“Although they rarely get the respect they deserve, our tongues really should be numbered among our most prized bodily members. With them we sing of love, we broker peace, we passionately preach, and we attempt to express our very selves. They are nothing less than the tools that build up humanity and the kingdom of God. The psalmist sees the tongue as the instrument of God’s praise: “my tongue shall tell of thy righteousness and of thy praise all day long” (Ps 35:28). Our tongues, as a part of our human bodies, are destined for eternal glory, for union with God. At the Resurrection of the body, the whole of the human person will be united with God, and our tongues will perform their part in the eternal worship of God.
However, while we are still journeying toward our final rest and joy, our instrument of praise can be turned away from its purpose. Our current culture does not make many allowances for the virtues of the tongue; According to many, the tongue is for the advancement of man, by any means necessary. Lies are permitted, even practically encouraged, among certain professions and having the wit to spin the truth is even considered a virtue.
In addition to the temptation to violate the truth, directly or indirectly, we also face the temptation to use the truth as a weapon at the wrong time. St. Thomas sums up these sins of the tongue: “the railer intends to injure the honor of the person he rails, the backbiter to depreciate a good name, and the tale-bearer to destroy friendship, so too the derider intends to shame the person he derides” (ST II-II q. 75, art. 1).
The first, reviling, uses the truth as a direct and open attack upon another. One of your coworkers is receiving praise for her great performance at her job and you openly decry her drinking problem. When we revile another, we cast down the excellences of a person’s life by revealing embarrassing and unnecessary information in his or her presence.
Backbiting also kills a person’s reputation, but it does so in secret, undermining his or her position in the eyes of others. This is the person who pretends to be friends while secretly detesting us or hoping to make himself greater by climbing over our fallen name.
Tale-bearing is telling something bad about someone in order to disrupt relationships. This includes telling old stories about someone so that a couple will break up or telling the boss some unflattering details of a coworker’s past mistakes so that they will get passed over for a promotion. It can express itself as a refusal to allow the “old you” die or to prevent the flourishing of good relationships.
The last, what St. Thomas calls deriding, can be good or bad. In its good aspect, derision can be directed at the evil actions of another. Mocking the evil someone has done in order to show them it is shameful could be helpful in some situations, but usually it isn’t. On the other hand, derision is always evil when it is employed in the mockery of what is good. This occurs when people are made to feel ashamed for doing good, such as when they defend the faith or refuse to participate in immoral activities. Derision can also be aimed at people themselves, so that they feel they should be ashamed for existing and that they aren’t worthy of our care or love. This is always evil.
One can find examples of these sins or privations of the tongue by scanning almost any Internet article or comment box. But more illuminating than any example is the penance given by St. Philip Neri to a gossip. For her penance, St. Philip Neri told the woman to pluck a chicken outside of the church and bring him the plucked chicken. Puzzled, she obeyed. He then sent her back out to collect the feathers, but the wind had scattered most of them, so she only returned with a handful. “Sins of the tongue are like the feathers,” he said, “once uttered they cannot be recaptured.”
What can help us to be aware and stop these sins of the tongue? Silence. If we do not spend time in silence, how can we know the value of words? In silence, we come to greater awareness of the presence of God. We spend our mental words on the Lord and He shows us His peace. When we are with someone we love very much, words are unnecessary. They know what we think with a glance. In coming to deeper knowledge of God through this prayer of silence, we come to greater love of Him who will tame our tongues through His grace.
In the words of St. Augustine: “Your God, your Redeemer, your Tamer, your Chastiser, your Father, instructs you [and your ungovernable tongue.] For what purpose? In order that you may receive an inheritance where you will not have to bear your father to the grave, but where you shall have your Father Himself for your inheritance. In view of this hope, you are being instructed. Do you therefore murmur?””
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "“Si comprehendus, non est Deus.” -St Augustine, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "And above all, be on your guard not to want to get anything done by force, because God has given free will to everyone and wants to force no one, but only proposes, invites and counsels." –St. Angela Merici, “Yet such are the pity and compassion of this Lord of ours, so desirous is He that we should seek Him and enjoy His company, that in one way or another He never ceases calling us to Him . . . God here speaks to souls through words uttered by pious people, by sermons or good books, and in many other such ways.” —St. Teresa of Avila, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity… I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism, and where lie the main inconsistences and absurdities of the Protestant theory.” (St. John Henry Newman, “Duties of Catholics Towards the Protestant View,” Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England), "We cannot always have access to a spiritual Father for counsel in our actions and in our doubts, but reading will abundantly supply his place by giving us directions to escape the illusions of the devil and of our own self-love, and at the same time to submit to the divine will.” —St. Alphonsus Ligouri, "The harm that comes to souls from the lack of reading holy books makes me shudder . . . What power spiritual reading has to lead to a change of course, and to make even worldly people enter into the way of perfection." –St. Padre Pio, "Screens may grab our attention, but books change our lives!" – Word on Fire, "Reading has made many saints!" -St Josemaría Escrivá, "Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you." —St. Jerome, from his Letter 22 to Eustochium, "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, "God here speaks to souls through…good books“ – St Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, "You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. "Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading." –St. Isidore of Seville “The aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.… You, who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.” -St. John Chrysostom