Hush Your Mouth: The Mercy of Shutting Up

Holding your tongue is sometimes a "specific requirement of love"

Amid the controversy surrounding Pope Francis’s recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), one extraordinary section has been all but overlooked. In chapter 4, “Love in Marriage,” the Holy Father offers a moving exegesis of that popular wedding reading, St. Paul’s ode to love from 1 Corinthians.

It’s about more than marriage, though; it’s mercy in action. The love that St. Paul celebrates as the greatest and most enduring virtue is intended to be the pattern for every human relationship. That’s why Pope Francis’s reflections (in paragraphs 112-113 of Amoris Laetitia) on the phrase “[Love] bears all things” blew me away.

First, Paul says that love “bears all things” (panta stégei). This is about more than simply putting up with evil; it has to do with the use of the tongue. The verb can mean “holding one’s peace” about what may be wrong with another person. … In seeking to uphold God’s law we must never forget this specific requirement of love. (AL #112, emphasis original)

This week’s Jubilee Year suggestion for practicing mercy (#17) is, then, not just an optional nice thing to do but a “specific requirement of love”: Hold. Your. Tongue. Far more often than I want to admit, the merciful thing, the loving thing to do is to hush.

It’s not a new notion. The Letter of James pulls no punches about the destructive power of unmerciful speech among the first Christians.

Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna. (James 3:5-6)

Today we would amend James’s description to include the typing fingers and the texting thumbs, equally susceptible to Hell’s arson and equally setting lives on fire with malice.

Here, then, are just of few of the many situations in which I need to practice mercy by holding my tongue — and atoning for the times I have not.

  • When I must have the last word. Whether it’s a tussle with a family member about whose chore it is or who started it, or an online political argument, I rarely know when to quit. But there is no scorekeeping in love and mercy (or where would we sinners be?). None of us is right 100 percent of the time, and seldom are the things we argue about even 10 percent important. There’s a reason we call some people gracious losers — because they model grace by how they hold their peace.
  • When I catch a juicy morsel of gossip. Pope Francis calls the thrill of gossiping, especially about someone we don’t like, “dark glee.” I confess it tempts me even more than dark chocolate. But speaking ill of others is indeed dropping an unmerciful match onto a drought-parched hillside. St. Philip Neri famously counseled a gossip to imagine slicing open a feather pillow in a windstorm — and then trying to gather up every bit of down. Holding my gossiping tongue often means actively refusing to listen to or read gossip.
  • When I think I’m clever. I grew up in the kind of Irish family where sarcasm was the purported language of love. We were expected to harden ourselves to teasing as iron is hardened into steel. My wit has an acid edge that’s taken its toll on relationships. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, the sparring lovers draw blood with their cleverness. “O God, sir,” says Benedick (no slouch in the sarcasm department himself) about Beatrice, “here’s a dish I love not. I cannot endure my Lady Tongue.” It may be too late not to be that dish, but I can work on refusing to serve it up on a daily basis.
  • When I’m just trying to be helpful, damn it! This is a trap a lot of us fall into, rushing to meet others’ silence or sadness or need with a flood of unsolicited advice. In almost every such situation, the merciful and truly helpful response is receptive silence, listening presence. Too often, I react instead with links to medical websites, amateur psychoanalysis or (worst of all) anecdotes about how my experience was so much worse. Each of these responses disrespects the person I claim to be helping. I need a reminder, perhaps on my desktop, to SHUT UP AND PRAY. YES, YOU. RIGHT NOW.

In this jubilee year and after, I’ll practice holding my tongue, shutting up for mercy’s sake. Will you pray for me? Yes, you. Right now.