"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." These past few days, I have thought a lot about those words, remembering the times that I or one of my friends hurled them at a bully who had said something terribly mean and hurtful. As a child, I spoke those words as a kind of magical defense against those who sought to make me feel "less than" by their words. I wanted to believe that my comeback was true, that words could not hurt me. But, I knew too well that certain words often leave bruises and scars that take a long time to heal.
When San Francisco 49er, Chris Culliver, in speaking to a reporter last Tuesday, said that he would not be comfortable with a gay football player in the locker room, he most likley gave little thought to the impact his words might have on the many gay men living in San Francisco or across America. I am sure he did not think about the many young boys who might be watching and who are struggling with their own sexual identity and what it might mean for them to hear a pro athlete preparing for the Super Bowl say, " I don't do the gay guys, man... We don't got no gay people on the team... They gotta get up outta here if they do...Can't be with that sweet stuff...can't be in the locker room, man."While many have rightfully called for the NFL to suspend Culliver and others have insisted the cornerback be sent to sensitivity training, I find myself moving past my own anger over what Mr. Culliver said and musing over the power of words.
Words are one of the very cornerstones of most spiritual traditions. The Christian Gospel of John begins, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (NAB, John 1:1). Buddhists chant mantras believing that meditating on certain words will bring about transformation. Om Mani Padme Hum, the mantra of compassion is believed to invoke blessings and favor from the Goddess of Compassion, Kwan Yin or Chenrezig. The word namaste (I honor that place where you and I are one) is spoken at the end of yoga practice and has great significance in Indian culture and religious practice. Wiccans perform ritual and cast spells by speaking words with powerful intention. Naming rituals are of great importance in Native American traditions. Certainly all of us hold our own name as a sacred word. And of course, spiritual traditions the world over share the commona practice of prayer, speaking to God/Universe/Source with great reverence, overflowing gratitude, and the utmost of respect, ending each prayer with the word Amen, so be it. The word may predate the Hebrew Bible.
As we traverse along a spiritual path and grow in understanding of what is sacred, what is divine, we come to recognize that each of us is indeed a child of God/Universe/Source. We are created in the "image and likeness of God." Our own breath, which is the source of life (and without which speech would not be possible) is the very breath of the Holy Spirit/Source Energy/All That Is. As the reality of our sacredness takes root in our hearts, so too does an understanding of our power as co-creators with the Universe, as a part and parcel of the Divine Energy that spoke the words, "Let there be light." And so, our own words are immensely powerful.
In her diaries published as Divine Mercy In My Soul, St. Faustina writes, "The tongue is a small member, but it does big things." She goes on to admonish those who would seek holiness to avoid gossip. She suggests that silence is important to achieving holiness, "A religious who does not keep silence will never attain holiness." Perhaps we can all take a lesson from St. Faustina and choose to be silent at those moments when we feel compelled to speak stinging words with razor sharp precision. Perhaps we can remember what we were all most certainly taught as children, "If you can't say something nice, say nothing at all." Our human history has been tarnished again and again by the ugliness of humankinds' inhumanity to humankind. This inhumanity does not begin with sticks or stones; it begins with words, with name-calling. My prayer for our world is that someday soon we will learn to see that we are all the same. Knowing this, we speak of one another as Universe/Source Energy/God calls us to... "He is my brother. She is my sister."