The importance of words must not be under-rated. Father Leonard Feeney in his book, The Word Was Made Flesh, stated the following:
“We are told in the beginning of the holy Gospel, according to Saint John that, ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’ That is a wonderful phrase; ‘the Word was made flesh.’ ‘Word’ has a great deal of meaning for us. Our memories are all tucked away in the shape of words. Our utterances to those we love are impossible without words, and even when we are thinking by ourselves and not speaking, we are somehow wording our thoughts for the ear — which is in the bliss of solitude. Of all of man’s achievements, perhaps the most astounding is the wording of a thing. When a little child cannot speak — when he has no words yet — one of the things we do for him is to coax him into word land.”
Not only did Father Feeney, a distinguished theologian, recognize the significance of words, but even secular psychologists emphasize their importance in giving meaning to our lives. For example, Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Therapy, cited the importance of language. Ellis emphasized that words and the meaning that we attach to them have a significant impact on our emotions and behavior. For instance, the person who views a glass as half empty is likely to feel differently than the person who views it as half full. The latter is likely to enjoy what remains (the optimist), whereas the former is more likely to lament what is gone (the pessimist) and become increasingly more distraught with the diminishing of what is left of the liquid. Interestingly, both persons could be viewing the same glass. However, their interpretation of the contents in the glass is quite different, and it is this interpretation that determines how each person feels and reacts to what remains.
Ellis was an atheist. Yet, he believed that man had a fallen human nature. According to Ellis, human beings are biologically predisposed to think irrationally. Moreover, they are born into a society populated with flawed-thinking individuals like themselves. Because they unwittingly reinforce each others’ false beliefs, this only exacerbates this already in-born predisposition. And if this irrationality remains unchecked, it leads to emotional disturbance and bizarre behavior over which non-insightful people would have little or no control.
Ellis, who was a practicing psychologist, believed that this cycle could be broken by re-educating the patient. He taught his patients to change their thinking by replacing irrational thoughts with those that were rational. By altering their thoughts, patients learned to control their emotions, make better choices, and to behave more productively. Ellis’ theory has considerable merit. However, because he was an atheist, he missed the larger picture on the purpose of life and the importance of God and the sacraments for achieving this goal. As a result, many of his notions on what constitutes rational thinking would be contrary to what the Catholic Church teaches. Despite this, however, we can draw what is good from his theory and use this model to our benefit.
Ellis’ emphasis on “self-talk,” the actual English words and sentences that we say to ourselves and how these affect our emotions and behavior, is of much value. The trick, however, is to take this secular oriented approach and “convert” it into Catholic practice. In other words, worldly or secular self-talk needs to be altered according to Catholic principles so that it becomes Catholic self-talk — and it is this Catholic self-talk, which should be put in charge of directing our emotions, choices, and behavior.
What is Catholic Self-Talk?
Catholic self-talk involves the use of language. It consists of those words and sentences that we say to ourselves about our Faith and how it should be practiced. These words and sentences are formed and experienced internally, in our mind, rather than spoken openly. Catholic self-talk can be used to combat worldly thinking, which if left uncorrected, can lead us into sin. In order to understand this more fully, let’s look at an example of the latter.
James behaves rudely by talking back to his parents, teachers, and other adults. John, who observes James, says to himself, “That’s cool,” thinking that defying adults is an admirable quality. He continues with his self-talk stating, “I wish that I could be confident like James. I want to be cool too.” Secretly John admires James, although he never says this openly. In John’s self-talk, he confuses James’ rudeness with confidence and being “cool.” He fails to take into account that James is behaving arrogantly.
Moreover, James is disobedient and is in serious violation of God’s fourth commandment — Thou shall honor thy mother and father. Unless John corrects his worldly thinking, he could eventually start acting like James. Not only would this impair his relationships with his parents and teachers, but he would be violating God’s laws, committing what could be a serious mortal sin. As you can see, John’s faulty worldly thinking can lead to big trouble. This is why Catholic self-talk is so important. It can counter and replace potentially sinful thoughts, which could lead to our moral and spiritual destruction.
Understanding How Catholic Self-Talk Works
In order to understand how Catholic self-talk works, we need to explore how our thinking and emotions are connected. All human beings experience emotions such as anxiety, disappointment, and anger. These reactions commonly occur when we are confronted with challenges. Challenges may come outside of ourselves — for example, a final examination, the outcome of which may determine whether we pass or fail a course. Or a challenge may arise within us—for example, the temptation to eat or not eat a sumptuous dessert when we are trying to stay on a diet and control our weight.
