Gracious Words

There are times when a phrase leaps out of a text and hits one between the eyes. Very early this morning I read today’s gospel (Luke 4. 14-22), the last sentence of which is ‘And all were astonished at the gracious words that came from his lips.’ It made me question how often the words that come from my own lips could be described as gracious, and whether those who hear them are astonished when they are. Food for thought there, and not only for me!

We are often told (in words) that we live in a world where the visual is more important than the verbal. Our use of smartphones and messaging apps has encouraged a truncated language of abbreviations and emojis incomprehensible to some, and I’m surely not alone in thinking the regular use of profanities as adjectives goes unnoticed by the perpetrators, so habitual has it become. But, and it is a big ‘but’, there is not much point in lamenting the passage of a past that was never quite as golden as we would like to believe. I could quote hundreds of instances of ugly, brutal misuses of language from earlier times, but it is what we do now that is important. The words we speak or write, the choices we make, have an effect on ourselves as well as others.

St Benedict devotes a whole chapter of his Rule to restraint in speech (RB 6) and often mentions the value of the good word or blessing that we pass on to others. He is concerned, too, about the way in which we shape our words in choir or as we read in the refectory, how we address one another in the cloister, and how we use words (or not) to welcome a guest. I think most readers of this blog know that it was reflecting on hospitality in the Rule of St Benedict that led the community here to develop an internet outreach at a time when it was still unfashionable among ‘churchy’ types. It is what drives our engagement with social media today, but I think we are facing a new challenge; and if we are, then you, the reader, are, too.

It is not enough to make a resolution to avoid profanity, for example, or refuse to join in when others are casting slurs on the integrity of others. That can look a little like holier-than-thou tactics to avoid drawing fire on one’s own head, though I would endorse both as being part of civilized discourse. When Jesus is described as uttering gracious words, we have to consider what made them gracious. Content, style, purpose, yes; but something more, the something John tells us about in 1 John 4: love. I wonder how often love of others prompts our words, and how often it is simply love of self, the desire to be heard? Being more self-aware without becoming self-obsessed is a difficult art but one I think we all need to master, both online and off. It may change how we perceive words and how we use them. The most gracious word ever spoken was made flesh at Christmas. That’s how important words are and what we need to ponder.


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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail