A woman went to confession to St. Philip Neri and said that she had been gossiping about others. For her penance he told her to go out and buy an unplucked fowl in the market.
On her way back she was to pull out the feathers one by one and scatter them along the way. She should then return to him and he would tell her what to do next. Feeling not a little foolish, she did as he asked and came back to him with the plucked bird.
St. Philip praised her for her obedience but before she could bow out, happy that she had completed her strange penance, he said, “Now you must go back and pick up all the feathers.”
“But Father,” the woman exclaimed, “You know that is impossible. The wind has blown them all away and I could never hope to capture them now.” “You are right,” the saint replied. “Neither can you recall the damaging words about your neighbors which by now have passed from mouth to mouth far beyond your reach. Be careful in future, and gossip no more.”
How easy it is for any one of us to fall into the way of gossip! Over a cup of coffee or a beer in the pub we hint at the failings of a neighbor or pass on the unsavory story we heard about the new teacher or the curate or the wife of the chemist. In no time a fire is started, a reputation ruined, a life wrecked. And, careless, even oblivious, of the pain we cause, we lap up yet another tidbit to pass on.
Society itself encourages us to indulge in this kind of destruction. A whole industry is built around lewd gossip; magazines specialize in broadcasting the sins not just of celebrities but of ordinary people, authors rush to publish books full of scandals, television programs and films keep our appetites whetted with ever more lurid accounts of the misdemeanors of others.
With the arrival of Facebook and Twitter the cruelty reaches new heights. “I spend hours on Facebook,” one teenage girl confessed, “looking to see if negative comments are made about me.” Some of her age group, boys and girls, feel suicidal and sadly, we know of people so distraught by the malicious gossip about them they have taken their lives.
“Consider how a small fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire” (Jas 3:6). All too often the tiny spark that we drop into conversation blazes out of control and we are powerless to stop it. Our words, as St. Paul tells us, should be for the encouragement, the building up of others, not their destruction (see 1 Thess 5:11).
What a difference it would make if we were more careful of our words, if we used them to speak well of others and steadfastly refused to join in the current gossip, or to spread the latest scandals.
Not only will the other be unharmed but we will find our own hearts made strong as we, with courage and discipline, try always to speak good and not evil. Better than chasing after feathers, is it not?
“O Lord, set a watch before my mouth, a guard at the door of my lips”