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On Idle Talk and Gossip


But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak,
they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.
(Matt. 12:36)

YOU COMPLAIN, Sister, about the trials which are over taking you, which are arising, according to your words, from certain misunderstandings, suspicion, and indiscretion in conversations. The last, I think, is the effective and chief cause of all your trials and the source of all the evil. On this subject I want to write you a few words about the harm arising from the idle talk and gossip so common among you. This is something you yourself don't even notice; you speak too much, without discerning whether it is necessary or unnecessary, profitable or harmful, provided only that something is spoken. It is as if you are afraid of silence, which in fact is a nun's first obligation, the chief condition of her success and the adornment of her whole life.

Deeply rooted in people is the love of idle talk, i.e., empty, unnecessary conversations, and it has become a beloved pastime among them. It seems we don't know and don't believe that idle talk is a sin, and a serious sin, which gives birth to a multitude of other sins: quarrels, conflicts, gossip, slander, condemnation, calumny, and the like. Indeed, all the various confusions which fill human life to overflowing, all the disturbances of the inner quiet of the soul, have as their source this same idle talk, which has crept into all of everyday life, as though it were its indispensable property and requirement. If any sin or any passion knows how to clothe itself in an attractive form, it is precisely—idle talk.

It begins under the pretext of conversing, of discussing some business, but then we proceed imperceptibly to an altogether unnecessary, empty, and sinful conversation. Like a deeply-rooted infection, this sickness does not easily submit to healing. It has penetrated all layers of social and private life; it is active in people of every age and gender, every class and social position, and has not even spared monasteries.

One deeply thinking pastor, contemporary to us, writes the following on idle talk, among other things: "How heedlessly, how carelessly we use our words, Which should be highly valued as a great gift from God! But on the contrary, what do we least esteem, if not the spoken word? In what are we fickle, if not in the spoken word? What do we throw out every minute, as though it were dirt, if not the spoken word? O Christian! Value your words, be attentive to them!"

In our words, which we regard so carelessly, so thoughtlessly, will be either our justification or condemnation, as our Lord Jesus Christ Himself says: By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned (Matt. 12:37); I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment (Matt. 12:36). If even one idle, i.e, empty, unnecessary word will be subject to accounting in the day of judgment, then to what condemnation and punishment will we be subject, who talk idly continually and constantly, restrained neither by place nor time, nor by the presence of outsiders, who, perhaps even against their will, we make participants in our empty conversations, and in such a manner draw them into sin. So, drawing them into sin, we are subject to a double condemnation—both for idle talk and for being a cause of temptation, for woe, it is said, to that man by whom the offence cometh (Matt. 18:7). We don't think about this, we don't take care at all! We misuse our natural faculty of speech, which was given to us for this purpose above all: that we might praise our Creator, thank and glorify Him with words, as is proper to a rational creature. Even mute nature glorifies Him with its grandeur and harmony, not deviating in the least from the laws appointed to it by the Creator: The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaimeth the work of His hands (Ps. 18:1).

The gift of speech was also given to us that we might understand one another, not through instinct, like the dumb animals, but through intellect. Thus we verbally express our ideas, which are abundantly and clearly opened to us by our God-enlightened mind, the source of thought and word, in order that we might conduct intelligent, mutual, brotherly conversation on the aim of daily life and its regulation, for mutual edification and benefit, in support and consolation of each other, and the like. It was not given to us that we might talk idly; or judge, slander, and condemn our neighbors, pronouncing judgments on them like unmerciful judges and torturers rather than considering ourselves as their brothers, weak and sinful as they, if not still worse. Thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest, says the Apostle, for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things. And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? (Rom. 2:1, 3) He that ... judgeth his brother, says another Apostle, ...judgeth the law; but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge (James 4:11). And what great evil results from empty and idle conversations and gossip! Sometimes one heedlessly spoken word causes a whole storm of unpleasantness and fills the heart of the one referred to with indignation and hatred. So even a word that was not ill-intentioned, one we counted as nothing, can strike a mortal sin, just as a small spark often turns into a great fire burning whole villages. How great a matter a little fire kindleth, says the Apostle James. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things (cf. James 3:5); it is a fire, a world of iniquity:... it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell (James 3:6). The tongue is an untamable evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God and therewith curse we men, which are after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing an d cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be! Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? (James 3:8-11) Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge ... let him show this out of his works, through good conduct, and not by condemning others. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth (i.e., don't consider yourself wise). This is not the wisdom that descends from above, but is earthly ... devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work (cf. James 3:13-16). Behold the harm from all our idle talk and gossip! And if they are improper to Christians in general, are they not even less pardonable for nuns, who have voluntarily renounced the world with all its worldly sinful ways, who have retired within their monastic gates for a more unhindered attention to their salvation? The enemy of everyone's salvation, knowing the infirmity of men, who notwithstanding their readiness towards a life of pleasing God, are ever inclined to seek indulgences and consolations, is not slow even here to sow his tares amid the wheat of God. You nuns by your departure from the world have also left all its consolations and pleasures permitted to lay people.

The only true consolation for you should consist in your close fellowship and heart to heart talks. Your superiors, as wise and kind guides, don't restrain you, don't forbid you these innocent consolations: you are permitted to visit one another, to go for walks together in your free time, and when you gather for common monastery obediences, you may converse with one another unhindered. But you abuse this liberty, you derive from it not profit and true spiritual consolation, but the opposite: harm, quarrels, gossip, and discord, which like a spark kindles a great fire, which burns away all your monastic labors and struggles. In such a manner you lose your salvation. Or do you not know the apostolic saying: Every one of us shall give account of himself to God (Rom. 14:12) Who is ready to judge (I Peter 4:5)? Oh, if only you would gather together, like the ancient nuns, for spiritual edification and mutual instruction, you would not converse about irrelevant things and affairs which don't concern you, but only about this, how each of you will work out your own salvation (Philip. 2:12): what sort of cell rule to have and how to perform it, what struggles to undertake. Thus you would edify and support one another on your slippery path, stretching out a helping hand to each other, and the words of the all-wise Solomon would be realized in you: A brother helped by a brother is as a strong city (Prov. 18:19). And your assembly would be like the assembly of the angels, who in spite of their great multitude have one common holy will, one striving—how to fulfill the will of the Creator.

O Sister, not for nothing is our monastic order called the angelic order!... Surely each of us who has gathered in the holy monastery in the name of the Lord has one and the same will, one striving common to us all: how he may please the Lord (I Cor. 7:32). We have no earthly fetters binding us to the world, there are no anxieties and worldly cares to entangle our wings and hinder our flight to our Heavenly Bridegroom! We are free, like the birds of the air, which sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; but our heavenly Father feedeth us (cf. Matt. 6:26). Let us then remember our angelic calling, and walk worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:1-3), as the holy Apostle teaches.

From Letters to a Beginner: On Giving One's Life to God (Platina, CA: St. Xenia Skete Press, 1993), pp. 70-75.