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The Power of Words
Memorial of St. Anthony of Padua, Doctor of the Church
Jesus said to his disciples: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow. But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the Evil One.”
Opening Prayer: I come before you today, Lord, filled with a desire to get to know you more deeply and to experience the interior peace you promised to leave us. I believe in you, and you know that my hopes for happiness are in you. But I get distracted so easily! Please remind me today of your love for me, of your plan for my life. Please grant me the graces I need to hear your word and heed it as I continue my pilgrimage of faith today.
- The Gift of Language: Today Jesus instructs us about one of the greatest gifts in our possession: the gift of language. Of all the creatures in this visible universe, only human beings have true language. Only human beings can sit around a table and sip coffee and talk for hours on end. Language is the mysterious manifestation of our being both material and spiritual: we infuse spiritual meaning into material sounds, and this allows us to connect with other spiritual beings, other persons. We can know and be known through this wonderful gift of language. We can learn and grow because of this gift. We can be enriched and enlightened because language can impart to us the treasures of wisdom accumulated by other individuals, and even by entire cultures or civilizations. When was the last time I reflected on the amazing reality of words and how they affect my life and the world around me? Have I taken this for granted? Jesus himself is the Word of God, and so our ability to communicate to each other through words–not just through grunts and gestures, like other animals in this visible world–reflects our dignity as being created in God’s own image and likeness.
- The Abuse of the Gift: In the Old Testament, the eighth commandment was directed toward the proper use of the gift of language: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” This is the arena of behavior Jesus is addressing in the verses from the Sermon on the Mount used in today’s Gospel reading. By these exhortations today Jesus is reminding us that our words need to respectfully and humbly embody truth. So often we exaggerate with our words. We are afraid of what other people may think of us, or we try to ingratiate ourselves or deceive our way into certain honors or opportunities—and we do so by abusing the gift of language. We lie, we deceive, we flatter, we manipulate. Since language is part of our spiritual heritage, it has potential for great good when we use it well, but it has potential for great destruction when we abuse it. Jesus cautions us in this passage to use language well. He encourages us to be humble, truthful, simple, and honest in our speech; to say what we mean, to use the gift of language to create authentic connection with other people and thus build meaningful relationships and create a healthy social environment. That’s what we do when we let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no.” What a great gift we can give to those around us (and to ourselves) if we respect the gift of language enough to use it as God meant it to be used!
- St. Anthony of Padua’s Gift of Preaching: Today’s liturgy remembers the Franciscan Doctor of the Church, St. Anthony of Padua. Padua is the city in Italy where St. Anthony exercised his ministry for many years. But he was originally from Portugal. He joined the Franciscan order and headed to North Africa hoping to become a martyr by trying to convert the Muslims there. A storm drove his boat off course and he ended up landing in Italy. He met St. Francis and was sent into a hermitage in northern Italy. He was such a quiet and self-effacing person that they thought he would be a good candidate for a hermit’s life of prayer and penance. But one day he was invited to give an emergency discourse at an event for which the organizers had overlooked preparing the proper speech. His deep learning, vibrant spirituality, and humble fervor shone forth during that impromptu talk, and immediately afterward he was sent out to preach to the towns and cities of the area. His holiness and supernatural eloquence ignited a widespread spiritual reform and renewal throughout the area. By the time he died at the young age of 34, he had served as God’s instrument to revitalize the Church in a time and place known for rampant corruption and spiritual decadence. And it was his preaching that did it—his words. His words flowed from a heart purified of selfishness and fear and filled to overflowing with faith, hope, and love for God. His years of study, and then his years of humble service (when he never put himself forth to preach or teach in spite of his impressive qualifications and talents), had cleansed his soul so that when God called upon him to speak forth for the Gospel, his words carried the healing and enlightening power of God’s grace. We can all yearn for that same grace. If we let God’s grace heal and strengthen our hearts, then our words will become beacons of hope and healing for others.
Conversing with Christ: Lord, I am surrounded by so many words, so much noise! And so often my own words are thoughtless and superficial, even deceptive and unwholesome. Please teach me to use the gift of language in a way that will spread your light and goodness. Teach me to let my yes be yes and my no be no. I don’t need to use words as shields or swords. I am your friend and your ambassador. You are my inspiration and my companion. You are my safety and my refuge; I have no need to fear. Purify my heart, Lord, so that my words will speak out your praise.
Resolution: Lord, today by your grace I will pay special attention to my spontaneous comments, reflecting on what they reveal about the state of my heart and the habits of my tongue. At the end of the day I will speak with Our Lord about what he is inviting me to change in this area of my life.
For Further Reflection: Sharpening Your Tongue: A Regnum Christi Essay on Charity in Our Words.
Written by Fr. John Bartunek, LC.