The noble gift of speech
(by Fr. Leo J. Trese)
“It is a wonderful gift, this power of speech – this ability to communicate with our fellow men and especially with those whom we love. Sight and hearing are precious gifts, too. Yet, neither blindness nor deafness isolate us from others as much as does dumbness.
Perhaps we have encountered someone who has suffered a blood clot in the part of the brain which controls speech. If so, we know how pitiful it is to witness the frustration of such a person as he tries so hard to express what is in his mind, yet cannot.
As it is true of all God’s gifts, our power of speech must be used for God’s purposes. It must be used for good and not for evil.
Using the power of speech for good, not for evil
The noblest use to which our tongue can be put is to address God in prayer. It is a mean return we make to God for His gift if we seldom speak to Him, perhaps only on Sunday or when in need. We convict ourselves of ingratitude if we let a day pass without directing to God some words of love, praise, gratitude and repentance.
Our day may be a crowded one with no time for lengthy conversation with God. However, even the busiest day can be peppered through with brief salutations such as ‘Blessed be God,’ ‘My Jesus I love You,’ ‘Holy Spirit, guide me,’ or ‘All for You, God.’
After prayer, the most fruitful output of our vocal chords will be words spoken in charity. One of the greatest desecrations of our gift of speech is to indulge in malicious gossip and unkind criticism. It is especially offensive to God if we create unhappiness in our own home with angry, sarcastic or belittling words.
Mere absence of uncharitable speech is not enough
Mere abstinence from uncharitable speech is not enough. God expects us to use our lingual ability in positive acts of charity. We do so, for example, when we speak out in defence of someone whose character is being attacked. We do so when we cheer another with encouraging words or with words of honest praise. We do so when we give helpful guidance or instruction to another. Any dedicated teacher (especially a teacher of religion) is an outstanding example of speech well used.
The obligation to speak truthfully
After prayer and charity, the third duty which our gift of speech imposes on us is the obligation to speak truthfully. The virtue of veracity demands that there be agreement between what is in our mind and what is on our lips. We badly tarnish our Christian image if we make a lie (‘little lies,’ we say?) our standard tool for getting out of scrapes and for avoiding embarrassment or inconvenience. By our lies we make our gift of speech into a weapon to be turned against God, instead of an instrument to be used for His work.
A conflict between truth and charity?
It may seem at times that there is a conflict between our obligation to be truthful and our obligation to practice justice or charity. We may encounter a prying individual who asks questions about matters which we are not at liberty to reveal. These may be professional confidences, such as those of a priest, doctor or lawyer; or they may be matters which would be seriously harmful to another or to ourselves if revealed.
However, when questions are asked by someone who has no right to the information he seeks, the conflict between justice or charity and veracity is only a seeming conflict. Actually it is not a lie to say to the inquisitor, ‘I do not know.’ That is, ‘I do not know’ as far as this particular person is concerned.
Theologians give this type of answer the name of ‘mental reservation.’ The purpose is not to deceive but simply to protect justice or charity. If there is any deception involved, it is the inquisitive person who deceives himself. If he has any intelligence, he should know that the answer means only, ‘Whether I know it or not, I cannot tell you.’
Prayerfulness, charitableness and truthfulness. If our talk always exemplifies these virtues, we shall be able to give God a good account of our stewardship. He will have no cause to regret having endowed us with the gift of speech.”
– Fr Leo J. Trese, 1966