This past Sunday, two-year-old Jamie seemed especially calm during Mass. I don’t know if it was the Superman fruit snacks I brought along or her newfound ability to draw circles, but I found myself able to attend to the liturgy in a way I haven’t in awhile. And, very oddly for me, what jumped out was the Psalm response.
I know I’m not supposed to play favorites with parts of the Mass, but I do. I most look forward to the homily and a good one will stick with me for a week or more. My husband and I still talk about several excellent homilies that are now years in the past. Besides the homily, the Eucharist, the Gospel, the Sign of Peace, the second reading and songs — probably in that order—tend to speak to me the most at Mass. Too often, I regard the first reading, Psalm response, and various other beautiful prayers as transitional parts of the Mass that propel me toward my more favorite parts. Most Sundays, if you would ask me what the Psalm was, I’d probably stare at you blankly. But this past Sunday, Psalm 137 leapt out at me. “Let my tongue be silent, O Lord my God, if I should ever forget about you.”
To me, that Psalm is laden with meaning, on so many levels. The first thing that came to mind as I sang the words was the difference between my husband and me. Bill is a quiet person. While not shy, he will never be the one to dominate a conversation or a meeting. I’ve never heard him interrupt someone he was speaking to. He is careful about what he says and what he doesn’t say. “You rarely get in trouble for what you don’t say,” he observed once. “The more you talk, the more likely you’re going to say something you regret.”
I, on the other hand, am a talker. I will talk anywhere, and with anyone. I hope I am a good listener, too, but I know no one would describe me as quiet. I love the spoken word just as I love the written word. I have yet to meet a form of communication I don’t like. E-mail, phone calls, letters, cards, talking while doing sports or doing dishes, chatting at a bar or at a church potluck. I love it all. And perhaps that is why this Psalm struck me so. “Let my tongue be silent O Lord, my God, if I should ever forget about you.” In those words is an admonition for those of us who have the gift of the gab: be careful what you talk about.
I once read that there are three levels of conversation — the lowest level is having a conversation about things, the middle level is having a conversation about people and the highest form of communication is talking about ideas. The Psalm reminds us that if a spirit of the holy doesn’t underline that which we talk about, we have no business chatting at all. This doesn’t mean that we must always speak of lofty ideas— much of life involves talking about when the brake pads should be changed—but our conversation should not lead us away from what is good.
The other reason the Psalm struck me was because of something I’ve been saying to my boys lately. I have little patience for them being critical of each other, tattling on each other or complaining about what I made for dinner. My catch phrase as of late has been, “If it’s not positive or neutral, don’t say it at all.” After explaining what neutral meant to Liam, I’ve had a lot of success with this phrase. I use it to cut off conversations before they even begin. A boy glances at his broccoli with a look of horror. “If it’s not positive or neutral, don’t say it,” I will tell him, taking a bite of my own broccoli. When one of them comes in from outside with a look of rage because of a foul on the basketball court or a bad pass in football, I use the phrase before he can say anything. “If it’s not positive or neutral….”
The phrase doesn’t always work , but I have found it cuts down on negative comments. Hearing the Psalmist say the same thing to ancient Israel that I say in my 2006 kitchen is reassuring to me as a parent. My advice for my boys is thousands of years old. It is so sage that it is in the Bible. Maybe not the exact words, but the idea.
Finally, the Psalm strikes me as a perfect beginning to any meeting. Most meetings I go to (other than those at work) begin with prayer. To say, “Let my tongue be silent O Lord my God, if I should ever forget about you,” is the most powerful way to begin a meeting that I can think of. It is a prayer that invites God to help us speak, and it is a prayer for the courage to be silent.
As a talker, married to a quiet guy, with two talkers and one quiet guy as children, I’m holding onto this phrase. I think it speaks to all of five of us. The quiet among us understand its wisdom intuitively. We chatters need more reminders. “Let my tongue be silent O Lord, my God, if I should ever forget about you.”
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