A few days ago, Pope Francis gave a homily in which he warns folks against gossiping, and instead calls us to focus on following Jesus. It’s another of his wonderful string of homilies delivered in the chapel of the Casa Santa Marta where he resides. Perhaps one day, these gems will be known as the Little Way of Pope Francis.
As il Papa notes, gossiping is something that we love to do. How quickly it is, though, that the “chatting” we do often leads us into quagmires of iniquity. As a blogger, these geographic hazards are everywhere, and I readily admit that I’ve been stuck in them more than once. Lord, have mercy!
Despite the hazards, I wasn’t really looking for any more guidance on this subject. But it fell into my lap this morning anyway, as I flipped thorough my copy of Francisco de Osuna’s The Third Spiritual Alphabet.
Recall de Osuna was a Franciscan priest whose writing heavily influenced St. Teresa of Avila. I once misplaced my copy of his tome, only to have it (kind of, sort of) miraculously reappear a few years back. Flipping thorough the book this morning, I stumbled upon his very wise council in an aptly named chapter that he titles Against Gossipers. It’s from his Twenty-Second treatise.
What follows is a little more than 1800 words (not counting the scripture citations) but they, as is usually the case with Fray Francisco, are very worth the time to read and ponder.
Saint Gregory says that it is not the business of the proficient to perceive and broadcast the negligence of the dissolute who do not accompany them on the road to perfection. Since the mouth is quick to express what fills and saddens the heart, it is easy for us to begin to gossip about wickedness in others and fail to speak of their virtues. What sets us to gossiping and gilds and sweetens our words so we do not offend our listeners is the little ounce of zeal the devil mixes in, like the fisherman who covers his hard hook with a soft worm to catch the fish who swim about hidden safely in the depths of the water.
In order to conceal the vice of gossip with feigned zeal, such people say that they are not backbiting, for they do not really intend to speak ill of the person they crunch between their teeth but only of the vice they observe, which they loathe, quite apart from the person. They even add, so that their speech will not seem unbeneficial, that they are recounting all this to prevent others from falling in the same sin. (Jean) Gerson says that in recounting the other’s vice, they compare themselves to the other, placing themselves before him as the Pharisee did with the publican, saying they are not like the other whom God may have justified because he confessed his wickedness before the Lord. But those who gossip fall down the same hole the other just escaped, and the apostle says they do exactly what they criticized (Romans 2:1). They bring into existence the sin that was not yet present, not for the one who just emerged from it but for those who are just entering, and they uncover the hole the other had closed with repentance, which we must always presume in our neighbor. If they maintain that the sin they criticize is not mortal, their sin is worse, for they have even less reason to gossip. That does not stop them from belaboring and all the more astutely pondering the sin, loathing the other as if he were truly wicked. The least evil they ascribe to him is not loving virtue or protecting it, not being a friend of penitence or prayer. The reason they say this is because their neighbor does not conform with them in their novelties nor does he heed their advice and opinions; in this the other does not sin, for he has no obligation to them.
Those who gossip under the pretext of piety also say that their only reason for speaking of evil is to help their listeners, advising them to avoid the other person so he will not cause them to lose the virtue they possess: as if the other were some highwayman about to rob virtues from others or such an expert in vice that it flowed from him as from a source of corruption! In truth, they would do better to employ spiritual compliments and sweet words to remove all rancor and evil suspicion that the devil usually interjects among God’s servants when he seeks ways for some to form groundless bad opinions about others and causes one to suspect that the other bears him ill will when in fact he may deeply love him, and think that the other opposes what he possibly favors.
Some also exculpate themselves on the basis that they are disclosing another’s blame in order to bring it to his attention so that he realizes his defect is the object of murmuring so he may correct himself. However people do not often correct themselves in this way; rather, they become angry when they see that others do not respect Christ’s commandment about secret correction: that we are to discipline others in private rather than publicly. I would prefer any of God’s servants to tell my vices to my face rather than to use such a roundabout method that everyone else will know them.
Other zealots retort even more sharply that they only speak thus to motivate themselves and others present to pray and take pity on that poor person who has such and such a defect that must be rectified. They claim he will not amend his life without our helping prayers. But if we analyze our prayers, we will see that they are wrought in sin because when we wish to ask others to pray for the correction and improvement of another person, we should not specify who he is, though in truth he may be guilty, for no good comes of this, but on the contrary, much harm. Others will form a bad opinion of that person and testify to his bad name and spread it about even more, being more adamant in their blame because the other who first denounced him specified the cause and motive for the sin. This is how prayer can degenerate into very harmful testimony against one whom we should excuse in light of human frailty that is common to us all.
