Silence and the Word

Among many of the lost virtues that should be recovered, ‘silence’ and ‘word’ are among them. Silence and word walk together hand in hand, they are complementary to each other, each needs the other’s presence to enable it to manifest itself in the fullness of its essence and at the same time it generates balance. There can be no word if there is not, together, silence. Music too is made up of sounds and pauses. The essential purpose of silence is to give depth of meaning to the word, to ensure a resonance to the word, to make it penetrate within. Dom Bernardo Olivera, observes that silence and words ‘have exactly the same value, they are inseparable, the value of one is correlative to the value of the other’.

Silence can be defined as a significant pause in the continuous flow of communication … There is nothing more significant than silence. It is not difficult to find expressions such as ‘deafening silence’ or ‘eloquent silence’ to define something that affects more than a long speech . This is the paradox of silence: even the absence of words is a form of communication, it expresses something significant, even silence ‘speaks’.

Instead, within our society ‘chatter now dominates almost completely unchallenged’, when words leave no room for silence, harmony is absent and is replaced by an imbalance within the life of the individual. Without silence there is Babel: confusion and incommunicability. When words are handled with excessive ease, it is easy to make mistakes. When we speak as if we were a conditioned reflex, we end up talking nonsense and add to the confusion. One of the great crimes of our time is that of having made silence disappear, they evicted him, silenced him, strangled his voice. And hardly anyone notices it, raises the alarm. Indeed, it seems that today’s man lives better in the midst of noise, din, chatter. The noise, the general daze has become the environment in which he is at ease. We are condemned to live in a smashing world.

But, given the profound interconnection between the two, if one is missing, the other also suffers, the absence of silence damages the word, makes it loses all of its value: “Silence disappeared, we are left alone with words . And we miss the word. When words are rampant, when silence is lacking, there is confusion. Words without silence, instead of ‘revealing’, will ‘veil’, encumber, deceive, constitute an opaque, insuperable diaphragm. Nobody trusts them anymore.

Words have taken over the silence, they have taken all the attention and spaces, thus becoming overabundant, excess, overflowing, overflowing … simply too many. But, as they say, too much is good, that is, exaggerated abundance can become counterproductive, excess spoils the whole quantity, deforms it, spoils it, corrupts it. In short, every excess is negative, too much is too much, and this also applies to the word: If instead, I am in our society ‘chatter dominates almost completely unchallenged, when words leave no room for silence, there is no longer harmony but imbalance in the life of an individual. Without silence there is Babel: confusion and incommunicability. And again: When words are handled with excessive ease, it is easy to make mistakes. When we speak as if we were a conditioned reflex, we end up talking nonsense and increasing confusion. One of the great crimes of our time is that of having made silence disappear, they evicted him, silenced him, strangled his voice. And hardly anyone notices it, raises the alarm. Indeed, it seems that today’s man lives better in the midst of noise, din, chatter. The noise, the general daze has become the environment in which he is at ease. We are condemned to live in a smashing world.

But, given the profound interconnection between the two, if one is missing, the other also suffers, the absence of silence damages the word, makes it loose all its value: Silence disappeared, we are left alone with words . And we miss the word. When words are rampant, when silence is lacking, there is confusion. Words without silence, instead of ‘revealing’, ‘veil’, encumber, deceive, constitute an opaque, insuperable diaphragm. Nobody trusts them anymore.

Words have taken over the silence, they have taken all the attention and spaces, thus becoming overabundant, excess, overflowing, overflowing … simply too many. But, as they say, too much is good, that is, exaggerated abundance can become counterproductive, excess spoils the whole quantity, deforms it, spoils it, corrupts it. In short, every excess is negative, too much is too much, and this also applies to the word: if they are excessive they no longer say anything, they are no longer credible, they are just an annoying noise. Too many words determine the phenomenon of the devaluation of the word, a bit like it happens with inflation from excess money. If the amount of money in circulation increases, inflation increases and the currency depreciates. Too many words in circulation inevitably determine the phenomenon of inflation and consequent devaluation of the word. The too casual use of words makes the word lose credibility. The abuse turns off, or at least considerably attenuates the force, the effectiveness of the word. We can say: words are tired, exhausted, exhausted. They no longer say anything, they have become feeble sounds — and the weaker the noisier —, insignificant, incomprehensible … And the words that are tired, worn out, exhausted, end up tiring, becoming unbearable.

