Thinking Anew – Words to live by

Does it ever cross your mind how we take words for granted? Yet, when you stop to think about them, words are fascinating.

My mother was a great talker but in her late 60s she was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx, and had surgery to remove her voice box. It meant there was never again any fluency in her talking. I managed to understand most of what she said but my father had great difficulty, which naturally caused anguish and frustration for my mother for the final 10 years of her life.

I still find slips of paper in books on which she had written notes for my father.

Tomorrow’s Gospel (John 1: 1 -18), which was also the Gospel of Christmas Day, is considered one of the great pieces of literature.


St John begins with powerful words: “In the beginning was the Word: the word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.”

Those words describe the creative power of God. But they also give us an insight into the power of words.

Are you, am I, conscious of the power and the effect of our words? Maybe we grow wiser with age, perhaps our work and life experiences give us an understanding and insight into the world about us, but since taking up a job as a hospital chaplain over three years ago, I have become ever more conscious of the importance of the words we use.

Here I have to be honest and come out with my hands up. At my funeral Mass it would be terrible humbug and indeed crass dishonesty for a presiding priest to say I never said a bad word about anyone. Because I know I’m far too quick to criticise the failings of others. I have a penchant for being extra-critical of the layers of bureaucracy which afflict the temporal world and that of the Catholic Church.

Through working as a hospital chaplain I have seen first-hand how important our words and gestures are. No, it’s not a PR tactic, it’s not some sort of sales technique, nor is it in the slightest way superficial or supercilious to take care in the choice of words to support and offer hope and guidance to people.

Using supportive and positive words to build people up is part of the mission statement of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel at the Christmas midnight Mass we read how the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds and assured them of the great joy they were to experience, a joy that would be shared by all the people. The birth of Christ brings joy to the world.

It’s our task, our great privilege, to speak and spread the Good News. And that’s not restricted in any way to religious or holy talk. All our words, whatever the subject matter, should be words of kindness and goodness. They should be about building people up, giving people confidence, supporting people to do the best, to get on with their lives using all their God-given talents. And kind words to the sick and fragile bring a comfort and ease that we might never fully appreciate, until we are the recipients.

People often talk about the “good old days”. I’m not too sure how good they were when people were constantly criticised or made little of. Certainly, we have made extraordinary advances right across our education system. Young people have no idea how brutal it could be. Some of us went to school in fear and trembling, knowing that we might well be insulted and humiliated, even beaten, in the classroom. And those days must never return.

Sadly, the cruel words, the insults, the vulgarity has not gone away. They have moved on to the the world of social media. Many politicians and world leaders have succumbed to hurling verbal insults at people. Donald Trump has made insulting people into part of his political bag of tricks. At a rally in Pennsylvania late last year he referred to one of his political opponents as “scum”.

That language must never be tolerated.

Six hundred years before Christ came among us with gentle words, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu put it nicely when he said: “Kindness in words creates confidence.”