Learning to Speak

Learning to speak is as difficult as learning to listen. We might think that once we have mastered the sounds, words tumble forth of their own accord — an endless stream of them. Most of the time that is true, alas; but learning to speak, as orators of old understood the term — to speak with precision and persuasive force, with nothing unnecessary or unworthy, nothing trivial or beside the point — that is an art, and an art we, as Christians, need to cultivate in a society where words are abused and trivialised. St Benedict, we must remember, grew up in age when the art of oratory was still part of a gentleman’s education and what he says in the Rule about the right use of speech, especially in the Eleventh Step of Humility, could be taken as an expression of that. I think, however, that it expresses something richer and deeper something much more fundamental to our existence as Christians. Benedict, quite simply, wants us to value words and set great store on them because God chose to incarnate himself as the Word made flesh. Words cannot be trivial if they express the nature of God, can they?

I think we can take this a little further today, as we celebrate the feast of St Laurence, the Roman deacon who counted the poor as the Church’s greatest treasure. When asked to give an account of himself, Laurence spoke exactly as Benedict would have his monks speak: gently, without mockery, humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words. And because he spoke so simply and directly, he gave us for all time a definition of what makes the Church truly rich. It is in her poor, her voiceless, her defenceless, that the Church truly glories — not in the rich, the successful or the powerful. Learning to speak is not just about making intelligible sounds; it is the art of seeing into the heart of things and communicating what we see.