From Balance of the Heart
The Tongue, Slander, Silence, and Judgment
Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips. (Psalm 141:3)
James in his epistle discusses the threat of the tongue. The tongue is as treacherous as a fire in a forest: once the fire ignites it takes a long time to control, and even if it is controlled, there is always damage. James also says that the tongue “stains the whole body.” The stain is a sign that the body has become impure. The tongue is hard to control or “tame” and is “a restless evil full of deadly poison.” What is even worse, the tongue curses “those who are made in the likeness of God.” This is a very scary depiction of the power of the tongue. But James also found the tongue capable of some good, for with that same tongue, “we bless the Lord and Father,” (James 3:5-12). The tongue and the ability of speech are what distinguish humanity from the rest of creation. Humanity was granted the privilege of blessing and giving praise to the Lord intentionally, as an act of the will. The Epistle to the Colossians also advises us to control and be careful with our speech, because speech “seasoned with salt” might work wonders in people’s heart, (Colossians 4:6). One might not expect the solitary desert fathers and mothers to have paid much attention to this small member of the body, but they did. The solitary monastics advocated silence because of their deep understanding of the power of the tongue. Silence enables a person to examine his or her thoughts and purge the heart of any enmity toward another. Silence also helps a person to be cautious before uttering any word. Words speak what is in the heart and mind; that is the power and at the same time the threat of the tongue.
The desert fathers and mothers wanted to train their tongue to utter praise to God rather than slandering “those who are made in the likeness of God.” Abba Hyperechius said, “Do not utter any evil words from your mouth, for the vine does not produce thorns.” The tongue that gives praise to God is not to say words unworthy of God and of goodness. The tongue not only slanders and praises, it also expresses the inner thoughts of judgment toward others. The desert fathers and mothers most of the time opted for silence to avoid the pitfalls of the tongue. This chapter will speak about the tongue, slander, gossip, judgment, and silence. These are all matters pertaining to the tongue. In the previous chapter we discussed love. This chapter discusses one practical aspect of love toward the neighbor – controlling judgment and gossip – as an example of how all aspects of spiritual experience are intertwined throughout the whole spiritual journey. A thematic discussion of its various aspects is an orderly way of exploring the depths and complexity of desert spirituality. This discussion will be continued in the following chapter with the theme of humility.
As the psalmist found it imperative to raise a prayer pleading to the Lord to “set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips,” (Psalm 141:3), the early desert fathers and mothers also raised prayers pleading to the Lord to guard their tongue. “Sisois once said with confidence, ‘For thirty years I have not prayed to God without sin. When I pray, I say, “Lord Jesus Christ, protect me from my tongue.” Even now, it causes me to fall every day.'” Apparently Sisois had to struggle with his tongue, that small but uncontrollable member of his body, and realized that if he could control his tongue and be careful with his words he would avoid falling and transgressing against God. He confessed that he transgressed every day.
Abba Arsenius, one of the famous desert fathers, on his deathbed told his disciples, “I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having been silent.” The last word of wisdom that Arsenius left his disciples was to be careful about their speech. This just indicates that the desert fathers did not take lightly what they said and understood the power of the word. Similarly, Abba Pambo said, “By the grace of god, since I left the world, I have not said one word of which I repented afterwards.” Pambo seems to be more in command of his tongue than Arsenius, for the latter regretted the words that slipped form his tongue; Pambo did not even let his tongue slip. Abba Or had the ultimate control over his tongue: “They said of Abba Or that he never lied, nor swore, nor hurt anyone, nor spoke without necessity.” Abba Macarius the Great once advised his fellow monks to flee. The brothers were puzzled when they heard this advice for they had already fled the city; from where else could they flee? Then Abba Macarius “put his finger upon his lips and said, ‘I tell you, you must flee this.'”
The word has great power as it is the guardian of the heart. The mouth is the door to our inner thoughts. “A brother asked Abba Tithoes, ‘How should I guard my heart?’ The old man said to him, ‘How can we guard our hearts when our mouths and our stomachs are open?'” Since the desert fathers and mothers considered the purity of their thoughts and hearts key to their spiritual journey, speech, the tongue, talk, slander, and all activities of the mouth became the center of their concerns. One of the desert elders summarized the connection between the inner thoughts and the tongue as follows: “If the inner man is self-controlled, he is able to guard against the outer (man). If this is not so, let us guard our tongue against every evil by every effort.” Thus many discussions were carried out in the desert to find a way to guard against the lapses and shortcomings of the tongue. On another occasion, Abba Sisois gave the following advice to a brother who asked the same question regarding the guarding of the heart: “How can we guard the heart if our tongue leaves the door of the fortress open?”