In the first example, the challenge comes from outside of ourselves. We are required to take an examination. This could evoke strong feelings of anxiety within us. The intensity of these feelings would depend on how important we thought that passing the exam might be to our future. Failing could mean having to attend summer school, or even worse, it might mean being dropped from a program of study for which you had planned to pursue a career—a pre-med program preparing you to be a doctor, for instance.
The second example differs from the first. In this situation you would be faced with an internal conflict. You would like to eat the dessert because this would be most pleasurable to the palate right now. However, you know that if you eat the dessert, you will feel guilty for failing to discipline yourself. What a choice! “Should I revel in the satisfaction of my senses now or live up to my commitment of staying on my diet and losing unwanted pounds?” This is the question I would be asking myself.
As you can see, our emotions can have a powerful influence in determining how we might act. Most of us are well aware of the feelings that are aroused within us when angry, happy or sad moments occur in our lives. What we are not often aware of, however, is the thinking, the actual thoughts that we are generating, which causes these feelings to become more or less intense. And it is our ability to regulate and control these thoughts, what we are actually saying to ourselves, that can determine whether we are able to eliminate or intensify those temptations leading to sin. Again, an example would be helpful in understanding how this works.
You and your friend attend the same school. Your friend, who is very intelligent, hardly studies but continually gets excellent grades. You, on the other hand, have to work extra hard in order to do well. An important examination is scheduled at the end of the term. You study every day in preparation for the exam. Your friend, however, does little studying. On the day before the exam, he crams for a few hours and then watches television for the rest of the evening. You study right into the night, foregoing the pleasure of watching your favorite TV shows. The next day you both take the exam. You friend gets a grade of 95. You get an 85. Your friend gloats over his superior performance. He even boasts about how well he did with so little effort.
At first you feel disappointed that you didn’t get an A grade as a reward for your hard work. You really think that you deserved a better score. However, as time passes, you start to feel resentful at this seeming injustice. Also, you become furious with your friend and even jealous because the work comes so easy to him. You keep saying the following to yourself: “These test results are totally unfair. I worked ten times harder than him. It’s not right that he should do better than me. And then he’s got the nerve to brag about how smart he is and how little he studied. What a sap I am! Hard work doesn’t count for anything. What a rip off! I wish he’d fall on his face and get what is coming to him. I hate him and everything that he stands for.”
Notice how this situation began with feelings of disappointment because you were hoping to get an A on the exam. This make sense since you spent a considerable amount of time studying and you wanted to get the best grade possible. However, notice the change that occurred when your thinking became irrational. Your disappointment changed into fury directed toward what you perceived as the total unfairness of the situation. Moreover, you now started to become envious of your friend’s ability. This then accelerated into hate and the desire for revenge (“I wish he’d fall on his face and get what’s coming to him.”) What you wind up saying to yourself is that you are hoping that your friend comes to a bad end. Allowing ourselves to become enraged, vengeful, and envious violates the laws of God, who has commanded us to be charitable to one another. As you can see, unless this dangerous self-talk is modified and stopped, it could lead to serious sin and put the salvation of your soul in jeopardy.
Let’s suppose, however, that you altered your self-talk so that it consisted of the following: “I’m disappointed that I didn’t get an A on the examination. However, I gave it my best effort and I did get a solid B. It’s true that my friend, who studied far less than me, received an A grade. I could say to myself that this is unfair and that I deserve a better grade than him. However, this would cause me to become bitter and envious. Better that I accept my friend’s success as God’s will. Otherwise I will become angry with God for allowing this to occur, and I will be enraged with my friend and jealous because his academic ability is superior to my own. This is a sin of pride, which Adam and Eve fell into when the devil tempted them. In fact, my friend’s boasting occurred because of pride. Rather than be thankful to God for his superior intellect, he takes full credit for his success. He will certainly pay for this at some point in his life. It’s a pity that he does not see this and change what he is doing.”
Imagine how you would feel if you engaged in the previous self-talk. Instead of envy and rage, you would be thankful for what you did achieve. Moreover, you would feel pity and even compassion for your friend, who is drowning in a sea of pride — the most deadly of all the capital sins. Your change in thinking might even motivate you to confront your friend and encourage him to make better use of the talent that God has given him. Wouldn’t this be an act of charity on your part? And isn’t it charity that makes you a good friend? Isn’t this what God would expect; and wouldn’t such an act bring you closer to Him? And how might your friend respond to your act of kindness? Although there is no guarantee, it might increase your respect in his eyes and teach him what true friendship and loyalty mean.
