How Not to Speak About Spiritual Things

December 30, 2014 Length: 15:49

Fr. Michael shares from St. Isaac the Syrian, "How one speaks of spiritual things is perhaps more important than the very spiritual matters themselves."

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Hello. This is Fr. Michael Gillis, and we’re Praying in the Rain. Forgive me if I sound a little croaky here in my voice. I’ve had a cold, but, thank God, I’m on the rebound. Today I want to talk to you about how we speak when we talk about spiritual things, and some advice that St. Isaac the Syrian gives us. I want to start with a quote from St. Isaac the Syrian. Here’s the quote:

He who is pure of soul and chaste in life always speaks the words of the Spirit discreetly, and in accord with his own measure he speaks of the things of God and of the things that are within him. But when a man’s heart is crushed by the passions, his tongue is moved by them, and even though he speak of spiritual matters, yet he discourses passionately to the end that he might be victorious.

One of the mistakes that I often have made and do make still in speaking of spiritual things is to speak about them in a worldly way. St. Isaac points out that how one speaks of spiritual things is perhaps more important than the very spiritual matters themselves. St. Isaac gives us some guidance to help us discern our actual inner state when we speak of spiritual things. He’s not providing us with a prescription for how we should speak; rather, he’s providing a diagnostic tool to help us understand when we are speaking of spiritual matters inappropriately or, as he says, according to our passions.

As a person interested in developing a deeper relationship with God, and as one conversant in spiritual matters, especially as a priest who is almost constantly speaking about spiritual matters, I’m concerned that it is all too easy for me to deceive myself into thinking that I am indeed living by and experiencing in my own inner life the spiritual realities and principles that I often talk about, when in reality I am, just as St. Isaac says, crushed by my passions.

St. Isaac in the quote above seems to be offering us two pointers to help us discern our inner state. The first has to do with speaking about spiritual matters discreetly, which I will talk about in a moment, and the second has to do with speaking of things that are within ourselves. This is a point made often by St. Isaac and many other spiritual writers. When we speak of spiritual things, we need to limit ourselves to what we ourselves actually experience. It is very tempting to give advice on spiritual matters about experience, states, conditions, or disciplines that I myself have not actually experienced and do not actually practice.

I’ve read a lot. I’ve read about holy men and women who have experienced great heights in their relationship with God, men and women who have shone with the uncreated light, who have been caught up in prayer, seen visions, who have fasted, prayed, kept vigil with great perseverance, who have borne the fruit of a life filled with God. But I personally experience very, very little of this. My experience has basically been a continual trying and failing, a never-ending exercise in falling and getting back up again. I’ve come to realize that I am one of those one-talent Christians, doing my best just to keep my one talent in the bank, the Church, so to speak, to keep in the Church, where at least I will earn interest, rather than to bury my talent in self-pity by pulling away and not even trying again and again and again.

I appreciate—in fact, much more than appreciate—I’m amazed by those who have been given two or even five talents of grace, who have taken the grace given to them and traded with it, who have earned five talents more through their diligent application and attention to the grace given to them. These holy people amaze me; they inspire me, but when it comes to my giving advice to others, I need to speak in accord with my own measure, as St. Isaac says. Yes, I can and should tell of what the saints have achieved and the advice they give based on their actual experience with God, but I must be very careful not to speak in such a way that might give the impression that I personally know and live and experience what I’m talking about when I’m quoting them.

The passions are tricky things. It is especially difficult to notice that we are speaking passionately about spiritual things, especially when others are asking us for advice. We must be very careful. I must be very careful. According to St. Isaac, one way to know that we are speaking passionately about spiritual matters is to notice if we are speaking in accord with our own measure, of things that are actually in ourselves. Truly, I think we deceive ourselves when we speak beyond ourselves about spiritual things.

We deceive ourselves because we think speaking of spiritual matters is just like speaking of airplanes or philosophical principles. The spiritual life does not work that way. When we speak of spiritual things, we are communicating much more by who we are than by what we say. If those two do not line up relatively well, those to whom we speak will know. The effect of our words will not be life-giving, but will rather be just more information, and that’s the best-case scenario. In the worst-case scenario, our passionate words on spiritual matters will communicate not life, but death; not help, but condemnation; not encouragement, but guilt. When speaking on spiritual matters, less is generally more.

