Mark Twain put it very nicely when he said, "It was so cold that if the thermometer had been an inch longer, we would have frozen to death."  We do freeze to death on words.  It's not the cold outside that matters, but the thermometer.  It's not reality that matters, but what you're saying to yourself about it.  I was told a lovely story about a farmer in Finland.  When they were drawing up the Russian-Finnish border, the farmer had to decide whether he wanted to be in Russia or Finland.  After a long time he said he wanted to be in Finland, but he didn't want to offend the Russian officials..  These came to him and wanted to know why he wanted to be in Finland.  The farmer replied, "It has always been my desire to live in Mother Russia, but at my age I wouldn't be able to survive another Russian winter."

Russia and Finland are only words, concepts, but not for human beings, not for crazy human beings.  We're almost never looking at reality.  A guru was once attempting to explain to a crowd how human beings react to words, feed on words, live on words, rather than on reality.  One of the men stood up and protested; he said, "I don't agree that words have all that much effect on us."  The guru said, "Sit down, you son of a bitch."  The man went livid with rage and said, "You call yourself an enlightened person, a guru, a master, but you ought to be ashamed of yourself."  The guru then said, "Pardon me, sir, I was carried away.  I really beg your pardon; that was a lapse; I'm sorry."  The man finally calmed down.  Then the guru said, "It took just a few words to get a whole tempest going within you; and it took just a few words to calm you down, didn't it?"  Words, words, words, words, how imprisoning they are if they're not used properly.

Anthony de Mello, SJ

The story is often told of the most unusual penance St. Philip Neri assigned to a woman for her sin of spreading gossip. The sixteenth-century saint instructed her to take a feather pillow to the top of the church bell tower, rip it open, and let the wind blow all the feathers away. This probably was not the kind of penance this woman, or any of us, would have been used to!

But the penance didn't end there. Philip Neri gave her a second and more difficult task. He told her to come down from the bell tower and collect all the feathers that had been scattered throughout the town. The poor lady, of course, could not do it-and that was the point Philip Neri was trying to make in order to underscore the destructive nature of gossip.


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