As you can see, the second scenario is an example of Catholic self-talk. It consists of the actual words, sentences, and questions that you might say to yourself when temptations such as envy, vengeance, and pride should arise. It should be kept in mind that many temptations come from the devil. Remember how Satan tempted Eve. Eve did not ask the devil to tempt her. Rather, he slyly planted thoughts of disobedience in her mind. The more that Eve thought about disobeying God, the greater the temptation became. Her thoughts about eating the forbidden fruit and being like God intensified. Eve failed to counter the sinful self-talk that was taking place in her mind. As a result, her pride got the better of her and she did the devil’s bidding.
An important point to keep in mind here is that there are few of us who consciously invite the devil to tempt us. Rather, like a thief in the night, he sneaks up on us, invading our minds with temptations, which appeal to our fallen human nature. These temptations are naturally attractive. Because our human nature is flawed and the temptation to sin is so appealing, we often fail to see its danger. Instead of nipping it in the bud, we, like Eve, can dwell upon and nurture sinful thoughts until we are overcome by them. This is why learning to use Catholic self-talk is so important. Catholic self-talk can alter and stop temptation before it destroys us and impairs our relationship with God.
Unlike temptation, however, learning and applying Catholic self-talk is not easy. Because it requires the use of our higher faculties, the mastery or our intellect and will, it lacks the attraction, which Satan’s temptations offer. Catholic self-talk requires study, hard work, and perseverance. It demands that we examine our conscience, make an honest appraisal of what we are truly thinking, and make a sincere effort to put what we have learned into practice. Above all we must have a burning desire to follow God’s plan.
As you will see Catholic self-talk is a form of prayer that can help us in our attempt to cooperate with the graces that God provides in our times of trial. It can be a valuable weapon that should be part of your arsenal in combating the devil and his minions whose purpose is to capture your soul.
Applying Catholic Self-Talk
In order to demonstrate how Catholic self-talk works, we will apply this to the capital sins, which are as follows: (1) Pride; (2) Greed; (3) Lust; (4) Anger; (5) Gluttony; (6) Envy; and (7) Sloth. First, in the section to follow, each capital sin and the worldly self-talk (WST) accompanying it is presented. Note that worldly self-talk (WST) can entice you to sin. Following each capital sin and its accompanying WST, Catholic self-talk (CST), the actual words that you can use to counter and replace WST, are presented. Notice that CST not only includes the use of Catholic principles, but it includes specific references to Holy Scripture that can be included in forming your thoughts as well.
In putting the preceding into practice, the following steps need to be taken. First, as soon as you experience the temptation to sin, ask yourself this question: “What am I saying to myself right now that is leading me into temptation?” Second, try to write down the actual words that are occurring in your mind at that moment. Recording your thoughts will not only improve your self-insight, but it will help you to check and stop WST thinking before the temptation worsens and you become overwhelmed. Once the WST thoughts have been identified, the next step would be to identify and use CST to combat Satan’s lexicon. Again, the actual writing of CST would be best when you are first learning how to put this into practice. With repeated practice, you will become more skilled and form better thinking habits in combating sin and its false promises.
It should be kept in mind that writing your thoughts can be annoying, particularly when Satan is tempting you. In fact, avoiding the writing of your thoughts will be a temptation. Satan would much prefer that you “chill out” and “go with the flow,” especially when this will help him in leading you astray. He will appeal to the slothful side of your human nature, planting thoughts in your mind such as “Having to go to this extreme (writing your thoughts) is silly and a waste of time and effort.” There will be a number of excuses that he will help you to concoct in order to weaken your resolve.
Writing your thoughts in a journal requires that you train your intellect and control your will. This leads to the acquisition of self-discipline, which is anathema to Satan who wants you to become a prisoner of your senses. Like any difficult task, writing out your thoughts and learning to alter them will become easier with continued practice. Eventually, the writing and extra deliberation will not be necessary. Rather, the habit of engaging in CST will become much easier and you will be able to “automatically” put this into practice as the need arises. However, as noted earlier, this goal can only be achieved by hard work and persistence. And remember, the devil has no intention of helping you to make this easy.
