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imageGive Mr. Mouth a Rest

As a priest I’m naturally on the lookout for good bits for a sermon.  So it should come as no surprise that I’ll crib any and all ideas, and I’ll even give credit to the source when I absolutely have to.  So it was that I recently listened eagerly to a parish priest revered for the quality of his sermons.  And that day he did not disappoint.

He began his sermon by quoting advice he’d gotten from his second-grade teacher.  For an entire year that nun had drummed into her students the message for which they have remembered her:  “God gave us two ears to hear, but only one mouth to speak.”

I don’t know whether that warning was meant to cow her students into submission, or whether she only wanted to give them the benefit of her own experience.  It may have been a little of both; but regardless, it’s what this priest recalls about her umpteen years later.

imageActually, it’s not such a bad aphorism to carry around, and for me it ranks with my personal favorite which I appropriated long ago from the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live.  Every time she was about to trash somebody, she reached inside for self-regulation:  “Give Mr. Mouth a rest.”  Who knows how much grief it spared her, but I know it’s been invaluable to me.  When I can remember in time, I trot it out of mothballs when my mouth threatens to get out way ahead of my brain.  I’m just glad I don’t have to pay royalties for all the times I’ve invoked it.

Speech is a great gift, and by and large our ability to speak well puts us a cut above most of the animals.  Speech allows us to encourage and help one another, to teach one another, and to express love and support for one another.  But there’s also a dark side, as Adam discovered when he told God that whopper about the woman making him do it.  From there it’s only gotten worse.

imagePeople usually associate silence with monasteries, but I can tell you that if you want silence go to a Carthusian monastery.  It’s so quiet there that they even made a movie about it, called — appropriately enough — Into the Great Silence.  As for Benedictine houses, you’ll find some good stretches of quiet, depending more or less on the customs of the local community.  But we do speak, and Saint Benedict expected us to do so.

All the same, Benedict had a lot of ambivalence about speaking.  For one thing, there could be too much of it.  For another, speaking always has the potential to be destructive.  For that reason he cautioned his monks that the tongue holds the key to life and death.  Of course he didn’t for a minute believe that a few words could kill someone literally.  But he also knew the power of gossip to destroy a reputation and the peace of mind of a fellow monk.

imageWe think of Benedict as a man of balance, and I suspect that in his attitude toward speech you have yet another instance of striving for the golden mean.  After all, he may have encouraged silence, but he also prescribed these words which begin every day for every monk:  “Oh Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”  And these words come from the lips of a man named Benedict, which in Latin means to speak well.  So it is that he encouraged holy speech, even as he feared that speaking could veer off in another direction.  No doubt he knew from personal experience that even in a monastery the tongue can race way ahead of the brain.

As for that bit of advice from the nun, had Benedict known it he would have lifted it and made the most of it.  After all, two ears and one tongue is just about the right proportion for Benedict.  But then again, in an act of holy zeal, he might have teased it out even further.  I can just imagine him saying that God gave us two ears for hearing the word of God, two eyes to see what needs to be done, two hands to go and do it, and one mouth to call it all blessed.  And he’d end with the observation that God also gives us one brain to make sure that Mr. Mouth gets his proper rest.

imageNotes

+On January 27th I spoke on design in The Saint John’s Bible in two art classes at George Fox University, located near Portland, OR.  That evening I addressed a much larger audience on that topic.

+On Sunday February 1st I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s, and  you can access the text at this link, Does God Demand Anxiety?

+On January 31st Fr. Geoffrey Fecht and a group of friends of the Abbey began a two-week journey to Africa.  Among other excursions, they will visit with members of our Benedictine Volunteer Corps who are serving at two abbeys in Africa.

+Since today is the Feast of the Presentation, I have included in this post a painting of the Presentation by Giovanni Bellini, housed in a gallery in Venice.  The gospel for the Mass of the day recounts the story of Simeon who rejoiced to live long enough to see the Savior.  It is a story of “letting go,” and so I have included photos of 17th-century tombs of various professors at the University of Bologna.

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