Pray for an Ember! Holding Our Tongues through Lent and Beyond

Then I said, ‘Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips’…Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. ‘See,’ he said, ‘now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.’” (Isaiah 6:5 – 7)

Every year, the season of Lent offers an opportunity to engage in battle those nemeses that clutch us in their grasp. Seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Isaiah recorded his struggle with “unclean lips”. Two-plus millennia later, this same struggle continues, with no end in sight. Perhaps this is the year to replace giving up sweets with a sacrifice of less toothsome pleasures; in fact, habits which hearken back to Isaiah’s despairing groan. Perhaps this year we will utter a different kind of Lenten prayer – a plea for an ember like the one the angel brought to the prophet’s lips, to sear away one or another unsavory habit of the tongue through Lent and beyond.

Habit: Gossiping. At times the urge to talk about others behind their backs is practically irresistible. This would not be a bad thing if we’re discussing what a generous guy Sam is, or how proficient Tracy is at homeschooling her kids. It’s an unfortunate fact – talk is far more likely to become character assassination than praising virtues. Too often it crosses the fine line separating chitchat from detraction and calumny, which, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor” (2479). How do we combat the menace of gossip taken too far? We pray for an ember.

Ember: Respect for others’ reputations.  Lord, when I’m tempted to gossip, help me to voice only the good I see in others. Give me the courage to stand up for victims of maligning tongues, even if it means subjecting myself to ridicule.

Habit: Complaining “…The people complained against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!’” (Num 21:5). Like the ancient Israelites grumbling over manna, for many of us, nothing is ever good enough. Too often we give in to disgruntled moaning about everything from the weather (albeit comfortably clothed for any eventuality) to the traffic (from our fully equipped vehicles). How do we quit complaining? We pray for an ember.

Ember: Gratitude. Lord, help me to resist giving in to trivial complaints. Give me a true spirit of gratitude for your countless gifts to me, unworthy and thoughtless as I am. Let this attitude of thankfulness spill over into every conversation and all my dealings with others.

Habit: Swearing. “Respect for His name is an expression of the respect owed to the mystery of God himself and to the whole sacred reality it evokes” (CCC, 2143). This lofty exhortation is not likely to spring to mind when a situation prompts misuse of the name of God or Jesus to vent our anger or frustration. How do we break the habit of taking God’s name in vain? We pray for an ember.

Ember: Reverence for God’s name. Lord, help me to remember that your name is holy above all names, and that I must use it only in ways that reflect an attitude of prayerfulness, respect, and love.

Habit: Criticizing. Some of us manage to find fault with just about anyone who isn’t – well, us – and who doesn’t do things – you guessed it, as we would do them. With an appalling sharpness of tongue, we can rip others to shreds as soon as look at them. Too often the unfortunate victim is one of our children; great damage can be done to the self-esteem of a young person living in an atmosphere of constant criticism. How do we resist the temptation to criticize? We pray for an ember.

Ember: Forbearance. Lord, help me to develop a more tolerant approach toward others and their way of doing things. Give me humility and true awareness that I don’t always know what’s best. Especially in my dealings with my children, grant me the ability to instruct and guide them lovingly.

All of us struggle with “unclean lips” in one way or another; probably you can think of many more examples besides those mentioned here. Customizing our Lenten prayers to address such habits can generate self-control and a greater consciousness of the power of our words for good or ill. Like the prophet Isaiah, we can experience the healing, purging effects of those embers which have been the focus of our prayers – through Lent and beyond.

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