One of the ways St. Isaac gives us to discern our spiritual state when speaking about spiritual matters has to do with staying within the limits of ourselves, our own actual experience of the spiritual life. When we find ourselves speaking or attempting to speak beyond ourselves in spiritual matters, then we know it’s time to shut up. We are speaking passionately, and even if the words we speak are true on some level, to speak them with passion is to betray the very words we speak.

The other pointer St. Isaac gives us to discern whether or not we are speaking of spiritual things passionately is tied to the word “discreet.” In the Oxford Dictionary, the word “discreet” is defined this way: “Careful and circumspect in one’s speech or actions, especially in order to avoid causing offense or to gain an advantage.” Now, my first spiritual conversation, or my first spiritual conversation with a really holy person, was with an abbess. More than any particular thing she said to me at that time, what has stayed with me over the years—and it was over 20 years ago—was not only that she was tentative in what she said—she said things like, “Well, that might be” or “Have you considered this” or “You could try that”—not only was she tentative in what she said, she was very quick to back down and admit that she might not at all know what is best or what is right to do in my particular situation. As soon as I challenged something she said, she would respond, “Well, perhaps you’re right.” So in the end, in order to really get her to say what she was thinking, I had to just shut up and humbly listen. Mother Abbess was very discreet.

St. Isaac tells us that a passionate person, one crushed by the passions, he says, speaks of spiritual things “to the end that he might be victorious.” It seems to me to be a pretty sure sign that I am speaking passionately about spiritual things when I find myself angling to be right or trying to prove my point or showing how the other person is wrong. When I’m not speaking discreetly about spiritual things, but am intruding where I’m not invited, or causing offense, or gaining advantage, when I’m intent on showing that my position, my idea, my advice, my observation is right, then, if I notice in time, I know it’s time for me to stop talking. Spiritual advice must be given and received in a spiritual, holy manner. We’re not talking about worldly matters here, so we cannot speak of them in a worldly way. It just doesn’t work. You end up communicating many things you never intended to communicate, and little of what you intended to communicate. And here, I’m truly speaking from experience.

It seems as though it is always the best to say nothing at all. Silence, St. Isaac tells us, is the language of heaven. And yet, love compels us to speak, with all the dangers and possibilities for misunderstanding, still we feel we must speak because we love. And so we speak about spiritual things. We speak in words that which can only be rightly communicated in silence. We speak in words because, in our fallen and broken and not-yet-healed state, it is all we have to encourage and instruct, to help and to aid one another.

But we speak carefully, discreetly, about that which is within us, careful not to imply that we, too, experience the same spiritual heights as those holy fathers and mothers that we have read of, because in the end, I know that I can’t help anyone. God is the one who helps. Salvation is of the Lord, we are told repeatedly in the Scriptures and the hymns of the Church. I am merely a helper. We might even say that I am an unnecessary helper in that God doesn’t need anyone’s help to save—and yet, God has made us necessary. God has invited us, each of us in our own little ways, to be helpers in bringing about the salvation of those around us, the salvation that he alone brings about.

And God brings us to this work of love even before we are perfected, even while we are still sinners and broken and screwing up every time we open our little mouths. God uses even us now as we are. God has invited us to love with him, to give we have, what little we have, not pretending that we have more, to share what has been given to us, even if what has been given to us is much less than what has been given others. But we share discreetly, only when invited, never to win an argument, never to boast, never to be right: discreetly, humbly, as co-workers with something God’s doing.

You know, it’s okay to be a one-talent Christian, even, I think, to be a one-talent priest. Like the widow who gave her two mites, which was all she had to live on, so we, too, in love, give to each other the little that we have. The power to save lies not in the sighs or effectiveness of the words or gifts or actions that we give to one another, but the power to save lies in the One who has invited us into his labor of love.