lock only, but by two; first by the teeth and after that by the lips. She has put a wall and barbican to the tongue, whereas to the ears she has not put any locked enclosure, that thereby we might understand what difficulty and cau­tion we should show in speaking, and what promptitude and readiness in hearing, according to that saying of the Apostle St. James: Let every man be quick to hear, but slow to speak (i. 19). The same lesson is taught by the anatomy of the tongue, since there are in it two veins, one of which goes to the heart and the other to the brain, where philosophers place the seat of the understanding, to give us to understand that what is to be said should proceed from the heart and be regulated by the reason. And this is the first advice that St. Augustine gives us how to speak well. “Every word,” he says, “should go to the file (ad limam) before going to the tongue (ad linguam).” It should be first registered in the heart, and filed down according to the rule of reason before coming out by the mouth. This is the difference which Ecclesiasticus puts between the wise man and the fool: Fools keep their heart in their tongue (xxi. 29), because they give themselves over without restraint to their tongue and its disorderly crav­ing for talking, and say whatever comes into their mouth, the heart consenting at once as though heart and tongue were one. But the wise and prudent keep their tongue in their heart because all that they have got to say comes forth from it according to the counsel of reason. They keep their tongue submissive and subject to their heart, and not their heart to their tongue, as fools do.

St. Cyprian says that, as a sober and temperate man takes nothing into his stomach without having first masticated it thoroughly, so a prudent and discreet man utters no word from his mouth without having first ruminated it right well in his heart, for from words not well weighed or thought over disputes commonly arise. St. Vincent says that we should make as much difficulty over opening our mouth to speak as over opening our purse to pay. How leisurely and how thoughtfully does a man open his purse! First he looks well to see if there is anything to pay at all, and to what amount. In this way and with this reluctance you should open your mouth to speak, looking first to see if you ought to speak at all, and then what you ought to say, and whether you are not saying more words than you ought, as in the former case a man looks to see that he does not pay more than he owes. This agrees with what St. Bonaventure says, that one should be as cautious and close over one’s words as a miser over his money. St. Ber­nard is not content with this, but says: “Before speaking, let the word pass twice over the file ere it once passes the tongue.” And St. Bonaventure says the same. St. Ephrem says: “Before you speak, communicate first with God what you have to say and the reason and cause for saying it, and then speak as one who is fulfilling the will of God, Who wishes you to say what you do say.” This is the chief cir­cumstance required for speaking well, and if we observe this we shall easily be able to observe the rest.

The second circumstance that we have to look to in speak­ing is the end and intention that moves us to speak. It is not enough that our words be good; the end also must be good. For some, as St. Bonaventure says, say pious things to appear spiritual men; others to show themselves off as shrewd and well-spoken—the one of which courses is hypoc­risy and pretense; the other, vanity and folly.

The third circumstance, says St. Basil, is that you must look who you are that speak, and to whom and before whom you are speaking. And he gives here good lessons how the young should behave before the old, and they who are not priests before priests, resting all on texts of Holy Scrip­ture. Be not talkative in a gathering of ancients (Ecclus. vii. 15). It is a mark of good breeding and reverence to be silent in presence of elders and in presence of priests. St. Bernard says that youths honor their elders by silence —a good way of showing reverence and recognition—and by yielding them the precedence. And he adds a good rea­son. “Silence,” he says, “is a chief part of bashfulness, a quality that sits well upon youth.” St. Bonaventure, enlarging upon this, says that, as the fear of God composes and sets in order a man’s interior and makes him stand well with God, so bashfulness composes and sets in order his exterior and makes him observe modesty, courtesy, and silence in presence of his elders.