Silence, therefore, contrary to what one might think, is not disaffection, contempt for the word, flight from language but rejection of the anonymous, irresponsible, impersonal, superficial, mechanical word. Rather, silence speaks of love for the original, living, fruitful, new, surprising word. More than rejection of language, silence is a re-evaluation of the word. Those who love silence also love the essential word. Who has unprepared silence, has unprepared to speak. Those who do not know ‘long luminous silences’ will never be able to illuminate with words. The death of silence inevitably follows the death of the word. The true word does not break the silence, but proceeds from it, expresses it and returns to it. Silence is the virtue that gives prominence to the word.

If words were not interspersed with spaces of silence, neither language nor intelligible discourse would be possible. Silence is the matrix that shapes words and allows them to communicate a message full of meaning. Any valid and meaningful word emerges from a background of silence. Silence is the womb of the word, the place where it is generated, if it wants to be the bearer of life. The word that has reached its goal returns to the silence from which it was born: word and silence coexist. Silence is speech, as it is communication. Definitively ‘silence’ and ‘word’ are inseparable parts of communication. Within the dialogue, the fact of being silent is just as significant as that of speaking. As silence is opposed to silence, so the word is opposed to all forms of excess of words which also prevent dialogue. Every word comes from silence and returns to it. Communication is authentic when it is born from silence and knows how to respect silence, the inexpressible mystery that constitutes us.

Without silence there is no listening, and without listening there is no dialogue Man is, by definition, a being gifted with language. Through language, each of us enters into a relationship with his fellow men, communicates with them, makes himself known. The dialogic dimension, however, also implies the ability to listen to the other, as ‘other than oneself’, different, to be discovered, understood and loved. Without listening there can be no dialogue, but only a series of monologues, and therefore it is not possible to create interpersonal relationships.

If everyone speaks there is no dialogue, but confusion. We can find an eloquent image of this confusion during television talk shows or political forums, when in the unfolding of the debate the participants suddenly find themselves talking all together, perhaps even raising their voices to dominate that of others: you no longer understand. nothing, you only hear an irritating, unbearable noise that hits your ear and pushes you to change the channel, forcing the presenter to silence everyone to avoid a collapse of the audience. Therefore, for there to be dialogue there must be silence: when one speaks, the others must take their breath away and settle in silence. An active silence, however, in which two other senses come into play: hearing to listen and understand what the other is saying, his opinion; and sight to give him attention: when one speaks, the listener does not look elsewhere, does not read the notes he has at hand, does not think about what he has to say next. Instead, this is what most often happens during conversations. In our dialogues, everyone is concerned about talking. Few know — or want — to listen. Most are content to listen, they wait, often with barely concealed impatience, for the other to finish speaking … What I have to say is important, the ideas of the other do not count. In discussions everyone invokes the right to have the last word, or bad word. No one ever claims the right to have the last silence. Fr. Romano Guardini wrote: ‘Whoever does not know how to remain silent makes of his life what one would do if he only pretended to exhale and not inhale’. We therefore think of dialogue as an alternation between inhaling/listening and exhaling/speaking, as vital functions for weaving enriching and meaningful interpersonal relationships.

The ability to listen identifies precisely the characteristic which make a communicator: The life of a good communicator must be three quarters dedicated to understanding, before elaborating a synthesis even between conflicting messages. The value that silence has assumed today is even stronger. There is in that empty space, whether short or long, the possibility of reasoning, of introjecting anything that comes from the outside, this includes the environment. Therefore, listening takes on a pivotal importance in the socio-economic complexities of our times. Listening, allows us to better understand who our interlocutor is, it allows us to interpret what is happening. Knowing how to listen, allows us to gather the data that we require before activating our communication process.