I do not know how else to condemn gossip engendered by zeal except to say that after considering the matter, I would prefer you to break your vow of chastity than to backbite, regardless of the reason you might add. You may soon rectify the first sin and acknowledge your guilt, but the other can never be amended or even recognized, for zeal so blinds you that seeing, you do not see, and understanding, you do not understand.
You sully your own virtue, if you have any, though you may think you are strengthening it, when in one fashion or another you speak ill of your brothers. Though what you speak of may not be a sin in them, it is in you because you mention it to defame them. Your imagination has the upper hand, fantasizing dangers for you where none exists for the other. Though you may not sin carnally and may think yourself spiritual, believe me, you are in want of serious and subtle spiritual vices if you loosen your tongue to debase and slander another person and if you open your ears and prick up like a startled, snorting horse, wishing to hear and believe the person who maligns another. In truth we should consider blameworthy the one who murmurs rather than the one murmured about. The sin of the first is obvious; that of the second is not.
David asks the Lord who will dwell in his house and rest on the holy mount of contemplation, and the Lord replies: “He who speaks truth in his heart and does not slander with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor nor causes reproach against his comrade, and in whose presence the wicked is brought to nothing (Psalm 15:2-3).
He who holds a good opinion of his brother for the most part speaks truth in his heart. He does not slander with his tongue, for he does not gossip about him, nor does he do him evil by maligning him. And what is more, he does not insult his comrades, for he refuses to believe the gossip of others. On the contrary, according to the following line the wicked gossiper is reduced to nothing, for he undoes him in his words and reasoning and the sadness in his face, as the wise man says (Proverbs 25:23). In order to correct the wickedness of the backbiter, employ good, sound reasons that reveal how no one is to judge another servant, because he lives and dies conformed to his lord and because it ill becomes the mouth that desires to taste God and drink his blood each day at the altar to drink another’s blood. Our Lord especially ordered us not to speak evil of the deaf person (Lev. 19:14); no good, only evil, results when our neighbor is absent and thus cannot hear what is said of him. If he could hear, you would not dare speak irrespective of your zeal, for the fear of man can check your mouth, though that of God cannot.
So, brother, do not be zealous like the Pharisees whose sanctity consisted of murmuring against sinners. Because they defamed others, the most blessed Saint John the Baptist called them a generation of vipers (Matt 3:7). Such vipers bit even Saint Paul on the hand, which means that zeal poisons the work of even a saint with charges of sin. The spiritual should fear this vice more than any others, for none is committed as constantly as this one, which in the case of the perfect is even more audacious. For it is written that the stroke of the tongue, which is gossip, “will break the bones (Sirach 28:12-26), which are those strong in virtue and hidden within Christ, who is divine contemplation.
Let us conclude this point by mentioning two things you ought to observe so that by not offending your tongue you may become perfect. First, do not secretly wound your neighbor by murmuring against him in his absence, for then you will be cursed by God. Emulate holy Job and do not let your tongue mention another’s iniquity (Job 27:4). It is enough for you to utter your own sins to be absolved of them; do not repeat those of others, for if your tongue is thus loosened you will be tied with the bonds of others.
Second, follow the advice of the wise man: “If you hear a word against your neighbor, let it die in you (Sirach 19:10). Bury it, hide it deeply within that it not harm you. Let your charity conceal the sins of others so God’s charity will conceal yours. Praise and magnify whatever good you see and know your brother to possess. When others speak evil, say something good. Then forget what you heard as if you had not heard it, and as if it is repeated, act as if you heard it for the first time. Groan in your heart that you are not justified, even though you may not have committed that sin, for you do not know when you will deserve to be forsaken by God and allowed to fall into worse sin. Blessed is he who reads this and observes it diligently. Amen.
I cannot tell you how much God loathes this vice. Gerson declares that God pardons it most reluctantly because we can never entirely recompense the sin or know how much we have damaged another’s reputation or how much we have wronged those who listen to us and afterward multiply the evil we sowed. We are the cause of that if by discovering, imputing, exaggerating, conceding, approving, and by other means we defame our neighbor (Job 36:17-18).
I think I’ll re-read this a few more times, and make Fray Francisco’s prayer intention my own.