St. Francis De Sales on How Words Matter

This is the seventh article in my series based on my reading of the Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis De Sales. Written 400 years ago, it is available in various translations. I am reading the 2015 version published by Ignatius Press (San Francisco) and the Augustine Institute (Greenwood Village, CO) The first article was “What Does It Mean to be Devout?” followed by “Purification in the Devout Life.” The third article was “The Devout Life – Prayer.”. The fourth article was “St. Francis De Sales on Virtues.” The fifth article was “More on the Virtues From St. Francis De Sales.” The sixth article was “St. Francis De Sales on Friendship, Fasting, and Modesty.

How much do you think about what you say? Sometimes we get involved in a conversation and keep talking without sufficient thinking about what we are actually saying. St. Francis De Sales writes, “Physicians judge to a great extent as the health or disease of a man by the state of his tongue, and our words are a true test of the state of our soul. “For by our words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37)” (125). Our words do matter. Our words say something about we are thinking. While we might like to say, “I didn’t mean that”, the fact is we said it and that must be some reason we did.

We need to speak from both the heart and the mind. In speaking of how we talk about God, St. Francis De Sales writes, “Take care, then, never to speak of God, or those things that concern him, in a merely formal, conventional manner; but with earnestness and devotion” (126). I will express it this way. We should not talk about God in merely academic terms. Yes, we need to teach others about God but we must do it in a way that speaks from our heart and soul. We can memorize prayers without meaning but if we say them without reflecting on the words, is it really prayer?

Again reflecting on how our words matter, St. Francis De Sales writes, “The body is poisoned through the mouth, even so is the heart through the ear; and the tongue that does the deed is a murderer, even when the venom it has infused is counteracted by some antidote preoccupying the listener’s heart” (126). We should remember what Jesus says in Matthew 15:11, “It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.” The words we speak say something about what we are thinking.

We might say I was just picking on them. Maybe that really is all we intended but does the person know that? Do others who hear our words know that? Do we know that? How could we not know that? If we say words often enough, even without meaning them, we might come to believe them ourselves. St. Francis De Sales writes, “but we are sure to despair those whom we ridicule” (127).

Sometimes our words are based on hasty judgments (St. Francis De Sales, 128). We must remember we are not to judge others (cf. Matthew 7:1, Luke 6:37), let alone hasty judgments that are made without adequate knowledge or reflection.

When it comes to gossip, we might try to deflect our guilt by saying “others are guilty of the same fault” (St. Francis De Sales, 129). So what if they are? A sin is not determined by how many people do it. Sin is determined by its offense to God. God calls us to love. Speaking about others in gossip goes against love. When we gossip, we do well to ask ourselves why we are saying such words. It might start with concern for the poor performance of a co-worker or the sin of a neighbor but do our words do anything to help them? Or our words words of judgment and slander?

Here St. Francis De Sales writes, “It is not wrong to have doubts concerning a neighbor, but we ought to be very watchful lest even our doubts or suspicions be rash and hasty” (130-131). Why are we even talking about the person? “No surer sign of an unprofitable life than when people give way to censoriousness and inquisitiveness into the lives of other men” (St. Francis De Sales, 130). Are we failing to mind our own business? Or perhaps we are trying to deflect a conversation about our own behavior by pointing out another’s sins? In Matthew 7:3, Jesus says, “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” Maybe we already notice the splinter in our own eye and we deflect the conversation so no one else does?

St. Francis De Sales writes, “He who unjustly takes away his neighbor’s good name is guilty of sin” (132). He refers to it as stealing, a violation of the Seventh Commandment, their good reputation. He continues, “Slander is a kind of murder” (132). St. Francis De Sales tells us that in slander “the devil has possession both of the slanderer and of those who listen to him, of the tongue of one, the ear of the other” (132).

One might want to point out that St. Francis wrote, “He who unjustly….” to mean that if it is true, it isn’t sin. I will respond by saying, does it need to be said? “Do not pronounce a man to be a drunkard although you may have seen him drunk, or an adulterer, because you know he has sinner; a single act does not stamp him forever” (133). People changed. For example, St. Francis De Sales reminds us that St. Paul persecuted Christians before becoming Christian himself (133).

If the person has done wrong, are we “the most proper person among those present to express your opinion” or would our silence “seem in any way to condone the sin”? Before speaking we might also ask ourselves if the person’s sin is already known publicly (St. Francis De Sales, 135). or would we be sharing private information that need not be public?

Regarding whether it needs to be publicly known or not, St. Francis De Sales writes, “it is not always well to publish abroad everything that may be true, yet it is never allowable to oppose the truth” (135). He continues, “It may be lawful occasionally to conceal or disguise the truth, but this should never be done save in such special cases as make this reserve obviously a necessity for the service and glory of God” (136). Paragraph 2489 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not the right to know it.” You don’t tell everyone everything you have done (unless it affects them, giving them a right to know it). We can ask ourselves does the truth need to be known? Am I hiding the truth to protect myself or others? You don’t have to tell others everything another person has done.

St. Francis points us to Psalm 39, reminding us to guard our ways so that we do not sin with our tongue. Perhaps the place to start is to ask ourselves do we need to say anything or are we expressing “useless words” (St. Francis De Sales, 136). We need to pray that the Lord guide our words in all conversations.

I will close here for today. I hope these articles based on my reading of St. Francis De Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life are helping you become more devout. It is the probably the most number of articles (with more to come) I have written from a single book. I think perhaps this is because the book has made me think about my own need to better live the devout life.


Fr. Jeff

Leave a Comment