People who are not capable of living in solitude will live badly in communion and those who know how to be silent, tend to listen and speak better, have understood what has been said and know how to respond appropriately. Silence means welcoming the other. Without a welcoming silence, there is no possibility of dialogue. The silence that welcomes is a sign of respect and recognition for the other. It is a yes given to one’s neighbour, prior to any other yes or no to what he may say. This welcoming silence derives from the theological virtue of charity. If to love is to affirm the other, then this welcoming silence is a silence of love. Silence is ecstasy of love, sometimes it is silent, but always listens, it creates areas of communion and dialogue.

A void that resounds

But how come so many are uncomfortable with silence, are they afraid of being alone with themselves? Why do many feel the need to fill even the rare silent pauses that occur during the days in this constantly connected society of ours, instead of welcoming them as a gift, as a silent oasis in which to refresh themselves? Here then a moment of possible silence must be immediately suffocated with the music of the stereo or the radio, from the television on, from compulsive chatting to the cell phone. Earphones always at hand against troublesome silent truces, even when you go jogging in the middle of nature.

Why, then, this constant need to live in the midst of noise? Because silence can be frightening to many in today’s society, its can make you loose sleep and can give you shivers. It forces you to make disturbing accounts to yourself. It forces you to listen to the indictments of a conscience that is far too often ignored. The absence of silence is an unequivocal sign of the emptiness that dominates unchallenged. When I was a little boy, we had a village parish band and there was a big drum that was struck: boom! boom! boom! there were small drums that was playing ratta tat tat! ratta tat tat! And I could never understand why both were called them ‘drum’: one made a small sound and the other made a booming sound. What was the difference? The difference was quite simply that one had a larger void whilst the other had a smaller void … meaning that the louder it is, the more emptiness it has within.

If in our day and within our culture taciturnity is not seen as a negative trait, this is because we have distorted and even overturned its original meaning, not due to one being restless or dissatisfied? Today, calling someone ‘taciturn’ seems to attribute them with a negative label, highlighting a defect. Contemporarily, taciturn means isolated, withdrawn, non-communicative, anti-social, melancholic’, however if we go back to the etymology of the word, we discover a very different meaning. Taciturn ‘comes from the root ‘tak’, the meaning of which is ‘to be quiet, still, happy’. In Sanskrit, ‘तुष्यति – tuSyati’  means to satisfy. Therefore, when someone is taciturn, they are in a state of calmness and they are happy because their needs are being met … When authors on spirituality in the Latin language speak of taciturnity, they mean to intimate that it is a virtue, an attitude which, unifies the heart with their interests, allowing them to avoid the use of unnecessary words. A taciturn person uses moderation in speech, someone whom prefers to receive the word of God and that of their neighbour, when it is unnecessary to offer their own. Hence, taciturnity is not a quality of a composed temperament or of a person who is reserved, but the behaviour of an integrated and orderly person, freed of the need to communicate, to express themselves, to strike up conversations or closing an awkward pause. A person rich internally, who is without those interior voids that infuriate and drive others to distraction. As we will lose precision — we will have no word available that expresses the same ideas. Though the word taciturn is still in use, it now seems to have an entirely different meaning and implies a person who is reserved whom borders on unsociability rather than someone who merely wishes to avoid discourse with another.

Silence, can be frightening to many, because it forces one to come to terms with their own interior emptiness, finally being mindful of this emptiness, dealing with it, instead of continuing to smother it with loud sounds, disquiet and pandemonium, indicates a possibility of taking a first step towards a more significant reality, the change of a wrong attitude, the awareness of one’s own instinctual and devastating response. We are not able to remain silent and therefore to feel empty, weak, whilst looking for something that does not come from within us, whilst only in silence can we grasp something new, it is only within a particular situation of inner freedom and therefore one of availability that we begin to notice something different, unusual, which is brought to our attention. This is perhaps the cause of our many instances of confusion, situations that never mend and to which we never seem to find a solution. The first to suffer from this reality are our daily interpersonal relationships, predominantly our closest ones:

In our ‘home affairs’ — we are accustomed to being filled with words, noises, screams, that we are not able to make a workable and empirical assessment of what is actually occurring, we therefore immediately tend to move on to something forceful, aggressive and overemphasised. Not for nothing, we are advised to take a moment to calm down, especially when angry, before doing anything rash or hasty, common sense advised us to count to ten (or to a hundred if it is necessary?) before responding to provocations in order to subdue the surge of anger that wells up within us enabling us to find a more controlled and suitable response enabling us to reply in a manner that is both benign and forgiving.

