Now what ought we to learn before everything else, but to be silent, that we may be able to speak? lest my voice should condemn me, before that of another acquit me; for it is written: “By thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Mt. 7:47) What need is there, then, that thou shouldest hasten to undergo the danger of condemnation by speaking, when thou canst be more safe by keeping silent? How many have I seen to fall into sin by speaking, but scarcely one by keeping silent; and so it is more difficult to know how to keep silent than how to speak. I know that most persons speak because they do not know how to keep silent. It is seldom that any one is silent even when speaking profits him nothing. He is wise, then, who knows how to keep silent. Lastly, the Wisdom of God said: “The Lord hath given to me the tongue of learning, that I should know when it is good to speak” (Is. 1:4). Justly, then, is he wise who has received of the Lord to know when he ought to speak. Wherefore the Scripture says well: “A wise man will keep silence until there is opportunity” (Ecclus. 20:7).
Therefore the saints of the Lord loved to keep silence, because they knew that a man’s voice is often the utterance of sin, and a man’s speech is the beginning of human error. Lastly, the Saint of the Lord said: “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I offend not in my tongue” (Ps. 38:1). For he knew and had read that it was a mark of the divine protection for a man to be hid from the scourge of his own tongue (cf. Job 5:21), and the witness of his own conscience. We are chastised by the silent reproaches of our thoughts, and by the judgment of conscience. We are chastised also by the lash of our own voice, when we say things whereby our soul is mortally injured, and our mind is sorely wounded. But who is there that has his heart clean from the impurities of sin, and does not offend in his tongue? And so, as he saw there was no one who could keep his mouth free from evil speaking, he laid upon himself the law of innocency by a rule of silence, with a view to avoiding by silence that fault which he could with difficulty escape in speaking.
Let us hearken, then, to the master of precaution: “I said, I will take heed to my ways;” that is, “I said to myself: in the silent biddings of my thoughts, I have enjoined upon myself, that I should take heed to my ways.” Some ways there are which we ought to follow; others as to which we ought to take heed. We must follow the ways of the Lord, and take heed to our own ways, lest they lead us into sin. One can take heed if one is not hasty in speaking. The law says: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God” (Deut. 6:4). It said not: “Speak,” but “Hear.” Eve fell because she said to the man what she had not heard from the Lord her God. The first word from God says to thee: Hear! If thou hearest, take heed to thy ways; and if thou hast fallen, quickly amend thy way. For: “Wherein does a young man amend his way; except in taking heed to the word of the Lord?” (Ps. 118:9). Be silent therefore first of all, and hearken, that thou fail not in thy tongue.
It is a great evil that a man should be condemned by his own mouth. Truly, if each one shall give account for an idle word (Mt. 7:36), how much more for words of impurity and shame? For words uttered hastily are far worse than idle words. If, therefore, an account is demanded for an idle word, how much more will punishment be exacted for impious language?
What then? Ought we to be dumb? Certainly not. For: “There is a time to keep silence and a time to speak” (Eccles. 3:7). If, then, we are to give account for an idle word, let us take care that we do not have to give it also for an idle silence. For there is also an active silence, such as Susanna’s was, who did more by keeping silence than if she had spoken. For in keeping silence before men she spoke to God, and found no greater proof of her chastity than silence. Her conscience spoke where no word was heard, and she sought no judgment for herself at the hands of men, for she had the witness of the Lord. She therefore desired to be acquitted by Him, Who she knew could not be deceived in any way (Sus. 5:35). Yea, the Lord Himself in the Gospel worked out in silence the salvation of men (Matt. 26:63). David rightly therefore enjoined on himself not constant silence, but watchfulness.
Let us then guard our hearts, let us guard our mouths. Both have been written about. In this place we are bidden to take heed to our mouth; in another place thou art told: “Keep thy heart with all diligence” (Prov. 4:23). If David took heed, wilt thou not take heed? If Isaiah had unclean lips—who said: “Woe is me, for I am undone, for I am a man, and have unclean lips” (Is. 6:5)—if a prophet of the Lord had unclean lips, how shall we have them clean?
But for whom was it written, unless it was for each one of us: “Hedge thy possession about with thorns, and bind up thy silver and gold, and make a door and a bar for thy mouth, and a yoke and a balance for thy words”? (Ecclus. 28:24, 25). Thy possession is thy mind, thy gold thy heart, thy silver thy speech: “The words of the Lord are pure words, as silver tried in the fire” (Ps. 11:6). A good mind is also a good possession. And, further, a pure inner life is a valuable possession. Hedge in, then, this possession of thine, enclose it with thought, guard it with thorns, that is, with pious care, lest the fierce passions of the flesh should rush upon it and lead it captive, lest strong emotions should assault it, and, overstepping their bounds, carry off its vintage. Guard thy inner self. Do not neglect or contemn it as though it were worthless, for it is a valuable possession; truly valuable indeed, for its fruit is not perishable and only for a time, but is lasting and of use for eternal salvation. Cultivate, therefore, thy possession, and let it be thy tilling ground.
Bind up thy words that they run not riot, and grow wanton, and gather up sins for themselves in too much talking. Let them be rather confined, and held back within their own banks. An overflowing river quickly gathers mud. Bind up also thy meaning; let it not be left slack and unchecked, lest it be said of thee: “There is no healing balsam, nor oil, nor bandage to apply” (Is. 1:6). Sobriety of mind has its reins, whereby it is directed and guided.
