When it comes to the four corrosive spirits identified in St Ephraim’s prayer, surely the fourth – idle talk – is the one that resonates most in our context. If you read the texts of the desert monastics – remember that this prayer comes from that tradition – you will be struck by the number of times the elders have nothing to say when approached for a word by their disciples. This comes from a place of humility: who is to say that the words we are formulating here and now are the right ones for this moment? Should we open our mouths if we are uncertain about what we are about to say? Indeed, there is much to be said for a little more uncertainty in our public utterances. And, although some of the few words they did use found their way into the collections we now treasure, they were not intended for broadcast, but were spoken into a very specific situation that was discerned for the edification of the disciple. You could say that the ‘word’ spoken by the spiritual mother or father was the polar opposite of a social media post, which is more likely to be designed to say something about the author than to edify the seeker.
The warning to pay heed to our speech comes, of course, from the conviction that it is a powerful medium. It has the capacity to heal and encourage as well as to wound or belittle. In the context of spiritual discernment, a well-placed word can open our eyes to the divine or reveal us to ourselves. So the concern about idle talk is partly the need to avoid a careless word that may inadvertently cause harm but it may also be expressing a more general sense that speech per se may be devalued by trivialising it. This is most notably the case when it comes to a disregard for truthfulness in our speech but we might also ask if the sheer volume of unimportant chatter might have a devaluing effect on this precious gift of speech.
More positively, truthful, moderate and edifying speech might be nurtured within us by a more careful attention to silence and to a certain relishing of the life-giving words of scripture that form the basis of our meditations.