My Dear Graduates of Chaminade, Kellenberg, and St. Martin de Porres Marianist School,
Do you remember when we were not all wearing masks in public? It wasn’t that long ago, really. Actually, less than half a year.
I remember one “unmasked” day quite vividly. It was the evening of March 4, 2020. I had agreed to pick up my younger sister Michele at JFK’s Terminal 4. She was flying in from Maine on a Delta domestic flight, to visit our mom for the weekend. As I waited for Michele in the arrivals hall, I remember seeing quite a few passengers from overseas flights wearing masks that covered their nose and mouth. “Oh, this is a little premature, a bit paranoid,” I thought to myself. “What are they afraid of?”
Well, we soon found out. Exactly eight days after I dropped my sister off at our mom’s Port Washington apartment, Chaminade, Kellenberg, and St. Martin’s all closed, as did every other school in the New York Metropolitan Area. Ten days later, New York’s statewide stay-at-home order went into effect, and only now, as I sit down to write this reflection, are we entering stage 2 of a phased reopening. (When this article appears on social media, Long Island will be entering stage 4.) We found ourselves in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, as of this writing, has infected 7.9 million people and claimed 435,000 lives worldwide. (Now, 12.1 million cases and 550,000 deaths worldwide.)
As a direct result, we have all learned the importance of wearing a mask in public. Masks block the tiny airborne droplets that we expel as we breathe, speak, sing, cough, and sneeze. Masks help stop the community spread of this highly transmissible disease. Masks are inconvenient, to be sure. But they help stop the spread of a potentially deadly disease. So we wear them; at least most of us do. And that’s a good thing. Wearing a mask takes root in our concern for the common good and in our respect for our neighbor.
All this got me to thinking that maybe we need to start wearing metaphorical masks as well. What do I mean by this? I mean that, as individuals and as a society, we need to start filtering out the divisive, hateful, infectious speech that threatens to poison our country. We hear and see such speech all the time -- in our circle of friends, on the radio and television, and especially on social media. Indeed, the popular phrase “It’s gone viral” demonstrates the speed with which inflammatory tweets, posts, and videos can infect the body politic.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for free speech. Free speech is enshrined in our Constitution and safeguarded by our laws. Generations of brave servicemen have fought and even given their lives to preserve our cherished rights, among them freedom of speech. That includes the right to protest and to speak out against injustice. Jesus Himself did that!
But, in addition to free speech, I’d like to propose filtered speech. No, I’m not advocating government censorship, nor academic “thought police” who impose conformity to a particular ideology.
What I would suggest, however, is that we filter our own speech. That we would think before we speak. That we would have the humility to keep our gut reactions in check. That we would cool down our heated rhetoric, our angry words, and our self-righteous indignation. As St. Paul advises in the Letter to the Ephesians, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). Or, to put it more simply, “Over all these virtues, put on love” (Colossians 4:13).
Maybe then -- just maybe -- we could start listening to one another instead of shouting at one another. We’ve seen too much of the latter -- shouting at one another -- from polarizing opinions about the pandemic to divisive words about race relations to deep divisions regarding controversial issues within the Church. All sides of the ideological divide need to speak less, or at least less angrily, and listen more.
Let me offer you another image. Along the wooded, winding paths at our Meribah Retreat House stands a larger-than-life statue of St. Benedict of Nursia (d. 547 A.D.), the Father of Western Monasticism. The statue depicts Benedict placing his left index finger over his lips and holding a book in his right hand. The book is inscribed with a single word, “Listen.” That’s a reference to the famous (famous, at least, among consecrated religious men and women) first line of the Rule of St. Benedict: “Listen, O son, to the master’s precepts; incline the ear of your heart; accept freely the admonition of a loving father; complete it effectively, that you may return through the labor of obedience to Him from whom you have fallen away through the sloth of disobedience.”
Let’s take a lesson or two from the monks of old. Many took a vow of silence, and while I would certainly not propose that, how about a vow of listening? What if we vowed to listen more and to speak less? What if we all pledged to speak respectfully, even kindly, enabling others to actually hear us rather than triggering them to shout over us? What if we endeavored to understand those who disagree with us, rather than demolish them in a debate? I dare say, the world would be a better place. Then, the kingdom of this world would more accurately reflect the kingdom of heaven. Then, God’s vision for his people might be fulfilled: “And we, though many, throughout the earth, we are one body in this one Lord.” (“One Bread, One Body,” by John Foley, S.J., based on St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians.)
As the Psalmist writes, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” (Psalm 141: 3). Filter your words. Don’t muzzle them, mind you, but do filter them. Speak softly. Listen attentively. Disagree agreeably. Find common ground. Express your beliefs -- absolutely!-- and do so with both clarity and charity.
Wear a mask -- in all the many senses of those words -- for the health of the body politic, for the health of the Body of Christ.
On behalf of all my Marianist Brothers,
Bro. Stephen Balletta, SM.