In the Midwestern Catholic home of childhood, my parents never swore or cursed in front of us. My French-Canadian mom especially abhorred profanity which she considered to be a sign of ignorance and language laziness. She substituted other words for common swear words (like “Oh fudge!” or “Shoot!”) which always slightly amused us kids. And when it came to using God’s name in vain? Under no circumstances was that acceptable. A slip-up sent us immediately to the Saturday afternoon confessional! If pushed to the absolute limits of their patience, my parents would often say, “For God’s sake, just DO it! (or STOP doing it). This would halt us in our tracks. There was no more ominous a request. The message was clear. If we couldn’t make a change for them or for ourselves, we were to change our behavior for the sake of the Holy One who gave us everything.
I do not consider myself old-fashioned or outdated but when it comes to language, maybe I am. I still cringe when profanity or the name of Jesus is dropped casually in conversation, in the media, in films, and on television. Worse is how easily it spills out of the mouths of the young in simple imitation of what has become commonplace usage. Others my age have shared similar family stories with me even though they, themselves, admit to having abandoned “clean” language as a spiritual discipline long ago. Who can blame them? Profane words are mere symbols of the frustrations and anger that are at an all-time high these days. What is troublesome though, is that we are no longer shocked by anything we hear. We have adapted to a “new normal” that does not elevate our minds, hearts, and words.
As a spiritual director, I talk to people all the time about God-consciousness and our struggles to make inner and outer lives match. Sincere seekers often feel ashamed of their scatological outbursts that seem to erupt out of nowhere. They want to control and change these impulsive tendencies, especially for the sake of the little ears that are nearby. There are, of course, ways to reverse these behaviors–like putting coins in a jar every time a swear word escapes. Sadly, this practice is often abandoned rather quickly unless a teenager in the family is put in charge of the jar. Sin and the fear of hell no longer motivate us either so I often hear myself saying what my mom taught me: “Can you just stop, for God’s sake, if not your own?” Cleaning up langauge may benefit ourselves and others but can we engage in better practices for non-utilitarian reasons? Simply to be true to the God within?
These are questions that can only be answered by trial and error, practicing, experiencing, failing, trying again and again. No one is perfect (another momism) but we can improve by taking small steps that lead to lifelong changes. Taking profanity out of our repertoire not only alters the way we speak but also shifts the way we think. The language of the Beloved then has a chance of transforming the world.