And they bring to Jesus a man who is deaf and can hardly speak, and they implore him that he might lay his hand upon him. Then, privately taking him away from the crowd, he put his fingers into his ears and spitting, touched his tongue, and looking up into the sky he sighed deeply, and says to him “Ephatha,” which means: “Be opened.” And his ears are opened, and immediately the fetter on his tongue was loosed, and he spoke normally.Mark 7:32-35
As a developing child, I was very slow to begin to speak. Although my parents told me about it, we never really spoke about what might have contributed to this, aside from my mother saying the pediatrician would always encourage her by saying that I would begin to speak when it was the right time for me. Now I can well imagine that a part of my hesitancy was the birth defect that would not be repaired until I was five or six. This made it difficult for me to make certain sounds, and it also, I think evoked anxiety in my parents and others close to me about how my self-expression would be received by others.
All of this rises up in my consciousness as I read in today’s gospel of the man who “can hardly speak.” Jesus opened up the man’s hearing and “immediately the fetter on his tongue was loosed.” I still don’t know, and probably never will, precisely what the fetter on my tongue was as a developing child, but we can all reflect on what the fetters are to our speaking humanely and responsibly in the present. I live within a religious community structure in which trusting, open, and responsive and responsible speech is often at a premium. Yet, I am well aware that that was also the case in my own extended family. Strangely enough, nothing seems to frighten us more than the prospect of speaking to the actual truth of our situations.
What makes our speech distinctively human, or what the Buddhists might call “right speech,” is our using it to express the truth. We have multiple conventions that help us to live and work together at varying levels of truth and honesty. But far too often our full use of our human capacities for speech, communication, and real connection are reserved for, at best, those closest to us. In so many life, work, and social situations, we rather use our speech in quite ambiguous ways, often as much for self-protection, self-promotion, or manipulation of others to our benefit as for an opening of ourselves in expression of and willing reception from the other of the truth.
As a child I perhaps was fearful of what I felt as my inadequacy to speak and to communicate in a way that would be received by others. Perhaps I found it difficult to believe that what I would say (and so I) would be received due to the effects on my speaking of my physical impediments. By analogy, this may apply to the speaking, in truth, of all of us. It is difficult to trust, not only others but the world as a whole, with the expression of the truth as we know it. Often enough in life the truth is “inconvenient.” It can require our dealing together with a difficult reality, and it can entail the personal risk of affecting how we are seen and appreciated by others.
As every great spiritual teacher, Jesus exemplifies in his life and teaching that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Yet, to truly assimilate this teaching requires of us a profound act of faith. For, the experiences we have in life do not always, on their face, confirm its truth. In his play A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt has it proposed to Thomas More to take the oath to the King but to think otherwise in his heart. Yet, Bolt’s Thomas More is not able to do this. For him, his word is the expression of his very self. To say what he does not believe would be a betrayal of himself, as well as of God. Romeo Bonsaint, SC, in an essay entitled “Responsible Speaking,” points out that this is the meaning of Jesus’ injunction in the Beatitudes to let our speech be “yes” when we mean yes and “no” when we mean no. Our words must be truthful, not merely when we take a solemn oath but always.
So, what is the truth of this gospel passage for our lives today? How is Jesus loosening the fetters on our tongues daily in our lives? Or, in other words, how are we being formed in our capacity to speak responsibly, that is in the truth? Many years ago, as I was becoming more and more aware of how much I equivocated in my speech, of how often I used my gift of speech in advancement of my own interests as I, often selfishly, interpreted them, I said to a friend that I would require an hour of solitude and prayer for every few minutes of speaking. What I meant was that the only way I could overcome the social conventions that so affected my presence and speech was to face God in a solitude that would brook no falseness.
This brings us to the intimate connection between prayer and speech. One of the elements that makes prayer so difficult is that it summons us not “to babble as the pagans do” but to stand in our humble truth before God. And without all the social props and conventions that tell us what to say, we can often find ourselves speechless. In our attempt to be still before God, we often discover the distance we have created between the life we are living and our actual selves. We realize, far too often, that at any given moment we don’t know the truth of ourselves. This is the purgation and purgatory of prayer. It is the way of purification that can lead us, if we wait upon it with faith, hope, and love, to the truth of who we are and so the truth of what we have to express.
We live in a culture in which so much speaking is, in any real sense, meaningless. Our social lives and politics are largely performance art, without much art. Appearance has become reality for us. Yet, in solitude and prayer we experience that God is not interested in what we have accomplished, or who we know, or in what social esteem we are held. God waits on our expression, our incarnation in our lives, of the truth of who we are, of whom God has created us to be. There are many fetters that inhibit that expression. In today’s gospel we learn that Jesus alone can loosen those fetters when he experience his touch, his love for us as we are and not as we would be.
The Sermon on the Mount is not primarily a prescription for living but a description of the life of Christ in us. One of the most significant indications of that life is our responsibility to the Truth in our speech and in our actions. In his new book Ethics of the Word: Voices in the Catholic Church Today, James Keenan, SJ quotes the theologian Nicholas Lash:
To be human is to be able to speak. But to be able to speak is to be answerable, responsible, to and for each other and to the mystery of God. (p. 19)
To speak in the most distinctively human way, says Lash, is to be answerable and responsible for the truth of each word we utter. Jesus reminds us that this duty of responsible speech is not occasional but rather universal, a universality of responsibility that makes oath-taking meaningless. Although as limited human beings we shall never attain the fullness of the call to be responsible in speech, there are, on a daily basis, unending opportunities to practice this call. Every time we speak to others we stand before the call of Jesus and the summons of Reality to speak in truth.
Prayer may be the experience by which we learn most fully the significance and the difficulty of being answerable and responsible in speech. In prayer, we find ourselves speechless before the awesomeness of the Mystery in which we live and move and have our being. In prayer we struggle to find an adequate expression of our truth before the one who is Truth. This poverty of our speech reveals to us the depth of our responsibility to God and to and for all others. In authentic prayer all glibness disappears; all performance ends. Remaining in this difficulty and darkness purges our pretense, affectation, and self-promotion. We may discover that we are mere infants struggling to utter words that correspond to a truth that calls us beyond ourselves. Perhaps at its core our cultural crisis of honesty and responsibility is a crisis of transcendence and prayer.Romeo J. Bonsaint, SC, Speaking Responsibly