I am someone who, somewhat regrettably, has the gift of gab. Both blessed and cursed with being an extrovert, I often have to place a mental filter to keep the thoughts that flow so very freely from my mind from spilling out of my mouth. When I am angry and thirst for justice it can be particularly tempting to say exactly what I am thinking without remorse.
There is a famous story about St. Phillip Neri who assigned an unusual penance in the 16th century. When a woman came to him to confess the sin of gossip, he instructed her to climb atop the town’s bell tower, rip open a pillow, and watch the feathers spread throughout the town. For the second part of her penance, she was to try to collect all the feathers.
This was of course an impossible task, and St. Phillip Neri demonstrated his point: that our words can ripple, creating and increasing division. This story is why I stress to my second-grade Faith Formation students that God’s commandment not to bear false witness against our neighbor even applies to those things that may be true but damaging to a person’s character or reputation.
When Christ explains his parable to his disciples after angering the Pharisees and scribes, he warns them: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”
Our words are a reflection on the state of our hearts, and with careful practice can be controlled, so we are not like the woman chasing down her feathers throughout the town.