Words, Words, Words

It ironic that the writings of St Peter Chrysologus, whose name means ‘golden-worded’, should have almost entirely disappeared. We have 176 short homilies to justify his alternative title of ‘Doctor of Homilies’. Those I’ve read are refreshing: simple, direct and covering important topics like the Apostles’ Creed and fundamental doctrines of the Church. Some find him surprisingly ‘modern’. He advocates daily Communion, for example, and is good at explaining scripture. Yet it is his silence, what he does not say, that attracts me. He was bishop of Ravenna in the fifth century so must have seen and heard much into which those of us who are not angelic long to look. Apparently, he got on well with Leo the Great and was influential at the imperial court. Fifteen hundred years later, the Churches of both East and West continue to commemorate his sanctity.

Old Saints: New Saints

I often think that these old saints, who inhabited a world and enjoyed a ‘world view’ very different in many respects from our own, are a better guide to holiness than some more recent models. Again, it is the silence that is so eloquent. The sayings of some of our more contemporary saints are interminable, endlessly turned into holy sound bytes which are neither profound nor helpful, merely irritating. I leave you to think of a few examples for yourselves, and if you can’t, be assured that you are obviously much holier than I am!

Silence and Restraint in Speech

So, silence: choosing the words to speak and when to say or write them. The monastic tradition puts great emphasis on this restraint, this disciplining of the self. Indeed it goes further, valuing physical silence for its own sake, for the way it opens us up to God and other people, for its role in making us wise and compassionate. It is not difficult to see how words are often abused or silence undervalued in today’s society. The trouble is, once we start distancing ourselves from this observable fact with references to concepts like ‘today’s society,’ we are apt to distance ourselves from our own responsibility. We suggest that we are helpless, constrained by circumstances; but are we really — or are we being a little lazy?

Personal Choice

In Britain today I see and read much that makes me cringe — and I am not referring solely or even mainly to what passes for politics or takes place in social media. I can do very little about its worst excesses; but I can do something about my own words, my own silence. The point is, do I want to? Surely someone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour and Redeemer, the Word made flesh, cannot be indifferent to the tiny words we use every day, to the creative silence that gives birth to the Mystery? Or can we? Perhaps a few minutes thinking about that question would yield an unexpected harvest of self-knowledge and renewed purpose.

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10 thoughts on “Words, Words, Words”

    • Depends — on the Holy Spirit and how much energy I myself have. I try to make sure anything I post on the blog can be read in five minutes or fewer and that there is no ambiguity. Today’s only took a few minutes because I had been thinking about St Peter Chrysologus and have kept it very simple. Others can take some hours to condense and make as clear as possible.

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  1. My father tried to impress on me that I should try to make greater use of the portcullis in my brain to ‘think before I speak’. The wheel has come full circle as we now receive this gentle advice from you. And once again, I feel you are speaking directly to me.
    More than ever, in this pandemic, words are supremely important to me but this is a reminder to favour quality over quantity. And also that words are not always necessary in our relationship with our Creator. Thank-you.

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    • Although the pandemic and, perhaps more specifically the restraints and renunciations of lockdown, have impressed on us all the importance of words, I wonder whether we have, in fact, used too many of them. I’m thinking of all those Zoom meetings, those incessant emails and updates. But you are absolutely right about no words being necessary to deepen our relationship with God. May he bless you abundantly.

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  2. ‘Silence is golden’ as the song went, but how hard it is when we really, inwardly, long to fill it either with our own voices, the radio, television or music.

    Today it is raining so I will miss my walk with the sound of silence or just the wildlife. How I love that 80 minute oasis of peace.

    Reading this blog has urged me to switch off breakfast news for 20 minutes of peace before catching up on Desert Island Discs and then the day’s Labora.

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  3. I’m still chuckling at ‘holy sound bytes’. I’m afraid I’ve been known to use a much more down to earth phrase describing these effusions which I shall refrain from recording here.

    I do remember Sr Immaculata frequently reminding us to engage the brain before opening the mouth, or, as a Yorkshire uncle used to say ‘Think on and shurrup.’

    The rest of your wise words will certainly cause me to engage the brain – and the spirit as well, I hope. Thank you.

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