Let there be a door to thy mouth, that it may be shut when need arises, and let it be carefully barred, that none may rouse thy voice to anger, and thou pay back abuse with abuse. Thou hast heard it read today: “Be ye angry and sin not” (Ps. 4:4). Therefore although we are angry (this arising from the motions of our nature, not of our will), let us not utter with our mouth one evil word, lest we fall into sin; but let there be a yoke and a balance to thy words, that is, humility and moderation, that thy tongue may be subject to thy mind. Let it be held in check with a tight rein; let it have its own means of restraint, whereby it can be recalled to moderation; let it utter words tried by the scales of justice, that there may be seriousness in our meaning, weight in our speech, and due measure in our words.
Watch your words, for the devil is especially on the watch to catch us
If any one takes heed to this, he will be mild, gentle, modest. For in guarding his mouth, and restraining his tongue, and in not speaking before examining, pondering, and weighing his words–as to whether this should be said, that should be answered, or whether it be a suitable time for this remark—he certainly is practicing modesty, gentleness, patience. So he will not burst out into speech through displeasure or anger, nor give sign of any passion in his words, nor proclaim that the flames of lust are burning in his language, or that the incentives of wrath are present in what he says. Let him act thus for fear that his words, which ought to grace his inner life, should at the last plainly show and prove that there is some vice in his morals.
For then especially does the enemy lay his plans, when he sees passions engendered in us; then he supplies tinder; then he lays snares. Wherefore the prophet says not without cause, as we heard read today: “Surely He hath delivered me from the snare of the hunter and from the hard word” (Ps. 90:3). Symmachus1 said this means, “the word of provocation;” others “the word that brings disquiet.” The snare of the enemy is our speech–but that itself is also just as much an enemy to us. Too often we say something that our foe takes hold of, and whereby he wounds us as though by our own sword. How far better it is to perish by the sword of others than by our own!
Accordingly the enemy tests our arms and clashes together his weapons. If he sees that I am disturbed, he implants the points of his darts, so as to raise a crop of quarrels. If I utter an unseemly word, he sets his snare. Then he puts before me the opportunity for revenge as a bait, so that in desiring to be revenged, I may put myself in the snare, and draw the death-knot tight for myself. If any one feels this enemy is near, he ought to give greater heed to his mouth, lest he make room for the enemy; but not many see him.
Keep silent when provoked, and maintain humility
But we must also guard against him who can be seen, and who provokes us, and spurs us on, and exasperates us, and supplies what will excite us to licentiousness or lust. If, then, any one reviles us, irritates, stirs us up to violence, tries to make us quarrel; let us keep silence, let us not be ashamed to become dumb. For he who irritates us and does us an injury is committing sin, and wishes us to become like himself.
Certainly if thou art silent, and hidest thy feelings, he is wont to say: “Why are you silent? Speak if you dare; but you dare not, you are dumb, I have made you speechless.” If thou art silent, he is the more excited. He thinks himself beaten, laughed at, little thought of, and ridiculed. If thou answerest, he thinks he has become the victor, because he has found one like himself. For if thou art silent, men will say: “That man has been abusive, but this one held him in contempt.” If thou return the abuse, they will say: “Both have been abusive.” Both will be condemned, neither will be acquitted. Therefore it is his object to irritate, so that I may speak and act as he does. But it is the duty of a just man to hide his feelings and say nothing, to preserve the fruit of a good conscience, to trust himself rather to the judgment of good men than to the insolence of a calumniator, and to be satisfied with the stability of his own character. For that is: “To keep silence even from good words;”2 since one who has a good conscience ought not to be troubled by false words, nor ought he to make more of another’s abuse than of the witness of his own heart.
So, then, let a man guard also his humility. If, however, he is unwilling to appear too humble, he thinks as follows, and says within himself: “Am I to allow this man to despise me, and say such things to my face against me, as though I could not open my mouth before him? Why should I not also say something whereby I can grieve him? Am I to let him do me wrong, as though I were not a man, and as though I could not avenge myself? Is he to bring charges against me as though I could not bring together worse ones against him?”
Whoever speaks like this is not gentle and humble, nor is he without temptation. The tempter stirs him up, and himself puts such thoughts in his heart. Often and often, too, the evil spirit employs another person, and gets him to say such things to him; but do thou set thy foot firm on the rock. Although a slave should abuse, let the just man be silent, and if a weak man utter insults, let him be silent, and if a poor man should make accusations, let him not answer. These are the weapons of the just man, so that he may conquer by giving way, as those skilled in throwing the javelin are wont to conquer by giving way, and in flight to wound their pursuers with severer blows.
Imitate the prophet David
What need is there to be troubled when we hear abuse? Why do we not imitate him who says: “I was dumb and humbled myself, and kept silence even from good words”? (Ps. 38:2). Or did David only say this, and not act up to it? No, he also acted up to it. For when Shimei the son of Gera reviled him, David was silent; and although he was surrounded with armed men he did not return the abuse, nor sought revenge: nay, even when the son of Zeruiah spoke to him, because he wished to take vengeance on him, David did not permit it.3 He went on as though dumb, and humbled; he went on in silence; nor was he disturbed, although called a bloody man, for he was conscious of his own gentleness. He therefore was not disturbed by insults, for he had full knowledge of his own good works.
He, then, who is quickly roused by wrong makes himself seem deserving of insult, even whilst he wishes to be shown not to deserve it. He who despises wrongs is better off than he who grieves over them. For he who despises them looks down on them, as though he feels them not; but he who grieves over them is tormented, just as though he actually felt them.
From: Philip Schaff, Select Library of the Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 10, St. Ambrose, Selected Works and Letters.