Coming to terms with silence, emptiness, loneliness, desert, can be intimidating, but it is certainly worth it: in that emptiness we could meet God, discover that in reality, even in solitude, we are not alone, and after having him met also our relationships with others will improve. The experience of loneliness, with its suffering, shows our existential situation of poverty, of inability to fill an empty heart; the suffering that it entails, if recognised and accepted as a characteristic element of creature-ship and not as a curse, can also constitute an important sign … in the relationship with the Lord, because it has come to be recognised that without him life becomes unbearable and meaningless. The essential dimension that every man experiences in solitude is therefore a sign of an intimacy that must be preserved and respected. Quoting the words of Fr. Timothy Radcliffe o.p.,: The deepest truth about ourselves is that we are not alone. In the deepest point of my being there is God, who gives me the abundance of life. If we can enter this desert and meet God there, we will become free to love selflessly, freely, without dominating or plagiarising. We will be able to see others not as a solution to our needs or a response to the loneliness that torments us, but only to enjoy their presence.

Without silence there is no interior life

Therefore, if silence is lacking, there is no dialogue, but since dialogue is not only relating to others, but also with oneself, with one’s conscience, with God, if silence is lacking within a person’s life, one will find it very difficult to develop an interior life and, therefore, to know oneself and to meet God. A true interior life is impossible if silence is lacking. Silence, in fact, is part of that dimension of depth which must characterise every serious spiritual experience. And then we complain that there is too much confusion around. And then we protest that ‘we can no longer understand anything’. And then with a sigh we say to ourselves: ‘if I could know the will of God in this difficult circumstance’. Then we begin to worry: ‘If only the gentleman gave a small sign,  or would whisper something in my ear’. We tend to add word to words, we ring speech after speech, we fill the void with clutter, we do not decide to abandon the ground of the useless, we settle on the surface of things, very few people indeed lack courage for solitude.

The voice of God speaking to us is heard only within silence. If we wish to understand God’s plan for us, His response to a problem which haunts us or, simply, if we want to perceive the love he has for us, we must prepare ourselves to listen in silence, we have to put into gear and engage our mind, we have to learn on which occasions we need to humble and silence our mind. God in his profound nature is one of these realities that must be approached with the mind joined to the silent heart. In order not to take the wrong track in the journey of life it is necessary to dress in silence. Man and woman today are ailing from the unabated noise, noises, words that tire, exasperate, hurt; words are aged, they are worn, repeated rather out of fashion and convenience than actual meaning, words are devoid of any light or freshness. Instead, silence is the fruitful space within which the magnificent Word generates goodness. Within the silence you can hear your soul’s chorus singing, connecting with the various realities of our daily lives becomes somewhat simpler, more beautiful, more real, joyful and mysterious; we arrive in a safer state to an appointment with ourselves, with God and with others.

Accepting one’s loneliness means having become friends with oneself and only in this manner it becomes possible to be friends with another person. A few moments of silence are so powerful and forceful that they seem to last for an eternity and imprint in perpetuity. Silence reveal’s our spiritual nature, because in these moments eternity seems to become the present.

The Lord awaits you even in the solitude and silence of your heart: when the noises die down, the voice is heard. An attitude of self-presence, living with oneself, staying in the inner cell of self-knowledge are acquired if one frequently withdraws into solitude, that of the desert or of one’s own room, in any case, always in the solitude of the heart. And, at least, get out of the noise, the turmoil and worries about things and business, leave aside the distracting shows… Why? To know ourselves better, to reflect and meditate, to meet ourselves and our neighbour by meeting God, to prepare ourselves for the mission.