A young brother came to Abba Amoun of Nitria asking him, “when I go to my neighbor’s cell, or when he comes to mine for some need or other, we are afraid of entering into conversation, for fear of slipping into worldly subject.” A very valid question: when we receive guests, what will we talk about so as not to commit any transgressions of the tongue? We all know how easily and quickly conversations take an unintentional turn to gossip, which seems to be the most attractive and juicy of all conversation. Gossip is so attractive that some media specialize in gossip, especially about celebrities. Gossip is a very lucrative business; these media outlets have been very popular and they do not seem to be going out of business any time soon. Gossip and the pitfalls of the tongue have been a struggle for humanity through all ages. Abba Amoun answered, “The old men who have advanced in virtue, have nothing in them that is worldly; there is nothing worldly in their mouths of which they could speak.” The young brother was still worried about what type of conversation he was to have with a visitor: “When I am obliged to speak to my neighbor, do you prefer me to speak of the scriptures or of the sayings of the Fathers?’ The old man answered, ‘If you can’t be silent, you had better talk about the sayings of the Fathers than about the scriptures, it is not so dangerous.'” The surprising answer – not to speak about scripture – is for young novices, who, when they speak about biblical interpretation, usually end up in heated discussions that might lead to more harm than good. Abba Amoun suggests a topic that is beneficial and does not lead to not only heated debates but also to arrogance in discussing lofty matters, or the ultimate pitfall of the tongue, slander.
The desert fathers and mothers understood the grievous consequences of hurting or slandering another person. Abba Hyperechius said, “It is better to eat meat and drink wine and not to eat the flesh of one’s breathren through slander.” Slander is like eating your neighbor’s flesh; it is compared to murder. It destroys his soul and drags it downwards. The following advice was given to a brother: “When brothers are present, do not open thy heart. At such a time rather pray in secret, for it is then that there is fear of slander.” Opening one’s heart means not only speaking, but speaking inattentively. If speech is guarded by prayer then prayer guards the thoughts and gives one pause before uttering a word so as not to speak impulsively. One of the desert fathers lamented earlier meetings of the brothers that were supposed to be for the building of the soul: “Now whenever we assemble together, we come to slander, and each one continues to drag his neighbor down to the abyss.” The same sentiment was repeated by another of the desert elders:
One of the hermits said, “When first we used to meet each other in the assembly and talk of what was helpful to our souls, we were always withdrawn more from the things of sense and we ascended to the Heavenly places. But now when we meet we spend our time in gossip, and so we drag each other down.”
This happens not only with the assemblies of the monks in the desert; it happens in most of our gatherings. Most gatherings start well and on a positive note as people are still not familiar with each other. With the growth of familiarity we become more comfortable with our new friends, formalities fade away, and we cease guarding our tongues. We notice that the more familiar we are with a person, the less cautious we are about what we say and the easier it is to slip with our tongue into gossip or slander. Close friendship does not give license to gossip or rumors. Being guarded in our words does not mean we are not honest and fully invested in our friendship. Being guarded means we care about the purity of our thoughts, we care that our prayer is not tarnished with slander against our neighbor. Being guarded means we care about our salvation and being blameless before God. Being guarded means we care about the person we are speaking to, for with slander we are going to drag down our partner in the conversation. One of the desert fathers said, “Do not stay with anyone who is always scornful when they speak.” The true friend is the one whose conversation lifts us up spiritually, does not disturb the inner peace of our heart and thoughts, and fills us with inner joy. An unguarded tongue diminishes inner spiritual peace.
