About 15 years ago, I learned that the secular Oblates -- a group of consecrated women living in the world -- viewed the absence of criticizing and complaining as two of the five spiritual attitudes by which they attempt to live their lives.
At first, I thought this was one of the most bizarre things I'd ever heard. "Why should anyone stop criticizing and complaining? How will the world ever get to be a better place if people don't criticize and complain about the way things are? Isn't an important part of my job as a journalist to criticize and complain?"
Since then, I've learned three things. First, there is enormous spiritual wisdom in living a life without criticism or complaint. Second, it is incredibly difficult to live that discipline. Third, so far as I can tell, the secular Oblates are the only people who have made this discipline central to their way of life.
Trying to stop whining is one of the biggest steps toward holiness one can take. It involves a discipline of not judging people, of not being so arrogant to think that you know more about everything than anyone else.
Criticizing and complaining are a way of life. They weigh down the soul with negativity. Once you start viewing the world through negative eyes, you can blind yourself to the beauty that does exist, the good that so many people are doing.
As one sinks further into the pit of negativity and despair, one becomes incapable of making any positive contribution to society. All one can do is bring others down with one's whining, mistakenly believing that if people would only listen to you, the world would be a better place. In fact, it's a better place when people ignore the whining.
But by deciding not to criticize and complain, one gradually begins to live in a different way. One can still see the wrongs in the world, but one is not owned by them. One becomes the master of one's own soul and is freed to choose which good things in the world one will work to strengthen or build up. One begins to walk in the Holy Spirit.
Now, all of this has nothing directly to do with the second commandment, the injunction not to take the Lord's name in vain. But this commandment is about how we talk, the commitments we make with our words and how we reveal ourselves though our speech.
And we do reveal ourselves. When I learned about this commandment in elementary school, we talked about not using foul language. Then many years later when I became a parent myself, this became an urgent imperative. I did not want my children's first words to be four-letter expletives.
But having eliminated most of my own profane language in fairly short order, I began to wonder why anyone would want to use such language. The only answer I can come up with is that people think using profanity helps to make them one of the gang. It shows I can sink to the level of profanity and that others need not see me as a threat to their own unholiness.
How sad that I am willing to compromise who I am so that I can be accepted by an unholy crowd! How much better it would be if I could, by the force of example and not by lecturing, help to show others that it is possible to use pure, non-offensive speech.
What we talk about is also important. "If you are truly in love with God, you will often speak of God in familiar conversation," wrote St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists. "Never speak of God or devotion in a routine or thoughtless manner, but always with attention and reverence" (Introduction to the Devout Life, n. 26).
Our speech about other people and about God says so much about who we are. But it also does a lot to make us who we are. By exerting some self-discipline in how one speaks, one not only presents a different image to the world, one can change the state of his soul. One sees things differently and one slowly becomes different.
By talking about God in a holy and reverential way, one becomes more reverential. By refraining from criticizing other people, one starts to see the good in them and becomes more free to serve others. By deciding not to complain about one's fate in life, one becomes more able to accept it as a gift from God, full of positive potential.
What you say determines who you are. So watch what you say!
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