Silence is not only the absence of noises, sounds or words, but also avoiding acting in the agitation and exaggeration that disturb the soul. The absence of external silence is therefore an indispensable condition for cultivating one’s own inner life, but it is not enough: inner silence is also needed. What does interior silence consist of? Knowing how to effectively control the imagination and memory is a first experience of silence. Watchful love, which frees itself from all that is excessively charged with emotion and passion and which leads neither to God nor to one’s neighbour, allows one to enter an even deeper silence. When the intellect is silent, the truth imposes itself; but only when the will adheres to God, the mystical silence or the silence of God is known … Silence is the gateway to more fascinating and valuable realities.

Then some examples of fruitful solitudes present in the Bible: Let’s look at Moses, the prophet Elijah, St. John the Baptist. And what about St. Paul and his stay in the desert before starting his missionary race? Let us fix our gaze on the Master, in Jesus. The forty days he spent in the desert were the immediate preparation for his life as an itinerant preacher … He often retired to solitary places to be alone with the Father … And, moreover, , did not prayer bequeathed to us in secret, where only the Father sees us and gives us a reward? Jesus, the Word, became man when a profound silence enveloped everything. Moreover, his profound interior silence was the condition of the redemptive incarnation. And he remained silent for thirty years … In silence and solitude, Jesus deepened his intimacy with the Father and prepared his teaching for the people. His silence was the cause of admiration and the cause of our salvation; it was an expression of his absolute trust in the Father, to whose hands he entrusted everything and abandoned himself. From the silence and solitude of the sepulchre life has risen. The life that his Spirit gave us ”. We learn silence from the Master.

Spoken words and words that speak

Having spoken of silence, I would now like to focus on the complementary virtue of the word and, recalling the distinction between ‘spoken words’ and ‘words that speak’ expressed by the contemporary French philosopher and proponent of existentialism and phenomenology Maurice J. Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961), speaks of the characteristics that differentiate these two categories. “The words spoken — he explains — are the words not thought of, not credible. Linguistic gargling. Vociferous words. Words to impress. Self-satisfying words. Phantom words. J. Sulivan argued that ‘the biggest risk is that of a language that speaks casually in our place’. On the contrary, ‘speaking words are words that say something. Essential words, authentic, palpitant, warm, one could say incandescent, as well as transparent. Words to be taken seriously. Words that have weight. Words that come from ‘somewhere-else’. They come from afar … The words that speak are those of a language that springs from the depths, from a secret zone, thanks to a slow, tiring work of ‘extraction’. For which, each of those words is like a shred of flesh, a living, and sometimes painful part that detaches itself from the person who is speaking.

Spoken words slip away to the surface, produce unpleasant noises and then dissolve, die, without having transmitted anything other than annoyance. The ‘speaking of words’ materialise from the silence, occur from deep within, are primed with meaning, echoing within to leave their mark. Those words, extricated with great difficulty, consist of an infinite charge of silence, they are of incalculable worth and are covetously protected. They are ‘of good repute’, honest. They many not even solve a single problem. Yet, they do think. They offer no explanation. Yet they constitute an invitation to adoration. The spoken words inundate the ear. Speaking words cause a resonance within. This obviously also applies to the written word so that it becomes effective and to achieve a desired effect: Even the words of the writer must emanate from silence, be imbued with silence, dipped in blood, if not, it would simply be a dead letter.

From such ‘spoken words’ the virtues of the word are set into motion and re-positioned at the centre, once again reinstating the word to their merited and rightful place? Meanwhile, starting from the words that are the ‘most unassuming and abandoned, by the humble toilers, without too much pretentiousness’, such as ‘kindness, common sense, respect, goodness, forgiveness, diplomacy, meekness, tenderness, honesty, sacrifice, fidelity, patience, preparation, sincerity, sensitivity, simplicity, education, politeness, endurance, cleanliness, attention … and so forth’. Then, after having recalled them to mind, simply begin to put them into practice in your day: What ever should we do with them, after having reawakened them, purified within a prolonged, beneficial immersion of silence? We will ask them to help us carry out our little daily insurgency, to begin with  by ‘modifying, metamorphosing, establishing something close to where we live and work. Then, who knows, perhaps we will venture a little further outward, one small step followed by another. Of course we should not leave words to work unassisted. We must endeavour to live them. Or, to put it simply, do exactly what the word defines and what it means accurately without giving the wrong idea.

