by St. Ambrose of Milan
Manifold dangers are incurred by speaking; the remedy for which Scripture shows to consist in silence.
Book 1: Chapter II
5. Now what ought we to learn before everything else, but to be silent that we may be able to speak? lest my voice should condemn me, befor that of another acquit me; for it is written:
“By thy words thou shall be condemned.” (Matt. 12:37)
What need is there, then, that thou should hasten to undergo the danger of condemnation by speaking, when tho canst be more safe by keeping silent? How many have I seen to fall into sin by speaking, but scarcely one by keeping silent; and so it is more difficult to know how to keep silent than how to speak. I know that most persons speak because they do not know how to keep silent. It i seldom that any one is silent even when speaking profits him nothing He is wise, then, who knows how to keep silent. Lastly, the Wisdom o God said:
“The Lord hath given to me the tongue of learning, that should know when it is good to speak.” (Isaiah 1:4)
Justly, then, is he wise who has received of the Lord to know when he ought to speak. Wherefore the Scripture says well:
“A wise man will keep silence until there is opportunity.” (Ecclus. 20:7)
6. Therefore the saints of the Lord loved to keep silence, because the knew that a man’s voice is often the utterance of sin, and a man’ speech is the beginning of human error. Lastly, the Saint of the Lord said:
“I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I offend not in my tongue.” (Psalm 39:1)
For he knew and had read that it was a mark of the divine protection for a man to be hid from the scourge of his own tongue, (Job v. 21) and the witness of his own conscience. We are chastised by the silent reproaches of our thoughts, and by the judgment of conscience. We are chastised also by the lash of our own voice, when we say things whereby our soul is mortally injured, and our mind is sorely wounded. But who is there that has his heart clean from the impurities of sin, and does not offend in his tongue? And so, as he saw there was no one who could keep his mouth free from evil speaking, he laid upon himself the law of innocence by a rule of silence, with a view to avoiding by silence that fault which he could with difficulty escape in speaking.
7. Let us hearken, then, to the master of precaution:
“I said, I will take heed to my ways;”
“I said to myself: in the silent biddings of my thoughts, I have enjoined upon myself, that I should take heed to my ways.”
Some ways there are which we ought to follow; others as to which we ought to take heed. We must follow the ways of the Lord, and take heed to our own ways, lest they lead us into sin. One can take heed if one is not hasty in speaking. The law says:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God.” (Deut. 6:4)
It said not: “Speak,” but “Hear.” Eve fell because she said to the man what she had not heard from the Lord her God. The first word from God says to thee: Hear! If thou hearest, take heed to thy ways; and if thou hast fallen, quickly amend thy way. For:
“Wherein does a young man amend his way; except in taking heed to the word of the Lord?” (Psalm 119:9)
Be silent therefore first of all, and hearken, that thou fail not in thy tongue.
8. It is a great evil that a man should be condemned by his own mouth. Truly, if each one shall give account for an idle word, (Matt. 12:36) how much more for words of impurity and shame? For words uttered hastily are far worse than idle words. If, therefore, an account is demanded for an idle word, how much more will punishment be exacted for impious language?