Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak.
St. James i. 19.
IN these words the Apostle St. James the Less bids us be more slow in speaking than in hearing, and these considerations ought to move us to this.
*Firstly, the testimony of nature.
*Secondly, the harm of much speaking.
*Thirdly, the benefit of little speaking.
- On the first head it is to be noted, that nature teaches us in a threefold way that we should rather hear, than speak.
(1) Nature gave to man a double instrument of hearing, and only a single instrument of speaking, and this in itself shows, that in a twofold degree man ought rather to hear than to speak.
We have two ears and not one; we have one mouth and not two. More often than not we behave as it the opposite obtains. But we were made with two ears that we might be more inclined to listen and to hear doubly than to open our one mouth singly. Hearing is best with two ears. Hearing is prior to speaking because God has made us to humble ourselves silently before His Word. His Word precedes the creation of all being and meaning. Through His Word He has spoken twice. First He speaks life into being. Second He speaks meaning into being. God speaks twice that we might learn to receive into ourselve what we do not create, sustain, grow, or perfect. God speaks twice that we might learn to understand and comprehend the meaning and nature of all things. God speaks twice in another way. He speaks through nature and He speaks through Holy Scripture. He reveals His truth to the eyes that man might know His omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence. He reveals His truth to the ears as His Word is communicated to fallen Israel, is made flesh, suffers, dies, rises, ascends, and returns to speaks His Word again through the Holy Spirit into the lives of believers that they might be saved.
(2) Nature gave to very many animals the faculty of hearing, but not the faculty of speech save to the rational animal, man; so that speech ought to be rational: ‘Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt.’ (Col. iv. 6)
Man is made to articulate and express the truth about nature that it cannot express for itself. Man’s mouth gives a voice to all of creation through his rational reflection upon it. Man’s mouth translates God’s Word and Speech into human words as a response to what he hears from the Father. Thus speech should be well formulated and accurate. Man should not speak indiscriminately and incautiously. Man should not speak frivolously or foolishly. He is called to name and explain nature. He is called to name and explain God’s Word’s as heard from special Revelation. Thus he must be sure that his words are true to creation and creation’s God. He must thus speak only what He hears from the Logos or Word of the Father.
(3) Nature gave the instruments of hearing ever open, but the instruments of speech she closed by two barriers or protections: for man has his ears ever open, but his tongue closed in by his lips and teeth. The tongue is like an evil monarch, and therefore God enclosed it with many barriers: Mich. vii. 5, ‘Keep the doors of thy mouth.’ (Mic. Vii. 5)
Man hears all things that they might lead his soul and body back to God. He hears all things that he might sift and sort what is profitable and what is destructive to his understanding of creation and redemption. Man is called to use his words discretely, cautiously, and accurately. He is given two natural barriers that speech must overcome before words emerge from man’s inner self and into the world. First there are the teeth, which must masticate, chew, and temper all words before they can be expressed and revealed. The teeth are present to ‘chew the cud’ and ensure that words are meant to be heard. Then the tongue must carefully and judiciously formulate their entrance into the world of all other men. The teeth and the lips are signs and tokens of prudence and temperance that refine and perfect man’s speech. ‘A word fitly spoken [is like] apples of gold in pictures of silver.’ (Prov. xxv. 11)
- On the second head it is to be noted, that a threefold evil comes through much speaking.
(1)The evil of sin: ‘In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin.’ (Prov. x. 19)
‘Thou art snared with the words of thy mouth, thou art taken with the words of thy mouth.’ (Prov. vi. 2) Words can easily endanger and bring a man down. Once they are spoken they can never be retrieved. And ‘words without thoughts never to Heaven go.’ (Shakespeare) So with words a man defaces the Image and Likeness of God in the soul of himself and others. With words a man judges, condemns, and maligns others. Most words are sinful because they do not reflect and reveal the love of God and the love of neighbor.
(2)The evil of punishment: He that useth many words shall hurt his own soul. (Ecclus. xx. 8)
Sin is its own punishment. With words man not only sins against God and others but he sins against himself. His sin comes back to bite him as punishment. Jesus says, ‘But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.’ (St. Matt. xv. 18) Words reveal a man’s spiritual condition. If he is spiritually sick, tormented, or held captive by the devil through his own will, he reveals his own inner spiritual wickedness to others through words. His own inner sinfulness is shed abroad into the world and against others and God through his filthy and corrupted communication. ‘He openeth wide his lips and he shall have destruction.’ (Prov. xiii. 3) ‘He that bridleth not his tongue deceives his own heart.’ (St. James i. 26) ‘His perverseness of tongue is a breach in the spirit.’ (Prov. xv. 4) His grievous words stir up anger. (Prov. xv. 1)
(3) The evil of infamy:, ‘He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.’(Prov. xviii. 13)
Of these three: ‘The tongue is a world of iniquity; behold the first. The tongue is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison’; behold the second. ‘The tongue among our members defileth the whole body.’(S. James iii. 6) behold the third.
When the tongue is foot-loose and fancy-free its punishment is shame and shunning. When words proceed out of the mouth that is slow to hear, swift to speak, swift to wrath, a man is punished for his sins. His family and friends abandon him, the Church censures him, and he must endure the wrath of the Lord.
III. On the third head it is to be noted, that a threefold advantage flows to him who hears much and speaks little.
(1)The good thing of grace: ‘Hear in silence, and for thy reverence, good grace shall come unto thee.’ (Ecclus. xxxii. 9)
Silent contemplation of words leads a man to seek, search, ponder, wonder, and investigate. Silent contemplation humbles a man before his ignorance. Silent contemplation leads a man to love, show compassion, pity, and earnestly hope for another’s salvation. Silent contemplation leads a man to be purified inwardly as forgiveness and mercy flow forth from his heart.
(2) The good thing of wisdom: ‘If thou wilt incline thine ear, thou shalt receive instruction, and if thou love to hear thou shalt be wise.’(Ecclus. vi. 34)
Those who are silent or silenced learn to listen in order to hear God’s truth as it is gleaned from nature and Holy Scripture. The man who listens is humbled before both the Creation and record of Man’s Redemption. The man who listens cannot help but think that he is a grasshopper and no man. He who listens then learns and is filled with more wonder at the glorious wisdom, power, and love of God. He who listens then is made wise to the truth of creation and salvation. He who hears the Word of God is broken by the love that never fails to surprise him with an ever-expanding revelation of God’s love in nature and in the life of Christ’s Body, the Church.
(3) Happiness and tranquillity of mind: ‘Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue, keepeth his soul from troubles.’ (Prov. xxi. 21)
With a newfound habit of caution, circumspection, and discretion the Christian finds a silence that yields joy and peace. Rather than being bothered by a world that will neither listen nor hear, he rejoices to hear the still small Voice of God that is never found in its commotion and commerce. The happiness and tranquility of mind root and ground a man in the life of Jesus Christ that is reconciling him to the Father. The happiness and tranquility of mind enable a man to do the Father’s will, through the Son’s wisdom, and by the love of the Holy Spirit. The Christian is then secure and safe under the shadow of God’s wings where no torment can touch him. Amen.
From the Quarterly
Easter IV: Thomas Aquinas with Commentary
by William J. Martin