To revive the desert of meaning that besieges us due to the devaluation of words, we need words that are paramount. Words that accept the humblest calling. Words capable of bending the back. Words intransigent to victory. And how will we use them? We must never misemploy words simply to indulge our conceitedness, our success, to our instinctual need for triumph over a rival. Nor should we employ them to provoke, quarrel, suppress, embarrass or give offence to. Instead, we should use them to encourage, cure wounds, unfreezing the cold which imprisons certain existences, seek a path of access to the desperate solitudes, delicately opening the locked doors, lend a hand to someone who just cannot take anymore.

We need to give the words their original meaning back, taking note of the fact that not every word is impartial, but that it also expresses a mental picture, an idea, a verbalisation of real life, which implies taking responsibility for what we say, how we communicate, and how we respond. It is crucial for us to rediscover the societal interrelatedness that lies behind it and within the native tongue, that give substance to the words. Single words have increasingly been isolated from their underlying concepts, losing their essence and original syllogistic reasoning. If we take up the first sentences of The a Gospel of St. John: ‘In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum — In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, in the Greek version the term logosλόγος, even more so than the later Latin verbum, translated from the late middle English word verbe meaning ‘word, verb’, is the very essence of a communicator: logos is thought and word together, content and form; thus we return to give meaning to our dialogue-conversation, διάλογος — dialogos (from διά — dia: through and λόγος-logos: speech, reason): through words their substance is explained. Therefore, a person who communicates is a careful analyst of reality, aware of the fact that the word has a value, that what is said has a specific and exact purpose and meaning. It is not only facts that necessitate our use of them with a sense of responsibility, but also words. As every human act and action implies an assumption of responsibility, so does speaking, dialoguing, responding (Lat. respondere from re —  again and spondere — to pledge. In other words, it implies carrying the burden for what one has said, taking responsibility for the words that one speaks, conveying reality, the truth, what is and what one does not wish to give credence to, as has happened for example with ‘ambiguous politically correct language’ which has a tendency to corrupt the words that are being relaid from their original meaning, their concepts and which also deforms reality. Today the English language has become grotesque, inexact and unreliable simply because many of our thoughts amount to foolishness, the haphazardness of the English language makes it far easier for us to have senseless thoughts. The most important fact is that this process can still be reversed. Modern English, particularly in written form, is permeated with deleterious practices which have been proliferated through imitation and which can quite easily be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary preventative measures. Let us touch upon the proper responsibilities that need to be espoused by those who communicate publicly. If we make a concerted effort to rid ourselves of these habits we would be able to think more clearly. Think clearly is a vital first step toward regeneration: so that the battle against poor English (or any other language for that matter) is not senseless.  This concern should not be limited to professional writers but is a task that everyone should do one’s utmost to take responsibility for.  English for example is my third language, having learnt Italian and German first and therefore it requires me to make additional efforts taking the utmost caution to ensure that I convey precisely what I mean to say without conveying uncertainty to the reader or listener. 

Defuse and invigilate your use of language

Speech has been damaged not solely through a lack of silence but also by our desecration and contamination of our respective languages, which unfortunately today within our society is so omnipresent, manifesting itself in three major ways: 

  • malice or verbal violence; 
  • backbiting; and 
  • vulgarity. 

These three levels of profaning the word have their genesis within the heart of humanity, therefore their manifestation, tells us a lot about the person from whose mouth they emanate, what level of charity does that person have: We often feign to ignore that our mouth is connected to a deeper reality. In fact, everything starts from the heart. The mouth does nothing but draw substance from that source, from those depths. And it expresses, brings to light, a reality which is hidden inside. When the thoughts within the heart are foul, then the outward breath can only be fetid. A poor ingestion of the commandment directing us to be charitable is openly denounced by the mouth. In short: allow me to see your tongue and I will tell you if your charity is in good health or not. To diagnose the diseases of charity, there is nothing else to do but to open the mouth wide and observe the tongue … We are concerned, quite rightly, with bad breath. Out of respect, not only for ourselves, but also toward others. One does not often realize that, it is the words that are foul. When our words are foul and crude, then so are our thoughts.

