Gossip? Not me, surely! Yet it seems an inevitable consequence of life in community and an endemic part of most, if not all church communities. Of course, talking about others isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing. The “grapevine” that weaves its way through community life has a way of binding the group, making us feel that we belong and, ideally, loved. It’s important to stay aware in our talking: ensuring that what we say and how we say it is coming from a place of genuine heartfelt love, and not, God forbid, our own negative projections onto the “other”. If we can keep mindful of the genuine care and love we hold for others in our community, it can’t help but shape the tone and content of our conversations.

My own experience diverges somewhat from this ideal. What I hear coming from my own and others’ lips does not always seem to be tempered by a recognition of my/our love and respect for others. Rather, and somewhat ashamedly, my compulsion to talk about others can often erupt from a hidden place in myself that has its roots in my own feelings of inadequacy and self-hatred. Highlighting these characteristics in the “other” can have the rather perverse effect of making me feel better about myself. It’s at these times that I need to keep in mind the wise counsel that we as a church aim to be “one body”, encircled by a sheath of love and care and forgiveness. As is often pointed out in our many spiritual guidebooks, when I can forgive myself my shortcomings, it isn’t difficult to forgive others; when I find a genuine love and care for myself, this is impulsively and generously shared with others.

The word “gossip” has negative connotations in our society. No one, not even the most seasoned of gossipers, wants to be associated with the word, it seems! Yet if none of us is willing to own it, if we banish the “Gossip” to the shadowlands, we become dangerously prone to perpetuating the very thing we think we’ve overcome, or never had a share in. Better to look the Gossip in the face, own up to our compunctions to participate in her wiles and ways and learn how to practice mindfulness as an antedote. Awareness of our faults and frailities as human beings may prove a more wholesome and successful way of dealing with these aspects of our common humanity than denial or harsh criticism.

St Benedict has another word for “gossip”, one that we might use to refresh our thinking on its prevalence in our community. He calls it “murmurator”, a Latin word which roughly translates as “grumbling”, but defines any conversation that includes complaining, negativity, harsh criticism and yes, idle talk and groundless rumours. It is a serious “disease”, he warns, that threatens the stability of a community and is the one thing that ultimately destroys community. He regards it as a serious “sin” (i.e. that which “obscures vision”) and counsels constant vigilance – of the self-reflecting kind, not the finger pointing which often happens when we’re trying to disown a Shadow.

On a recent visit to the monastery at New Norcia I read a book which I found in the Guest House Reading Room. It was a series of discourses in which Buddhist practitioners reflected on the Rule of St Benedict and the Christian form of monasticism. I was struck by a reflection offered by Norman Fischer, a Zen priest from a Buddhist monastery in San Francisco. He was musing about the similar views on “talking” held by the two systems, both of which counsel reserve and reticence in matters of speech. Zen even goes so far as to dissuade practioners from philosophical discourses on the meaning of life! In the early years of his practice, Norman decided to give himself a challenge: for one month he wouldn’t talk about others, not even if it was to say something nice about them, and he wouldn’t engage in rambling conversations of the philosophical sort. What he found was that 90% of his speech dropped away! He discovered two things from this exercise: a greater sense of self-acceptance and a greater acceptance and love of others. I’d imagine he found a great space of calm and peace in himself as well.

I imagine the monks of New Norcia struggle with these same issues as much as we do. Living in community is hard work. But there is a quietness among these monastic men that is hard to find in this noisy, frantic, fast-paced world of ours. It is a tangible presence that nearly everyone I spoke to in the Guest House dining room could feel and appreciate about the place. I suspect it’s because the monastics do their best to be mindful of living by the Rule to the best of their ability, even though, like us, at times they slip up too. Their stillness must also come from their practice of sitting in silence and singing their prayers six times a day. St Paul’s is the home of a lively, colourful, and yes, noisy bunch of beautiful people. We do a lot of talking, in our groups and gatherings, at Gino’s, with each other on the phone and in each other’s living rooms, at Morning Coffee and yes, even during church. I wonder if there’s some value in looking at our Shadow, the quiet place in ourselves and in our life as a community that might offer some resolution to the issues we’re currently faced with and the tensions they produce.

St Benedict’s antidote to grumbling is this: cheerfulness. In this deceptively simplistic word he includes: dignified good humour, wise listening (“listening with the ear of the heart”), consultation (a receptive form of conversation) and encouragement. Practiced willingly and with gratitude, these become the building blocks of a healthy and durable community life. I suspect that the more of us who chose to take this into our daily practice, the more it will spread like a “pro-ease” (or whatever the opposite of “dis-ease” is!) throughout our own community.

Page Updated October 25, 2020