Amma Theodora said, “Someone with a tainted reputation insulted a pious person. He answered, ‘I am able to respond as befitting our words but the testimony of my God shuts my mouth.'” This person got his courage and his self-restraint from his knowledge of scripture; the words of scripture spoke to him more powerfully than the insults targeted at him. Scripture gave him courage and humility not to respond with retribution to insults, slander, gossip, or rumors. This is an example of how reading and memorizing scripture safeguards a person’s thoughts. It also requires a person who knows him- or herself well enough not to care about the opinion of others. Abba Isaiah of Scetis explained this very well when he said,
Therefore, dear friends, love your brothers with holy love, and hold your tongue, not letting out of your mouth any random word of strife that might offend your brother. Our Lord God is powerful enough to give each one of you the ability to carry out and keep these commandments, so that we may find mercy through his grace, together with all the saints who have pleased him, for his is the glory, honor, and worship, now and ever, and to the ages of ages, Amen.
In the dialogue Concerning Thoughts someone asks, “What is the sin of slander?” To which the answer is, “The sin of slander most assuredly will not allow a person to come before God.” The reference is to Psalm 101:4: “One who secretly slanders a neighbor I will destroy. A haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not tolerate.” We use the Psalms for prayer. If we pray Psalm 101 and ask God to destroy all those who slander we should be careful not to slander anyone lest we be asking for our own destruction. This is similar to asking God in the Lord’s Prayer not to forgive our sins until we forgive others, or to what we read in Matthew 18:35: “So my Heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Abba Moses explained it well when he said, “‘If a man’s deeds are not in harmony with his prayer, he labors in vain.’ The brother said, ‘What is this harmony between practice and prayer?’ The old man said, ‘We should no longer do those things against which we pray.'”
One measure of truthfulness is when our heart, thoughts, and speech conform to each other. Abba Poemen said, “‘Teach your heart to follow what your tongue is saying to others.’ He also said, ‘Men try to appear excellent in preaching but they are less excellent in practicing what they preach.'” Poemen here does not necessarily mean preaching from the pulpit, but preaching in the sense of giving advice to others without following it. There are some who always seem to have the right answer but their actions do not conform to their advice or talk. “A hermit said, ‘All chatter is unnecessary. Nowadays everyone talks but what is needed is action. That is what God wants, not useless talking.'” A hermit said, ‘If a man has words but no works, he is like a tree with leaves but no fruit. Just have as a tree laden with fruits is also leafy, the man of good works will also have good words.'” Abba Poemen has summarized it succinctly: “‘Teach your mouth to say that which you have in your heart.'” When the mouth and heart conform to each other, it is an indication of truthfulness, honesty, and a pure heart that does not need to alter words so as not to reveal its darkness.
As with the transgressions of the tongue and slander, we also have to be careful about thoughts of judgment. From our experience we know that many of our judgments are flawed because we make them not knowing the full facts or based on one event and we generalize. The following story explains this: There was a group of monks who lived in community and had fewer ascetic practices than the solitaries of Scetis. When the monks living in community arrived at Scetis for a visit they saw the monks eating early and were greatly offended. The leader of the group understood that the monks living in community had judged the monks of Scetis wrongly. When all were in church he proclaimed that everyone was going to follow the fast of the monks of Scetis. The visiting monks fasted the first day and became faint. Then they were asked to fast a second day, as the monks of Scetis did. By the end of the week, on the Sabbath, they were so hungry so that when food was laid before them they ate “hurriedly and voraciously.” One of the elderly monks of Scetis held his hands and said, “Eat moderately.” The monks learned their lesson. The visitors judged the monks of Scetis with their thoughts based on the way they ate, not knowing that these monks had not eaten for a full week. When they experienced the same rigorous ascetic practice they understood they had wrongly judged them. Though later ascetics advised that fasting should be moderate, still we should not judge others without understanding their spiritual practices.