Malice and verbal violence 

Malice and verbal violence therefore befoul and corrupt the word. How does it do that? We make a large consumption of aggressive, biting, offensive, cutting words. Words hard as stones, and therefore indigestible. We keep large reserves of words that humiliate, words of condemnation, words that scratch, bruise and hurt, words that, while desecrating the word, ruin the lives of those around us and also ours. It is therefore necessary to take note of the fact that the virtue of charity also concerns language, hence the need to ‘bring a modicum of charity back into our glossary and into our mouth’s. How? By reinstating and using words of ‘encouragement’, whilst being aware that ‘encouragement’ signifies a capacity for sympathy or generosity; compassion toward others, giving them courage, resolution and fortitude; in other words a breath of hope to those who are disheartened. It is vital that we our mouth’s and thus the words we speak become bilaterally ‘disarmed’, converted into an instrument of peace, sweet-sounding, compassionate, alleviating suffering and conflict … To do so it will be necessary for us to assure ourselves that among the many works of goodness, there is peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness and faithfulness, but, there are also words.

Then there is backbiting or spiteful words which within English civil law is referred to as ‘slander’, that is, the inability to ‘speak well’ of someone, or to say good things about them, which is one of the most common ‘sins of language’. Backbiting can be conveyed in two ways: 

  1. voluntary: — which arises through — the deliberate intention to harm others: out of hatred, revenge, conflict of interest, antipathy, malice, jealousy, envy. In these cases, slander is easily achieved
  2. gratuitous: — whilst gratuitous backbiting is caused by — a lack of seriousness accompanied by casual heedlessness, rashness, carelessness, a practice that often becomes pathological. So we speak ill of others as a matter of course almost without even realising it until its too late.

There are basically three attributes that determine a slander. First and foremost, it should be noted that for every slander there will always be a judge and perhaps even an executioner. This would not be an impartial judge. The judge would not concern themselves with checking, verifying nor calmly sift through the evidence, nor be attentive when listening to the responses given by the accused. Most importantly it should be noted that the preference to condemn is paramount. Then every slanderer more or less cultivates a vocation of a psychologist in secret. An overworked psychologist, who, however, considers himself infallible, and does not question the witness statements that are given, the sentence that is pronounced and diagnoses formulated, would not be willing to recognize any errors, even those that are most obvious, would not renounce prejudices, would not acknowledge the rejection of truths. The ignorant, the shallow, are even greater ‘infallible’ psychologist. Very dangerous indeed then, are those who say: ‘Instinct or intuition fulfil my needs.’ Finally, the slanderer ‘would be aware of his own insignificance, avarice, immorality and dishonesty. The slanderer would be desperate justify his actions and himself, not trying to rise at least a little (it is far too demanding, and opens them to the risk of falling even further), never correcting himself (being inordinately demanding and a very serious and time consuming pursuit), lowering the victims to their own level of depravity and often even lower. Backbiting is consolation of mediocrity. So, here is the recompense, a decrease imposed upon those who ‘have’ more and upon those who ‘are’ more. Backbiting is the assassination of someones character, being a clear indication of self-dissatisfaction, self-loathing, and which inevitably they spare no efforts to projected onto others.

As you can see, if used incorrectly or with the deliberate intention to cause harm to others, a word can be fatal, devastating, brutal, even life-threatening. A word ‘possesses extraordinary strengths and dangers: it can edify yet also obscure, mend yet also wreck, encourage yet also demoralise and undermine …  The language, when prompt by a determination to cause others harm, either through falsehood or envy, possess a hellish power: devastating absolutely everything it encounters, and sowing ruin and devastation. And the damage is irreparable and once the words have been spoken they are irreversible’. There are relationships irremediably compromised due to a wrong sentence being said casually and off the cuff. It has divided families, caused feuds between relatives, there are friends who have not spoken to each other in years simply because of a word that came out of someone’s mouth through the impulse of anger, envy, resentment or the desire to come out on top over the other. People and relationships have been ruined by slander and carelessness. It is therefore necessary to re-learn the virtue of speech through guidance and monitoring the language; disarming it as soon as possible should it suddenly become hostile, sanguinary or combative. Such as? As we have already explained: first of all through an immediate and healthy bath of silence.

