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Actions and Words

Today’s readings seem like Lenten ones. They are somber and difficult to integrate into daily practice. As I reflect upon the words of Jesus that any prospective disciples must deny themselves, take up his cross, and follow him, I am reminded of my difficulty in reconciling the first reading. Sure, the Letter from James is instructive, but it sometimes catches me in the craw and I wrestle with my lack of integration of the two – my professed faith and good works.

Our actions are to match the words we speak. I interpreted this passage from James backwards – focusing more on the actions that the words. I have always read James as giving greater weight the necessity of our actions matching what we say, but I now see it as James giving ascendancy to the words we speak. He does not want us to be flip about the words we choose to speak. Words are as sacred as our actions, if not more, and both are to flow from our faith.

You might be like me when I say things I really wish I hadn’t said. Sometimes my words are hurtful when I am only trying to say something witty or funny. I withhold words when a kind word can be consoling. Sometimes I play word games for the sake of the game that are often misconstrued and sometimes I just speak far too quickly. I do it without momentary reflection. When it is difficult to express my hurt or anger directly to the person who hurt me, I am sorely tempted to say an unkind word about that person. I try hard not to do that, but I feel like St. Paul when he wrote in Romans, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” Four lines later he writes, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who does it, but sin that dwells within me.” This is troublesome for me because I want to act out of my faith, not out of my sin.

I wonder if choosing one’s words correctly is taking up one’s cross. In fact, mere human discourse and the consequences associated with poor communication skills can be a heavy cross to bear. Some of us are stuck with something harsh that someone said to us as a child, “Stop singing, You sound awful,” or “Good girls don’t do that,” or “God skipped over you when he doled out the fill-in-the-blank.”  We kill some part of a person with the words we choose.

We’ve missed opportunities to act on our faith through our words. We waited too long to tell a dying loved one something that we wanted to say. We were guarded with a spouse or community member because we wanted to protect ourselves or not hurt the other. We are gun-shy to speak honestly or at all around someone meaningful to us. It reminds me of the words of my moral theology professor, Jim Keenan, who defines sin as “a failure to bother to love.”

In my middle years of life, I am finally learning of the sacredness of words and of the silence that is necessary for those words to have power. For much of my life, I have wanted to be seen and heard and known by others so I said things that would get someone’s attention to notice something about me. This is acting out of my need, not my faith. I have always understood it cognitively, but learning it through my heart is very different – and refreshing. An effortless ease comes about. I find that listening is more enjoyable and satisfying than speaking. Ever so slowly, I am learning to integrate it. By listening more, I seem to be more seen and heard and known to Christ, which is what I want more than ever. It is intriguing and ironic that choosing to be silent makes a person feel better heard. When I am silent, I pay more attention to Christ’s feelings and needs and I notice that I am able to feel more compassion and care for another person because my needs are out of the way. Christ works miracles when the silence allows us to see, and hear, and know him. My actions seem to be more like Christ’s actions that flow from this silence. He allows me to choose words more carefully – one’s that arise from faith.

I had a conversation with two friends on Sunday. They asked me why I joined the Jesuits. I usually give a longer answer, but I succinctly said, “I wanted to be like Ken Hughes. He was my first spiritual director.” I always admired much about the man – the way he lived for Christ – the way Christ seemed to shine through his words and actions in all ways. He’s a holy man and there is much about him that I honor, but I realized how far I am still away from my goal. I’m probably no closer to being like Ken, who is close to being like Christ, because I have spent more time trying to define myself and figure out how my unique gifts matter to my Jesuit life. I missed the point. The point is for me to be less of myself, and more like Ken and Christ. I know this is where true contentment lies.

I know I have lots more to learn and it is still a journey worth discovering. The secret is taking care of those ordinary tiny details in life that don’t seem like all that much. Carefully chosen words, a pause or extended silence, a small action devoid of words can attest to our faith that Christ is risen and is among us in the most mundane parts of our day. Though we retain our identity and uniqueness, Christ will become more visible to others when we allow our words and deeds of compassion and charity arise from what emerges from the heart of Christ. I find it amazing to passively watch it happen as an active participant. Christ’s power is mediated through our actions. I think this is what Jesus means when he said, “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.”

"Words are as sacred as our actions, if not more, and both are to flow from our faith."