Applying Catholic Self-Talk to the Seven Capital Sins
As indicated previously, the capital sins and the WST accompanying them will be presented in this section. Note that WST, if not checked, not only can result in intensifying our temptations, but also lead to the violation of God’s laws. Following each capital sin and the WST associated with it, the CST that can be used to counter and replace the WST will then be offered. Again, each CST is based on Catholic principles and Holy Scripture.
PRIDE (WST): “I’m better than other people. I’m the greatest. Because I am talented, this makes me superior and deserving of special treatment.”
PRIDE (CST): “We are all equal in the eyes of God. Those who are given special talents will be expected to develop and use them in order to serve Him. They will be held accountable for failing to do so. God will be pleased with us if we use those gifts that He has given us. Remember the Parable of Talents (Matthew, 25, 14-43). God was equally pleased with the servant who was given five talents and doubled these, as the servant who was given two talents and did the same. God is concerned with my spiritual welfare. He will not judge me according to my social status, how much money I have, or how popular I happen to be. God abhors arrogance and prizes humility. Throughout His mortal life, Jesus extolled the virtue of humility. This is the standard upon which He will judge me.”
GREED (WST): “The man who has acquired the most amusements, wealth, and material possessions is the winner in the quest for the good life. More is always better than less. I can never have enough money. Greed is good.”
GREED (CST): “God could care less about how many possessions I own or how much money I make. He has repeatedly warned us that the accumulation of wealth could hinder us in the pursuit of heaven. In fact, Christ gave the following instructions to the Apostles: “Sell what you have and give alms. Make for yourselves purses that do not grow old, a treasure unfailing in heaven, where neither thief draws near nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. (Luke 12, 32-24).” Think of all the times that Christ instructed others to give up worldly wealth and said, “Come follow me.” If Christ expected the Apostles to heed these instructions, it would make sense that He would expect the same from me.”
LUST (WST): “The desire to have sex is perfectly natural. If God didn’t intend this, why did he create these feelings within us? I should be free to express these feelings as I see fit as long as I’m not hurting anybody. It’s my body and I should be able to do as I please with it.”
LUST (CST): “The primary purpose for God’s creation of sexual feelings was to insure the procreation of the human race. While God intended for these to be pleasurable, He expects that their expression should only occur between married people. Outside of this union, sexual expression and gratification, is sinful and could cost me the loss of my soul. Moreover, behaving promiscuously will lead to the loss of my virginity and reputation, neither of which can be restored.”
ANGER (WST): “If someone treats me unfairly, I should be able to get vengeance. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, that is what is just. I should be able to get justice in this world — here and now. And if the authorities don’t provide this to my satisfaction, I have the right to take matters into my own hands. Getting even is what counts.”
ANGER (CST): “God commands us to forgive those who sin against us. We are asked to hate the sin but to love the sinner, and to treat our enemies charitably. God has specifically stated this. St. Paul (Rom. 12, 16-21) writes the following: “Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, says the Lord. But, If your enemy is hungry, give him food; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing, you will heap coals of fire upon his head. Be not overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” I must leave justice to God. He has promised that every iota of His law must be fulfilled. If I treat my enemy charitably, I will “be heaping coals of fire upon his head” and God, who is all-just, will treat him accordingly. What better form of justice can there be?”
GLUTTONY (WST): “I might as well eat all that I want. “Fat genes” run in my family so I might as well enjoy myself since there is nothing I can do about my weight anyway. Super size is better than smaller size — better too much than too little. Beside, it’s Thanksgiving and I’m going to eat until I’m stuffed. That’s what this holiday is all about. You know the old saying — “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.”
GLUTTONY (CST): “Eating and drinking to excess is self-indulgent and weakens my ability to control myself. The importance of being temperate in my eating habits is stressed throughout the Church’s teaching and Holy Scripture. Christ fasted for forty days and forty nights in the desert before being tempted by the devil. John the Baptist and all of the great saints ate and drank temperately. Temperance is a virtue that strengthens my will and prevents me from debasing my body and soul. Gluttony does just the opposite of this. It will turn me into an obese slob and a moral degenerate.”
ENVY (WST): “Look at all the good things that happen to him, and he doesn’t work as hard as I do. His parents give him things without requiring that he work to get them. I should have these too. He’s popular, smart, and can play sports. How I wish that I had his talents. He gets away with stuff that I would never get away with.”
