If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain (Jas. 1:26).
In this passage, the holy Apostle James says that the man who thinks he’s pious, that he labors for the sake of the Lord, but at the same time doesn’t curb his tongue, thereby deceiving himself, will not prosper spiritually, and all the religious rites that he performs are futile, bringing him no benefit of any kind.
These words of the Apostle sound rather harsh, but, unfortunately, all this takes place in our Church life. A little earlier in the same chapter, the Apostle says that a man must be quick to hear and slow to speak (Jas. 1:19). Or again: If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man (Jas. 3:2). That is, the man whose words are kind and don’t lead him to any mistakes is perfect. But who among us is perfect? No one, unfortunately. We all bear the seal of imperfection upon ourselves and all our deeds.
Whatever our minds and hearts are like, that’s what our words will be like
The tongue, of course, brings us a multitude of sufferings, but how can we bridle it? For example, we can restrain ourselves all day, watching what we say, but then something unpleasant or some conversation happens, and we fall apart again. Of course, the tongue itself isn’t to blame for anything—it’s just one of the bodily organs. The tongue isn’t to blame, but the one who controls it, meaning our mind, which sends commands to the tongue about what to say. If the mind gives the tongue good material, then the tongue produces good words. It turns out the problem is concentrated in our mind, which is often completely unoccupied and therefore constantly engages in empty talk. Such an idle mind testifies that a man isn’t doing any spiritual work. That’s why the Holy Fathers considered and consider silence and attention to our words to be one of the most important elements of the spiritual life.
Of course, this seems impossible to us. If only we lived in the desert, then we’d be silent all day! But I’ll tell you from my own experience: Even if a man is always in the desert and is silent all day, that’s not enough. His mind has to learn silence. For example, there are people who are always silent, but their mind is constantly talking. That is, outwardly this man looks very silent and quiet, but inwardly he has monologues, arguments, excuses, and so on, flowing in an endless stream, like a mill that runs nonstop. Is it possible to stop it? And is it necessary? After all, it’s important not to stop the mill, but to give it good products to process—to put good wheat in the mill so that high-quality flour comes out.
Therefore, it’s important to give our minds food for spiritual work. If a man can’t pray, he should at least have thoughts about something positive. Spiritual reading, listening to sermons, being in the company of spiritual people—these are the most useful products that give birth to kind words when they enter into the mind of man. For example, the mind of a man who reads the lives of the saints and spiritual books, who listens to the word of God, and so on, constantly works at and reflects upon good things. Conversely, if a man watches or hears something bad, then his mind is poisoned and his tongue begins to release the various impurities accumulated in his mind, like condemnation, profanity, and so on.
Our tongue is like a spigot. You turn it on and the water flows out. If the water in the spring is good, then the faucet gives good water, and vice versa. The spigot itself doesn’t bear any responsibility for the quality of the water. From this it follows that it’s enormously important what fills our hearts. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh (Mt. 12:34), said Christ. That is, whatever’s in the heart will be on your lips. If your heart is filled with good thoughts about others, if you compel yourself to have love, benevolence, compassion, understanding, and forbearance, then when you open your mouth, your words will be filled to overflowing with love and sympathy, and so on. If you produce evil thoughts in your heart, like envy, hostility, indignation, and so on, then when you open your mouth, all this evil will pour out of it.
Thus, the struggle with the tongue takes place deep within us. And in order to win this struggle, as I said above, prayer, reading the word of God and spiritual books, listening to homilies, being in church, and communicating with good people are very helpful. For example, let’s say a man works somewhere where he hears a lot of obscene language, and gradually, without even noticing it, he starts to repeat these words inside himself; because when he hears them all the time, he gets used to them, is filled with them, and even if he doesn’t say them out loud, these words still live inside his mind. Conversely, when a man is surrounded by quiet, gentle, attentive, and spiritual people, he learns these qualities himself, and his words benefit not only himself, but also all those around him.