In another saying a brother was inquiring about how one knows that he has acquired humility. The older monk said that when you see a person sinning you weep bitterly, saying, “This man may sin today, but how many times shall I sin tomorrow?” This saying grasps an important aspect of our judgments: we think we are holier than others because our sins are not before our eyes. Just as the person we saw sinning has sinned, so we also have sinned by condemning him while we ourselves are sinners both today and tomorrow. In one of the sayings the monks were worried about visitors coming to visit and condemning the monks for not meeting their expectations. To appease their worries a father listed many figures of the Old and New Testament who exhibited their frailty: “the blessed and perfect men Moses, and Aaron, and David, and Samson, and Hezekiah, and Peter, and Paul.” If these preeminent biblical figures sinned, how can we judge others for their frailty? We put our parents, teachers, church leaders, politicians, and other figures with authority on pedestals and most of the time they disappoint us. This was actually the question of the monks: What do we do? If major biblical figures could not withstand temptations – Peter himself denied Christ – how can we judge others in our thoughts? Even worse, we sometimes air this judgment to others while neither we nor the great biblical figures are perfect. Non-judgment requires love, compassion, understanding, and above all humility; they sinned today and I sinned today and will sin tomorrow. The whole world judged the thief crucified with Christ. But how many heard the promise given to him: “Today you will be with me in paradise,” (Luke 23:43). We do not know what happens behind closed doors. We dwell on our judgment, but the person we judge might have repented and been forgiven while we are still in our sin of judgment.
Someone asked about the meaning of Titus 1:15: “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted.” An elder explained that it is when we see ourselves as less than everyone. The brother objected to this explanation; how could he be worse than “the murderer and the fornicator”? The elder responded that we have seen this man committing murder, but “I am at all times a murderer through hatred and a wicked will.” In this saying the elder has equated thoughts of hatred and condemnation of others with actual murder; he has killed his brother in his thoughts. He probably had in mind verses such as Matthew 5:22: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Avoiding the transgressions of the tongue is an act of love to your neighbor. Abba Poemen said,
“Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) In truth if someone hears an evil saying, that is, one which harms him, and in his turn, he wants to repeat it, he must fight in order not to say it. Or if someone is taken advantage of and he bears it, without retaliation at all, then he is giving his life for his neighbor.
Part of love is not speaking against or judging our neighbor. Not judging our neighbor requires humility, for we really speak against others in order to vindicate ourselves. Not doing that requires a lot of humility. In desert spirituality all the virtues are intertwined. Observing the commandment of love will eventually make our speech gracious and seasoned with salt, (see Colossians 4:6). Gracious speech does not include harshness or judgment. Non-judgment stems from a humble heart. Each biblical virtue we practice gives birth to another virtue. It is the fecundity and fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit within us.
One of the brothers asked an elderly monk, “What is humility?,” to which he answered that it was to not pay evil for evil. If it is hard to fulfill this advice, he added, “Let us flee and follow after silence.” Silence is an antidote to the transgressions of the tongue. It is keeping watch over the door of the lips and also the door of the heart; for when the mind and heart are tranquil and at peace the door of the lips is guarded as a natural outcome. A group of monks from Scetis were traveling on a boat to visit Abba Anthony. It also happened that another elderly monk was traveling toward the same destination. The monks engaged themselves in conversations about the sayings of the fathers, scriptures, and their handiwork. All seemed to be safe conversations. When they arrived at Abba Anthony’s place, Anthony commended the group of monks as “excellent brethren, but they have no door to their house.” He said that because “they uttered every word which came to their mouths.” In this story the brethren were speaking about very commendable topics, but the elder’s opinion was that by constantly speaking they were liable to the danger of unintentionally sliding into other topics. His advice is that the less we talk, the less we utter words we regret. In addition, a mind that is engaged with thoughts about God will be less engaged with thoughts about anything else. We all experience times when we are consumed by an event or engaged in a project; everything else seems to fade by comparison because of our focus is on the task at hand. The fathers wanted to be engaged with God as intensely as we become engaged with our personal projects. They made God their greatest task and we can do the same if we choose to.
Silence teaches more than words. One of the monks asked Abba Moses of Scetis for a word of advice. Abba Moses told him to sit in his cell and the cell would teach him everything. Sitting in the cell represents sitting in quietness and not being disturbed by many outward activities. When the outward milieu is tranquil the inner senses are quiet; the quietness of the inner senses will lay bare the struggle of the thoughts. Silence crystallizes the inner movement of our mind and thoughts, and knowing the movement of our thoughts will teach us everything. This is one of the benefits of going on retreats: distracting ourselves from all outward reminders of work and obligations to calm our senses in order to listen to our inner thoughts. To have the full benefit of retreats we have to pray for the humility to listen to our thoughts and the courage to face the changes required of us to better ourselves. Listening to inner thoughts requires courage. Many of us do not have the courage to confront ourselves; we prefer being distracted and immersing ourselves in social engagements or work to avoid this inner confrontation. We should pray for humility to confront our inner thoughts courageously.