ENVY (CST): “Being envious is making me angry to the point that I wish him ill-will. This is only causing me to be resentful and filled with self-pity. Christ commanded that I should love my neighbor as myself. He did not say that I had to love my neighbor more than myself. However, becoming jealous is preventing me from living up to even the minimum of this law. Christ warned us all that we should not be envious of evildoers and those who have more than we do. Rather, we should behave charitably toward them. My lack of charity is leading to my spiritual destruction. This certainly will make the devil jump for joy.”
SLOTH (WST): “ If it’s not fun, I shouldn’t have to do it. It’s the teacher’s fault for not making the work interesting. It’s boring. Saying prayers is boring too. In the Rosary, you say the same thing over and over again. No wonder I get distracted and don’t say it as often as I should. Doing good things should be easy. I shouldn’t have to struggle to do what is right. The Blessed Mother will understand.”
SLOTH (CST): “Sloth is unacceptable to God. He expects that we should make good use of the talents He has given us and will punish those who fail to do so. That includes me. The Parable of the Gold Pieces (Luke 19, 12-26) is a good example of this. The nobleman in the parable gave his ten servants ten gold pieces, and instructed them to trade with these until he returned. Two of the three servants made a profit as a result of the trading. The third servant, however, wrapped the gold piece in a napkin, saving it until the master returned. It was at this servant that the master directed his wrath. He was referred to as a ‘wicked servant’ for failing to make even a minimal effort to increase what was given to him. The servant was not only admonished, but the gold piece was also taken from him and given to the servant who made ten gold pieces from the one he first received and the slothful was left with nothing. I can’t let laziness cause me to become a wicked servant. I have an obligation to God to make use of the gifts that He has given to me. I would rather be praised by Him than to incur His wrath.”
CST can be applied to all of the various sins leading to spiritual destruction. For example, a sin that is quite prevalent today is the sin of Presumption (A sin against the Holy Ghost). The WST attached to Presumption would be as follows: “God is to merciful to send anyone to Hell. If Hell exists at all, nobody would be in it. God loves us too much to let this happen.” To counter the preceding, the following CST is offered: “It is true that God is all merciful, but He is all just as well. God promised that each and every iota of His law must be fulfilled and that we would be held accountable for even the smallest infraction. Christ specifically stated that Hell exists and that those who failed to follow His commandments would be sent there.”
And what about sins that “Cry out to Heaven for vengeance,” the sin of sodomy for example? The WST supporting these are: “God made me this way (homosexual and lesbian, for instance) so I have no control over this predisposition. It’s in the genes. Certainly, God understands this because He created me accordingly. I have the right to be with my “significant other” and to live my “alternate life style.” Anyone who disagrees with me is a bigot and homophobic. They have no right to judge me and should be condemned.” The CST to counter this is as follows: “Throughout Holy Scripture, God has condemned the sin of sodomy. God did not put two men in the Garden of Eden. Rather, He created a man and a women as the natural parents of the human race.” “Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). So essential is it for the marriage bond, one man, one woman, till death due them part, that by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost this injunction is repeated three times in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, and Ephesians).
Summary and Conclusions
The importance of words and their meaning have a powerful influence on our emotions, the choices that we make, and how we act. This is recognized by the Fathers of the Church and those secular professionals who work in the field of mental health. Those who adhere to the secular view point often fail to take into account the existence of God and the plan that He has for each of us. While these naysayers recognize the importance of self-talk and its influence on how we feel and behave, their reasoning centers around worldly pursuits, which often run contrary to God’s will. As a result, they fail to take into account the true purpose of life during our brief time upon this planet. The purpose of the preceding is to take the secular model and “convert” this so that it can be applied by those practicing Catholics confronted by worldly thinking, which is designed to lead them astray. The proposed model identifies worldly self talk that can lead to sin. It then offers the Catholic self-talk alternative, which can be used to replace this. Catholic self-talk is based on the application of Catholic principles and Holy Scripture. It is this kind of thinking that needs to be fostered and developed in order to cope with the current stranglehold that Satan has on the world and those people who are unwittingly following him to damnation.
Feeney, Leonard. “Founders’ Column: The Word Was Made Flesh.” Mancipia: The Report of the Crusade of Saint Benedict Center (December/January 2009): 5.
Ellis, Albert. “Emotional Disturbance In a Nutshell.” Canadian Counselor 5, no.3 (1974): 168-171.