Modesty in words, and respect towards others

June 23, 2021 • 4 min

From Introduction to the Devout Life, page 175
By St. Francis de Sales

Chapter XXVII.

Modesty in our words, and the respect we owe to persons.

“If any offend not in words he is a perfect man” (James, iii. 2). Be careful, then, never to let slip an indecent word: for although you do not speak it with an ill intention, yet it may be hurtful to those that hear it.

An evil word falling into a weak heart spreads itself like a drop of oil falling on linen: nay, it sometimes seizes on the heart in such a manner as to fill it with a thousand impure thoughts and temptations to sin, for as the poison of the body enters by the mouth, so the poison of the soul enters by the ear, and the tongue that utters it is a murderer.

For although perhaps the poison which it has poured in has not worked its effect, because it found the souls of the hearers guarded with some preservative, nevertheless the malice was in the tongue to occasion their death.

Let no man therefore tell me that he has no such thought; for our Lord, the searcher of hearts, has said: “That out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.”

But if we think no evil on such occasions, yet the enemy, who is of a contrary opinion, always secretly makes use of immodest words to pierce the soul of some one.

As they that have eaten the herb angelica have always sweet and agreeable breaths, so they that have honesty and chastity, which is an angelic virtue, in their hearts, have their words always pure, modest, and chaste.

As for indecent and obscene things, the Apostle will not have them even named amongst us, assuring us, “That nothing so much corrupts good manners as wicked discourse.”

When immodest words are uttered under a disguise, cleverly and craftily, they become infinitely more poisonous; for, as the sharper the dart is the more easily it enters our bodies, so the more pointed an obscene word is the deeper it penetrates into the soul.

And they who esteem themselves men of gallantry for speaking such words should know that, in conversation, they should be like a swarm of bees, brought together to collect honey for a sweet and virtuous entertainment, and not like a nest of wasps, assembled to suck corruption.

If some fool should address himself to you in a lascivious manner, convince him that your ears are offended, either by turning immediately away, or by such other mark of resentment as your discretion may direct.

To become a scoffer is one of the first qualities of a wit: God, who detests this vice, has heretofore inflicted terrible punishments on its perpetrators. Nothing is so opposite to charity or devotion as despising and speaking scandal of your neighbour; now, as derision or mockery is never without scoffing, divines consider it as one of the worst kind of offences, by words, a man can be guilty of against his neighbour, for other offences may be committed, still having some esteem for the party offended, but by this he is treated with scorn and contempt.

As for certain good-humoured, jesting words, spoken by one to another, by way of modest and innocent mirth, they belong to the virtue called eutrapela by the Greeks, which we may call the art of agreeable conversation; and by those we take an honest and friendly recreation from such frivolous occasions as human imperfections furnish us with.

Only we must be careful not to pass from honest mirth to scoffing; for scoffing provokes to laughter in the way of scorn and contempt of our neighbour; whereas innocent mirth and drollery excite laughter by innocent liberty, confidence, and familiar freedom, joined to the sprightly wit of some ingenious conceit.

St. Louis, when ecclesiastics offered to speak to him after dinner, of high and sublime matters, told them: “It is not now time to quote texts, but to divert ourselves with some cheerful conceits; let every man say what he desires, but innocently.” This he said when any of the nobility were present to receive marks of kindness from him.

But let us remember, Philothea, so to pass our time of recreation that we may never lose sight of the greatest of all concerns—eternity.

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