Restrain yourself… even unto blood
It’s also very important to avoid idle talk. Holy Scripture says: In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin (Prov. 10:19). If you start talking uncontrollably every time you get a chance to insert a word, you won’t be saved from sin. One way or another, at some point, the condemnations and accusations and all the rest will seep out. The most effective remedy against this sin is a bridle. Those who have lived on Mt. Athos and have dealt with animals know this well. For example, in the case of a disobedient mule that you simply can’t move, the only thing that will work is a bridle: When you pull on it, the animal feels pain and starts doing what the master expects from it. It’s not without purpose that the Apostle uses the verb “to bridle” in relation to the tongue, because coercion and compulsion is truly needed here to restrain oneself. After all, we’re all rational beings, and the word is our inborn instinct. We want to speak out, we want to answer, but we must curb our tongue and tell ourselves: “Now be quiet now.” It’s very difficult; it’s a real struggle.
The Patericon describes an instance where a certain man was rude to his elder, and the elder tried with all his might to restrain himself from responding to this rudeness. After a while, the elder’s mouth filled with blood and he spit it out. The fathers then asked the elder: “Geronda, what happened? Where’s the blood coming from?” And he told them he forced himself to be quiet so much that the rude word turned into blood in his mouth, and spitting it out made him feel better.
When I read this story, I thought that what happened with the elder was something supernatural and could only happen with great ascetics. But I later heard a similar story from another man, a layman. This pious man served in the army. One day a young soldier, his subordinate, had the audacity to insult him. Just imagine how much strength it took this officer to refrain from repaying this young man for the offense. After all, he was much older than him, higher in rank, and he could’ve done anything he wanted to him. And this officer, not knowing this story from the Patericon, told me: “Geronda, I had to restrain myself so hard to not respond to his rudeness and not punish him, that my mouth filled with blood.” I thought that his story was very similar to the one in the Patericon and that he very clearly demonstrates how much a man must fight with himself in order not to give free rein to the tongue.
It’s especially hard to remain silent when truth is on your side, when it tears you apart. Here a man comes to you and acts arrogantly with you, but you don’t want to respond in kind, and a real battle begins within yourself. If we learn to fight with our inner voice, which screams at us about our rightness, it will be very salvific for us. It’s worth it for a man to restrain himself at least two or three times, and he already begins to suppress within himself the power of an evil word, which is like a chimera living inside us, wanting to pounce on someone else.
When silence is worse than verbosity
When we watch our words, we learn to be attentive and as a result, we become attentive to others. After all, he who talks a lot never listens. A talkative man isn’t just someone who talks all the time, but also someone who never listens. Accordingly, in order to hear, you have to learn to be silent. To acquire prayer and attention, you have to learn silence. Silence is a great virtue, which is the mother of many other virtues.
As the Holy Fathers say, silence should be with the mind. For sometimes we’re silent, but at the same time we’re making a sour face. In this case, we speak not with the tongue, but with our facial expression, which sometimes can be even worse than words. Also, some movement of ours, completely without any words, can really hurt another person. For example, someone is trying to tell you something, and you turn away from him with a displeased face. At first glance it seems that you didn’t say anything bad, but in fact, you said a lot more with your look.
For example, a husband is going home and he thinks: “I’ll be home soon, and I’m not going to say a word to my wife; I’m going to practice silence.” No, that’s not right. You have to talk with your wife at home, but just watch what you say. Silence doesn’t mean complete silence, but attention to your words. In his “Word on Silence,” St. John Climacus says he has met a man who speaks from morning to night, but his words are like silence, and has seen a man who is always silent, but his silence is even worse than verbosity. That is, you can be silent all the time, but your mind still remains scattered. And another can talk from morning till night, but it’ll be words about God, words about goodness, words of comfort, words filled with love. Such words benefit not only the speaker but also those around him. The point isn’t the quantity of words, but the quality.
One saint says: If a young monk (and really, any person), who, despite his spiritual podvig, can’t restrain his tongue and, moreover, even looks for an opportunity to insert a word into a conversation, then he has an emptiness inside and he’s like a “clanging cymbal.” And conversely, when a man truly labors, then his mind is in constant prayerful vigil, he controls his speech, and he likes to be in silence. If such a man utters at least a few words, they’ll be golden words. Here the word can be compared to the salt we add to our food. After all, food without salt is tasteless, and we don’t want to eat it. It’s the same if we overdo it with salt: The food’s no good and you want to spit it out. Therefore, a lack of words and an excess of words are two extremes. Words should be pronounced with reasoning and attention.