The fourth circumstance, says St. Ambrose, is to con­sider the time at which one is to speak, for one of the prin­cipal traits of prudence is to know how to say things in their right time. The wise and prudent man will be silent and “bide his time; but the foolish and indiscreet hath no eye for time and opportunities (Ecclus. xx. 7). And of him who knows how to observe this circumstance of speaking at the right time, the Holy Ghost says: Golden apples on settings of silver, such a thing it is to say the right thing at the right time (Prov. xxv. 11). This looks well and gives great satisfaction. And, contrariwise, though the thing said be good, yet if it is not said at the right time, it is taken amiss. From the mouth of the fool, says the Wise Man, the sententious word is not well received, because it is not said at the right time (Ecclus. xx. 22). To this cir­cumstance it belongs not to interrupt anyone, which is bad manners and shows scant humility; nor is it a good time to speak when another is speaking. While another is speaking, interrupt him not, says the Wise Man. Wait till he finishes what he has to say; then shall you come in with your opinion. To this also is reduced what he adds else­where: Answer not until you have heard to the end what they are saying to you: for that is showing oneself a fool and worthy of confusion (Prov. xviii. 13). Such a one shows himself a man of slender balance of mind, and often brings confusion on himself by answering wide of the mark. He thought they were going to say something, and they were not going to say that, but something else; he has put his foot into it from being too sharp. St. Basil gives a fur­ther advice about answering: If another person be asked, be you silent. And when there are many together and they are told to speak their mind on a question, if they do not ask you in particular, it shows a lack of humility to seek to make yourself the spokesman and take the matter up in the name of all. Until they tell you in particular to speak, be silent.

The fifth circumstance which the saints lay down for speaking well, is modus loquendi, the manner and tone of voice, according to what we are told in our rule: “Let all speak in a subdued voice, as becomes religious.” This is a chief circumstance, or, to speak more correctly, a large constituent part of silence. On those words that Martha said to her sister when Christ our Redeemer came to raise Lazarus: Martha called Mary in silence, saying: The Mas­ter is come, and calleth for thee (John xi. 28), St. Augus­tine asks how can she be said to say, The Master calleth thee, in silence? And he answers that speaking in a low voice is called silence. Here in religion, when the religious speak to one another in various offices in a low voice, we say that silence is then kept in the house. But when they talk in a loud voice, even though the things said be neces­sary, they are not keeping silence. Thus for there to be silence in all the working rooms, and the house to have the air of a religious house, and ourselves to look like religious, it is necessary to speak low. St. Bonaventure says it is a great fault in a religious to speak loud. It is enough that you speak in such a way that those about can hear you. And if you want to say anything to one who is at a dis­tance, go there and say it, because it befits not religious modesty to cry out even to those who are far off. And St. Bonaventure observes that nighttime and the time of repose and recollection require even more particularly that talking be done in a very low voice, not to disturb others at that time. And the same requirement attaches to parti­cular places, as the sacristy, entrance hall, and refectory. St. Bonaventure says that to this circumstance of the manner of speaking there belongs also the habit of speak­ing with serenity of countenance, not making gestures with the mouth, notably compressing or expanding the lips, or showing signs with the eyes, or wrinkles in the forehead or on the nose, or shakings of the head, or much gesticu­lating with the hands—all this is commended to us by our Father in his Rules of Modesty. St. Ambrose and St. Ber­nard also say that it belongs to this circumstance that the voice be not affected, or quavering with womanish softness, but that it be the voice of a grave man. But while the man­ner of speech must not be affected or effeminate, they say that it must not be rough, hoarse, or wondrously grave either. The manner of speaking of a religious should always be grave, but with a gravity mingled with sweet­ness. And while a kind manner is always necessary in speaking, it is particularly necessary when we wish to give an admonition or a rebuke; for if that be not done kindly, all the good effect of it will be lost. St. Bonaventure says very well that, when one admonishes or corrects another with emotion and anger, he seems to do it rather out of impatience and desire to wound than out of charity and zeal to amend the offender. Virtue is not taught by vice, nor patience by impatience, nor humility by pride. The example of your patience and meekness will give the cul­prit more edification than your reasons. So says St. Ambrose: “Warning and admonition must be without roughness and without offense”—Monitio sine asperitate, hortatio sine offensione. They quote to this purpose the saying of the Apostle St. Paul: Scold not an elder, but entreat him as a father (I Tim v. 1).