Silences is one of the ways to guard the heart because it guards the senses. “Antony said, ‘He who sits alone and is quiet has escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing: but there is one thing against which he must continually fight: that is, his own heart.'” Abba Nilus said, “The arrows of the enemy cannot touch someone who lives quiet. But those who wander about among crowds will often be wounded by them.” The outward environment helps the inner quietness of the heart. A quiet heart will not seek outward stimulation. It will not seek conversations, controversy, or debates, and if any arise the quiet heart flees the arrows that disturb its tranquility. Fleeing to the desert was a way to guard the stillness of the mind and heart. But the desert fathers and mothers soon discovered that outward tranquility is only one aspect of stillness and quietness. Outward tranquility has to be accompanied by inner work of the heart to preserve inner peace and tranquility. Amma Matrona said, “Many solitaries living in the desert have been lost because they lived like people in the world. It is better to live in a crowd and want to live in a solitary life than to live in solitude and be longing all the time for company.”
As was customary with the desert fathers, a young monk came to ask the elder, Abba Poemen, about his thoughts. The brother said, “I nearly did not come here today.” The old man asked him why. The brother said, “I said to myself, ‘Perhaps he will not let me in because it is Lent.'” Abba Poemen said to him, “We have not been taught to close the wooden door but the door of our tongues.” To guard the door of the tongue is not an indication of an anti-social attitude. Abba Poemen received the guest even during Lent, when monastics preferred to be in total seclusion. When we become more attentive to our conversations our friends will observe and most probably appreciate that we are careful about our conversations. They will trust us more, for if we do not slander or gossip about others they are assured we will act the same toward them. We are not asked to close the wooden door but the door of our tongues.
A controlled tongue is an indication of controlled thoughts that have reached a quiet stage. Controlling the thoughts quiets the tongue and controlling the tongue quiets the thoughts. Controlling both alleviates the person from further slipping into more regretful actions. Thus Abba Hyperechius said, “He who does not control his tongue when he is angry, will not control his passions either.” Thoughts are very important in desert spirituality. Thus, if we avoid company that drags us into transgressions of the tongue but we let our thoughts condemning the neighbor wander freely, they will ultimately make their way to our tongue. One should be as careful with inner speech as with spoken speech. Abba Poemen said, “if a man appear silent in speech but is condemning other people in his heart, he is really talking incessantly. Another man may seem to talk all day, but he is keeping silence since he always speaks in a way that is right with his heart.” The fathers understood outer silence as an indication of inner silence. What is in our mind (nous) determines our silence, for our inner silence and inner peace determine our speech.
James in his epistle rightly wrote, “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits,” (James 3:5). Though the tongue is culpable of slander, gossip, judgment, rumors, and other transgressions, the tongue is just the tool that expresses the inner workings of the mind and heart, “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” (Matthew 12:34; Luke 6:45). Transgressions of the tongue have ruined lives and whole communities; they affect us at work, in our schools, and in our churches. The devastating results of bullying are making headlines; it is ruining the lives of children and their families. Bullying is slander, judgment, and transgressions of the tongue; it is expressed not only by words of the mouth but also by cyber-words. Everyone seems to hate it, yet everyone is culpable of committing a transgression of the tongue in one form or the other. The desert fathers and mothers, guided by scripture and experience, understood that it is not a matter of self-control or manners or etiquette; the root of the problem is in our thoughts. It is a symptom of other frailties, such as lack of love toward the neighbor and lack of humility. The previous chapter discussed love; this chapter is about one expression of the lack of love. All topics that the desert fathers and mothers tackled are interconnected. Lack of humility judges others. While we are in the act of judgment, we are committing a transgression of equal magnitude to the action we are judging. Noticing the speck in our neighbor’s eye before noticing the log in our own eye, (see Matthew 7:3 and Luke 6:41-42), is a sign of a lack of humility. It is also a sign of inattentiveness to our inner thoughts. If we are aware of our inner thoughts and how unholy they are we will not hate, judge, slander, or gossip about others, for we are equally culpable.