The tongue: the rudder of the body

The Forward of the Rudder of the Orthodox Catholic Church, which is the compilation of the Holy Canons by Saints Nicodemos and Agapius begins:

The Holy Orthodox Eastern Church of Christ resembles a large ship.  Just as a ship has its captain, crew, and helm by which it is directed and guided safely to its destination, so in like manner the Holy Church of Christ has her captain, crew and helm by which she is guided to the desired spiritual harbor of eternal salvation.  She is likely to meet her eternal destruction without them in the same way that a ship runs the danger of disaster when deprived of them.

Her captain is Jesus Christ and her crew the clergy and the laity, but what is her helm or rudder?  It is this sacred book, which embodies the Holy Tradition of the Church, namely the Sacred Canons of the Holy Glorious Apostles, of the Seven Holy Ecumenical and Local Councils, and of the God-bearing Fathers, as well as the invaluable interpretation and commentary of the most holy Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain.  “This book,” he states, “comes after the Sacred Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments.  It is a book of inspired sayings second to the first inspired sayings.  It is the book of the eternal limits set by our Fathers and of the laws existing unto eternity and above all laws.” 

As the Sacred Canons serve as the rudder of the Church, pastorally guiding each of us toward the Kingdom that is to come, so the tongue serves as a rudder to the human body, bringing us either closer to or further away from Christ.  In Chapter 3 of the General Epistle of James we read: 

Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things.  See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature…

If we accept this analogy of St. James, an analogy that continues through patristic writings, that is, likening the tongue to the rudder of a ship, we must then be extremely cautious as to the words that we choose, since a series of words or even a word can alter our course towards the port of eternal salvation.  This is expressed all the more succinctly in Proverbs 18: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”

St. Theophan the Recluse writes: 

All our activities St. Paul embraced in two terms: word and deed. Words are uttered by the mouth; deeds are performed by other members.  From the moment of waking up to the moment of falling asleep we are continually engaged in both.  Our speech almost falls without stopping, while the various movements of the body continue unceasingly.  What a rich offering to God if all of this could be directed to His glory!  By making our speech serve the glory of God not only is evil speaking banished but also idle talk, and only one kind of speech remains (to put it at its lowest) does not bring them any harm.  We should also consecrate our speech to God by reciting prayers.

What are we then to do?  The first activity for each of us ought to be limiting speech to only those words that glorify God and or those words that build up the Body of Christ, that is, the Church.  To say it another way, if we receive the Holy Eucharist, even once, then our mouth was and remains consecrated.  It is Holy and meant for Holy things.  Loquacity and talkativeness tragically desecrate the Temple of the Body and put the soul in harms way. Or as expressed in Proverbs, “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles” (Proverbs 21:23).

Saint Theophan therefore suggests, “When you have to speak, before expressing what has entered your heart and letting it pass to your tongue, examine it carefully; and you will find many things that are better not let past your lips.  Know moreover that many things, which it seems to you good to express, are much better left buried in the tomb of silence.”  Why be so thoughtful with our speech?  Saint Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain explains, “loquacity is a synonym for empty talk, and…there are no words to express the many evils, which arise from this ugly habit. [It] is the door to criticism and slander, the spreader of false rumors and opinions, the sower of discord and strife.” 

Saint Theodore the Great Ascetic, paraphrasing Scripture appropriately directs us to:

Expel from yourself the spirit of talkativeness.  For in it lurks the most dreadful passions: lying, loose speech, absurd chatter, buffoonery, obscenity.  To put the matter succinctly, ‘through talkativeness you will not escape sin’ (Proverbs 10:19, LXX), whereas a silent man ‘is a throne of perceptiveness’ (Proverbs 12:23, LXX).  Moreover, the Lord has said that we shall have to give an account of every idle word (Matthew 12:36).  Thus silence is most necessary and profitable. 

Of course, talkativeness by a Christian in any setting is inappropriate.  Remarkably and tragically though, there are some who even lapse into careless words either before or after Divine Services or while participating in ministries of and at the Church.  In any instance we are reminded by the General Epistle of James, “If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless.”

When we hear a Christian speaking in a manner unbefitting Christ we are obliged to heed the directive of St. Theophan.  He writes: “Silence the man who utters slander in your hearing.  Otherwise you sin twice over: first, you accustom yourself to this deadly passion, and second you fail to prevent him from gossiping against his neighbor.” Who else is affected by these words?  St. Thalassios concludes, “The tongue of a back-biting souls is three pronged: it injures the speaker, the listener and sometimes the person being maligned.” 

Practical advice is offered by this saint to better equip us when we are in the presence of others.  It thus seems fitting to conclude with the words of St. Thalassios to limit my own:

Of the five attitudes in conversation with others, use three with discrimination and without fear; use the fourth infrequently and refrain from using the fifth all together.  One writer understands the first three as follows: ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘of course’ or ‘this is clearly so’; by the fourth, he understands doubtful things and by the fifth, things totally unknown.  In other words, about the things you know for certain to be true or false, or self-evident, speak with conviction, saying that they are true, false, or evident.  About doubtful things better say nothing, but when necessary, say that they are doubtful and reserve judgment.  Of what you know nothing, say nothing.