Here also is justly blamed an affected utterance put on on purpose to appear a highly discreet and well-spoken per­son. So those preachers are very reprehensible who aim at a highly-wrought and over-polished diction and make particular study of the same; whereby they lose the spirit and fruit of their sermons. They say that speech should be like water, leaving no taste if it is good.

Finally, the circumstances requisite for speaking well are so many that it will be a great wonder not to fail in some of them; and therefore a very good resource it is to betake ourselves to the port of silence, where by merely holding our tongue we ward off the many inconveniences and dangers that there are in speaking, according to the saying of the Wise Man: He who guardeth his mouth and his tongue guardeth his soul from anguishes (Prov. xxi. 23). And so said one of those ancient Fathers: “Only be silent, and you will find rest and quiet in any place.” And even the heathen Seneca said: “There is nothing so profitable as keeping quiet, speaking as little as possible with others, and as much as may be with oneself”—Minimum cum aliis loqui, secum plurimum. Very celebrated is that saying of the holy Abbot Arsenius, which he used to repeat many times, and even sing it, as Surius in his History says: “I have often repented of having spoken, never of having kept silence”—Me saepe paenituit dixisse, nunquam autem tacuisse. The same is told of Socrates. And Seneca gives the reason of this: He who is silent can speak afterwards, but he who has spoken cannot get out of having spoken.

And another says: “A word once flying from the lip can­not be gathered back again”—Semel emissum volat irrevo­cable verbum (Horace). And St. Jerome: “A word coming out of the mouth is like a stone flung from the hand— Lapis emissus est sermo prolatus; you cannot stop its going its way and doing mischief; wherefore you must needs look well at what you have to say before letting it pass your lips”—which is the first admonition that we gave.

Let us, then, make up our minds to set a good guard over our tongue, saying with the prophet: I have resolved and determined to set a guard over my ways, that I sin not with my tongue (Psalm xxxviii. 2).   St. Ambrose on these words says: “There are ways that we should follow and ways that we should set a guard over; the ways of God we should fol­low and our own we should set a guard over,” that we may not precipitate ourselves and go to perdition by falling into sin; and “we shall set a guard,” he goes on to say, “by keep­ing silence.”   It is related in church history that a monk named Pambo, being an unlettered man, went to a learned monk to teach him; and hearing this verse, I have deter­mined to set a guard over my ways, that I sin not with my tongue, he would not let his master proceed further to the second verse, but said to him: “If I can accomplish that, that lesson alone will be enough for me.”   Six months aft­erwards, his master met him and reproved him for not hav­ing come back again to take a lesson.   He replied: “Really, father, I still have on hand to accomplish the first that I heard.”   Many years afterwards an intimate acquaintance asked him if he had by this time learned the verse.   He answered: “It is forty-nine years since I first heard it, and I have hardly been able to put it into practice.”  But he had done so, although in his humility he doubted it; for Palladius relates of him that he took the lesson so well to heart and put it so well into practice that, before speaking or answering what he was asked, he always lifted up his heart to God and communed and conversed with Him, according to the advice that we have mentioned. And the story goes on that hereby he drew so much assistance from God that when he was at the point of death, he said that he never remembered having spoken a word that he regretted hav­ing spoken.

Surius relates of a holy virgin [St. Mary of Ona] that one time she kept silence from the Feast of the Cross in September until Christmas, without uttering a word all that time; and that this was so pleasing to God that it was revealed to her that by that work of mortification of the tongue she had gained a free passage without passing through purgatory when she died.

Excerpt from Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues by Alphonsus Rodriguez, translated by Joseph Rickaby (Loyola University Press, 1929). Reprinted with permission.

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