It's Ash Wednesday. Once again the annual give-upfest comes around. Need to eat less. Do more exercise. Reduce caffeine. Refuse chocolate. Prohibit clicking the Amazon shopping basket. Stop cheating in speed limits. Walk more and drive less. Keep tabs on food waste. Keep tabs on my own waist. Detox from the Internet. I've just written a Lenten Decalogue. Ten new commandments to make life, me, the world, a little more this, a little less that.
I'm not going to try to keep any of them. Each one is valid, valuable and salutary. These I should be doing whether it's Lent or not. The fact I can so easily compile such a personally relevant checklist of virtues or their absence is evidence enough of my need for improvement.
And yet. Somehow this year I feel less interested in pulling out a few weeds, and more interested in replenishing the soil. Not so much interested in dealing with this or that bad habit, more challenged by the issue of the kind of person whose habits they are.
Which brings me to Jesus, believe it or not - but I'd prefer that you did believe it. Matthew 12.35-37 tends not to be amongst the more comforting words Jesus ever spoke. My guess is we interpret them as hyperbole, a good natured warning phrased strongly for rhetorical effect. That is a category mistake. These words are spoken with an exacting exactness - Jesus means what he says. Seriously, Jesus is being serious.
35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.
So as I mentioned in a previous post on the Epistle of James, this Lent I am giving up words. Well at least giving up, so far as prayerulness and carefulness allow, empty words. Earlier today Professor Dana Greene left a comment here on Living Wittily. It relates to a post I did on Elizabeth Jennings and one of her poems. To show what words are and achieve in human relations when they are not empty, and to give an idea of a stewardship of words, here is one of a good number of poems in which she considers language, words and the therapeutic effect of good words spoken:
Hours and Words
There is a sense of sunlight where
warm messages and eager words
Are sent across the turning air,
Matins, Little Hours and Lauds,
When people talk and hope to teach
A happiness that they have found.
Here prayer finds a soil that is rich
and sets a singing underground.
Let there be silence that is full
of blossoming hints. When it is dark
Men's minds can link and their words fill
A saving boat that is God's ark.
O language is a precious thing
And ministers deep needs. It will
soothe the mind and softly sing
and echo forth when we are still.
As a Lenten discipline, what might it look like to cultivate a stewardship of words, develop a discipline of language, practice a care for speech as therapeutic. And perhaps above all, a recovery of the eloquence of silence, out of which comes our deepest thoughts and those words that have a lasting worth and legacy in the enriched lives of others.
The painting by Raphael, Paul Preaching at the Areopagus, has its own message about the importance of the words we speak out of fullness of heart and the empty words we do better to refrain from speaking. Remembering we speak in the presence of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.