Monday, January 16, 2006

Kindled by Hell

Today we look at the flip side of blessing. St James gives us a quite unambiguous treatment of the matter of sins of the tongue. Meditation on the third chapter of his Epistle is a penance I sometimes give to people who confess gossiping, lying, or any other sort of harm done with words.

Let’s get right to the point: “The tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body…and kindled by hell…a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:6-8). He also likens it to a tiny rudder that steers a large ship. Such a small thing, the tongue, but such great pretensions! Such potential for both good and evil! You probably don’t have to think too hard to remember times when you’ve said things you’ve later regretted, things that hurt other people. Or times when you have used profane language, taken the name of God in vain, ridiculed others, or perhaps started or continued some rumor or gossip that ended up doing far more damage than you bargained for. We all have, and St James is the first to admit it: “We all make many mistakes, and if anyone makes no mistakes in what he says, he is perfect…” (v 2). But the Apostle is trying to get us to reduce such mistakes to an absolute minimum.

For this he tries to get us to see things a little more clearly, to see the gravity of what we are doing, and its contradictory nature: “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so” (vv 9-10). We bless God and we curse the images of God. Put that way, it is clear how wrong and self-contradictory it is (that’s why he put it that way). In this we see the slippery nature of the tongue, and why he says it is kindled by Hell and full of poison. The devil is called the “father of lies,” so our misuse of the tongue puts us in his camp. To use the tongue to bless God and condemn others is like using a chalice for both sacred and profane functions.

But we don’t have to literally curse or condemn someone to be doing the opposite of blessing. Whatever hurts, whatever cuts, whatever denigrates, whatever spreads falsehood—these are all part of that “restless evil.” The correction of all this is an important ascetical work. Now it is clear that sometimes love demands the use of stern words, to correct, to discipline, but ultimately to enlighten and heal. Some words that “hurt” another can actually be therapeutic, if they serve that person’s growth and/or conversion. But we usually know darn well what is the intention of our words, whether they are aimed to hurt or to heal, to tear down or to build up, or simply to get the last one in.

One antidote to all the evils of the tongue is simply to bless, as I said yesterday. If we choose to bless instead of curse or revile, and make a habit of it, we will notice that we are using our tongues less for evil and more for good. Of course, this is not just a matter of the tongue but of the heart. We will not be able to habitually bless if we have not yet learned to love—or at least to act in loving ways toward others. From a heart that loves, blessing will naturally pour forth, and likewise cursing from a heart that is cold and hard. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

Lift up your heart, then, to the Lord, and pray that He make it a source of blessing, so that your tongue will be a tongue of fire--kindled not by Hell, but by the Holy Spirit. Then begin to bless God and all his images…