“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” —Eph 4:29.
In our diocese, a parish striving to be a Stewardship Parish is asked to “regularly discuss virtue, set forth examples of heroic virtue, and evaluate programs and policies in light of how they foster virtue.”
Virtue, though, can be a challenging thing to teach, and it is made more difficult by the reality that culturally, we rarely talk about virtue. If we do, it is only mentioned in very general terms. “Be nice!” the culture tells us. The church, however, calls us not to embrace some ill-defined standard of “niceness,” but to be virtuous, even heroically so. What does this mean? And how can we foster virtue in ourselves and in others?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines virtue as “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (1833). Virtues, then, are good habits we develop over time until they become our natural response. So, to foster a life of virtue means to be attentive to growing in good and holy habits. We must be intentional in our efforts both for ourselves and for those we teach.
I have the great grace to have the opportunity to meet weekly with a group of women who are serious about growing in virtue. Recently, one expressed a frustration experienced by us all: that she becomes discouraged when she must relate the same sins over and over in confession.
This opened up a wonderful discussion about how we root out those persistent areas of sin in our lives. One area many of us struggle with is gossip: talking about others or situations in ways that are less than edifying, talking about problems we don’t have the power to solve, or being negative or speaking ill of people or organizations. We know that all of this is destructive, and yet, we do it anyway.
Looking about the internet for information on gossip, I ran across a delightful article which stated, “In the South we have this knack for making gossip sound … almost nice. All you have to do is add ‘bless her heart’ to the end of the sentence. It goes like this: ‘Susie gained 50 pounds with that last pregnancy, bless her heart.’ ‘Marcy’s husband ran off with his secretary, bless her heart.’*
As I read, I thought to myself that we sometimes do the same thing in the church, except instead of saying “bless her heart,’” we say, “we need to pray for …” How crucial it is to be attentive and honest about our true motive. Do we really desire to offer this situation up to prayer, or is prayer just a pretense, a “legitimate” excuse for talking about another person or his or her struggles?
As Lent is just around the corner, now might be a great time to equip ourselves with some tools to root out the vice of gossip in our lives and replace it with the virtue of Christian kindness. In my own experience, to root out a vice and develop a virtue requires a simple tool rather than a complicated one. Here are three simple questions attributed to Amy Carmichael, a missionary who served in India in the first part of the 20th century.
Before we speak, we should ask ourselves:
Is it true?
Is it kind?
Is it necessary?
It’s simple, but not necessarily easy. Still, I am inspired by Matthew Kelly to keep working to use this tool. In his latest book, “The Culture Solution,” he offers this advice: “How do you know if it is gossip or just a discussion? If there is a problem and there is nobody in the conversation who can address the problem, it’s gossip. If the person does not have a chance to defend his or her actions, it’s gossip.”
“Gossip erodes trust,” says Kelly. All healthy relationships are rooted in trust. All healthy church communities, in fact any healthy organization, is rooted in trust. Trust is foundational, and gossip undermines it terribly. As we strive to become more vibrant and more authentic witnesses for Christ, we will need to be intentional and persevering in promoting virtue, so that, as our Diocesan Stewardship document stresses, we can be “parishioners (who) embody steadfast kindness and compassion.”
Carmichael, Amy. “Edges of His Ways” (Fort Washington: Christian Literature Crusade, 1955)