The third level of profanation of the word is vulgarity. Today, in too many circles, a foul language, coarse, aggressive, ostentatiously provocative, gratuitously rude, insulting is rampant. Often, in discussions, we abandon ourselves to a terminology of exasperated brutality and insolence… The television screen, then, in competition with the radio, attacks us with thunderous cascades of vulgarities thrown up by the most diverse and unsuspected mouths. Even characters who, given their position and role, should provide examples of correctness and a sense of proportion, indulge in insults, shameful epithets, mockery, insults, paroxysmal attacks against real or alleged enemies, or even simply towards those who stain of the unforgivable guilt of not thinking like them. The calm talk, the serious argument, the serene debate of ideas and points of view, seem to be outdated antiques, tasteless foods. And then the sentences are seasoned with swear words, invectives, insults, contemptuous insults, poisonous jokes … A language, such as that which is usually used in today’s world, represents, in addition to being an offence to charity, also sacrilegious profanation of the word.

This rampant vulgarity, as well as the profanation of language, is also the symptom of the fact that in our time the virtue of sweetness has been lost, and must therefore be rediscovered, which should not be confused with the mushy represent counterfeiting ‘nor’ with honeyed words. Sweetness is in reality a close relative of meekness, entered with all honours within the framework of the evangelical beatitudes, it is an expression of strength and presupposes strength. Sweetness is a dominated force. The violent, the bullies, the villains, the arrogant, are actually weak. The most stubborn resistances bend with the strength of sweetness. Just as deep wounds can be healed with the caresses of the mouth. Sweetness is something deep, not external. It comes from a ‘pacified’ soul, from a being in harmony, first of all, with itself. The fact remains that there is no charity without sweetness, kindness, sensitivity, delicacy, amiability, refinement, politeness … When language is corrupted, defiled, devalued, in order to offend, insult, despise, a dual, serious abuse is committed: towards language itself and towards the person who is the target and also the ‘listeners’ of certain verbal excesses and inevitable obscene expressions.

Just as a hospitable silence and an unarmed language is capable of ‘meaning well’ they have to do with charity, even a sweet language, correctly perceived, is a form of charity. Charity can be learned by becoming accustomed to being ‘educated’. In our time, transgression has become a virtue, a desirable behaviour to be proud of. Being vulgar, cheeky, disrespectful, provocative … today means being transgressive and in step with the times. We do not realise that the true ‘transgression’ would consist of returning to the values of modesty, delicacy, respect, kindness. The real, ‘scandalous’, provocative transgression today would be the recouping of ‘normality’, good taste, measure …  Transgression would be an unwavering renunciation of ‘bad words’ and the adoption of a language marked by cleanliness and behaviour dictated by good manners.

Yes, let’s commit ourselves to making our society truly ‘transgressive’, let us bring back a fragment of healthy ‘transgressions’ within our families, within our group of friends, at school, in the workplace, in our interpersonal relationships: let us recover the virtues of silence and of the word!


  • Alessandro Pronzato, Alla Ricerca delle Virtù Perdute, Gribaudi, Milano, settembre 2000, pp. 17-50.
  • Mauro Miccio, La torre di Babele, Sperling & Kupfer, 2002, pp. 9-11, 13.
  • Bernardo Olivera, Parole dal silenzio, Ancora, Milano, 1999, pp. 103, 108-111, 113, 114-118.
  • Giorgio Basadonna, …e pace in terra, Ancora, Milano, 2002, pp. 17-19.
  • Marisa Bisi, La Bellezza via di Salvezza, Edizioni AdP, Roma, settembre 2003, pp. 9, 35.
  • Giovanni Cucci, La forza della debolezza, Edizioni AdP, Roma, luglio 2007, pp. 302, 303, 308.
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