St. Rita of Cascia’s wound in her forehead appeared while meditating in front of the crucifix. While it caused pain, she bore it as a mark of her communion with Christ. Photo from Wikipedia

Mary Marrocco: Learning to speak the words within us

  • May 4, 2019

A friend was reflecting on a remark she’d made that morning to someone, which she didn’t feel good about. “Sometimes I think about things after I say them,” she mused, “and wonder why I did.”

I had to laugh, enjoying her honesty and direct contravention of the old “think before you speak” maxim. We agreed my self-reflections would more likely be: “Why didn’t I say that when I had the chance?”

We’ve both been in situations where nobody had the courage to speak up and say what had to be said. I have to wrestle the temptation to stay silent when I need to speak, whereas she wrestles the temptation to speak when she might better remain silent.

Which is more difficult to mend — the word spoken out of season or the unspoken needed word?

For Christians, we have extra impetus to consider the significance of speech and silence. An early image for Christ is “Word” (Logos), following John’s Gospel which announces the Incarnation by saying, “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (1:14).

A Johannine professor of mine observed: “Some of us use many words and say nothing; God speaks one Word and says everything.”

It’s not a matter of incessant chatter, like the red squirrel, but of speaking what needs to be spoken — and leaving aside what doesn’t. It’s not easy even to judge which is which, let alone to act accordingly.

As every two-year-old knows, words are powerful. When have you regretted a word you can’t get back? A woman recounted harsh words her long-dead father spoke to her, which she still carries though she tries to forgive and let them go. The sting can be healed, as can an insect’s or viper’s sting, but like them too, it takes time, skill and patient care.

When have you felt the pain of keeping inside what should have been said? Jeremiah the prophet felt it. He stopped speaking because it got him in trouble, but “then a fire burns in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding back, I cannot!” (20:9) Had he cared less for God, perhaps he would not have felt the fire so keenly.

The fire of God’s word was felt, too, on the very evening of the Resurrection, Luke tells us (24:32). Two of Jesus’ disciples walked with Him; their eyes and minds didn’t recognize Him — they were focused on His death — but their hearts did, “burning within them” as they received and held the risen Word of God. Have we felt the fire of the Resurrection within our hearts these Easter days? Has it reached our lips?

It can be scary to speak, not only because of consequences, but also because of our inadequacy at putting into words what burns within. Yet if we don’t speak, imperfect though our words must be, how will our hearts bear it? How will the Good News be told?

The spoken word is needed. Rita of Cascia, a 14th-century saint, is remembered for speaking up to her violent husband, who was mired in a dangerous feud with another family. She also had the prudence to refrain from speaking when words would have been dangerous or harmful. She couldn’t prevent his death by violence, but her silence and words helped him change for the better during his life.

The action word is needed, too. After her husband’s death, Rita wanted to enter a local monastery, but the Sisters feared that violence from the still-hot family feud would come with her. Her persistence contributed to ending the feud — not without cost, since both her sons perished, but without themselves committing violence.

Rita spoke and refrained from speaking, but always, we’re told, rooted in prayer, in the silence that’s found only in communion with God. “The Word of God springs forth from the silence” (Ignatius of Antioch).

The more we live in the silence and the Word, the more we will know when and how to speak the word that is in us. Humans speak because we’re made in the image of the Logos, God’s Word, which means our authority derives from who God is. That is the fullness of communication.

When she entered the monastery, Rita learned to speak the word of suffering-in-love. Later, this word took flesh in the form of a thorn’s wound in her forehead, which gave pain all her life but arose from her closeness to God.

Ultimately, she spoke the word of beauty: she asked a cousin to bring her a rose from her old family garden. The cousin, though sure it couldn’t happen — it was January — went and found a living rose to bring her.

Thankfully, we can learn to speak and learn to speak better. “My words will be heard, for they are sweet” (Psalm 141:6), coming out of the beautiful tension in which we live, between the silence and the Word.

(Marrocco can be reached at

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