This is my latest column in The Catholic Free Press.
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I have a lifelong habit of talking to myself. I don’t consider a thought to be valid unless it is spoken out loud.
I’m that crazy lady you see barreling down the highway with hands waving and a mouth that never stops moving. I do my best brainstorming in the car. I also vent. My face displays my mood for all to see: happy, sad, excited, angry. I am oblivious to anyone around me and so I let loose.
So what possible harm can there be in all that? This has been the lesson of my Lent this year.
While reading a book by Father Vassilios Papavassiliou, a Greek Orthodox priest called Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life, I came across a chapter titled “Talkativeness and Silence.” There was another chapter further in called “Stillness.” Stillness is something I have long desired but felt I could not achieve. I can’t sit still for one moment without fidgeting nor can I keep my mind from racing. Furthermore, I cannot seem to get out of the prison of myself. These chapters both outlined the problem and offered solutions. The tools are simple to use but the task is impossible without God’s grace.
The chapter on “Talkativeness and Silence” made it clear that talking to myself was often not a good thing. For one thing, it creates noise that blocks communion with God–how can I listen above the din of my own voice? Talking to myself leads me deep within but not to the place where God dwells.
I have a hot temper and am easily aggravated; frequent venting is the result. Such open expression of my anger in private stokes negative feelings that spill over to others. A perfect example is road rage—in my outburst of anger against the driver who supposedly wronged me I judge someone unjustly. The more I rage, the more aggressively I drive to the point where it could endanger others. Road rage sometimes interrupts prayer, severing communion with God. It takes a great deal of effort to restart that conversation.
Cursing to myself happens without a thought. The inability to control that urge in private makes it harder to control my tongue in public, going beyond simple cursing to gossip and hurtful words towards others. Cursing to myself reinforces those behaviors.
Father Papavassiliou is right: “As long as we consider the tongue to be autonomous—something that falls outside the scope of Christian ascesis, something independent of God—it will inevitably become a tool of sin.”
The Scriptures tell us that there’s no such thing as a private sin: “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open”–Luke 8:17 (NIV)
You may not talk to yourself but everyone harbors thoughts. Where do those thoughts lead you? How do you express them? There is no thought that will not be revealed in one form or another. Those of us who vocalize our thoughts, even if just to ourselves exacerbate the danger of those thoughts harming someone else.
Conquering a lifetime of venting, lamenting and cursing seems like an impossible task. By my own power–not doable. Through an all merciful and powerful God, it will be done, especially as I humble myself and ask others to pray for me. The grace that comes through those prayers will help to control my tongue. Replacing negative thoughts with remembrances of all the wonderful ways God has blessed me is a powerful way to dispel any negativity.
In asking God for help with my tongue, he has given me a wonderful tool—singing. Father Papavassiliou recommends this too. Therefore, if you see me driving down the Mass Pike, mouth moving and face happy and determined, you may witness me using this tool. The scriptures recommend it: “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19, NIV). It does a world of good for my soul, driving out wrongful thoughts. I know it silences my tongue.
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