I have a friend so Irish that merely seeing her evokes memory of bawdy jokes, beer excesses and blustery stories from my Cork County roots. My friend’s milky beauty and quick wit easily remind me of Maureen O’Hara in the Quiet Man (“You've the face of an angel [Mary Kate] with the tongue of an adder.”] You can’t not like her – let’s call my friend “My Maureen.”
My Maureen has a unique vocabulary skill: she’s mastered the use of one particularly vulgar word, which she is able to use as a verb, noun, adjective and even adverb. It’s impressive. I’ve heard her use derivations of this uniquely pronounced word over three times in a single sentence – always delivered as if she’d never really dared to use the word before. Occasionally, she covers her mouth, like a soft slap, and yelps, “Oh forgive me that mouth o’ mine,” and then continues without further pause. Recently, my son reported that My Maureen heartily rebuked her own son when he cursed during conversation; “You’ll not be cussing like that in my presence, my boy,” my son reported. We both laughed to tears.
The humor oozes from the contradiction. My Maureen lives a passionate, responsible life – a tirelessly loving and committed Catholic mother, wife and friend – while using language of a scrappy, alley teenager who never learned better. More, she only flexes the full range her offensive vocabulary in intimate conversation, as though signaling secrets shared only with you. The result creates a hilarity that would provoke even the most formal prude to smirk. I can hear My Maureen earnestly whispering, “Pardon me, dear. I’d never be this expressive around Fadder O’Haire!” From her loving heart, a word that otherwise strives to offend softens and binds with a sense of harmless misbehaving.
A good argument can be made that My Maureen ought to clean it up. Whether to model better behavior or simply let go of childish language, it’s reasonable that some of our behaviors are better left behind, like a beloved comfort blanket or youthful clothing no longer suited to our age. As Saint Paul eloquently described, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” 1 Cor. 13:11.
A favorite female adolescent behavior comes quickly to mind: gossiping. Every female I know experimented with gossiping as a teenager. We passed a “Slam Book” through my 8th grade, public school class. At the top of each page, in large, childish block letters, was the name of a classmate. If you weren’t in the book, it meant you did not make the cut. If you were in the book, it meant you were fair game. The book passed secretly and quietly through the ranks, handed off from girl to girl, in the hallway, across the bathroom sink and under the desk. Finally, it landed in my hands, and, with great relief, I found a page “Margy Murphy” deep within the book. My relief darkened to swampish sorrow as I read, “What a snob – she walks right by in the hall without even saying hello” and “Did you notice her pimples? She used to be cute.”
Gossiping leads all childish female ways to put to an end. Many women do just that, knowing from experience, for example, that nothing slaughters the maternal camaraderie at the Parish Elementary School quite like the gossipy emailer who accidentally courtesy copies the entire class on her observation, “OMG, did you notice how much weight Marge put on over the summer?” Those of us who refuse to gossip do so, at least in part, because we’ve learned the great benefits to our female communities of mastering this very normal, childish temptation – and putting it to an end. The Church helps and encourages us by reminding us that gossip can be sinful.
But St. Paul’s admonition was not limited to sinful or harmful childish behaviors. He had in mind something more, a higher standard toward a passage that opens only when we refuse distractions and interferences, like an adult putting aside childish ways. What is it? What is this passage we seek without sight, with only faith and trust in God? St. Paul’s hint is this: “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts.” 1 Cor. 14:1. To Timothy he elaborated. Teach “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” and do not “[deviate] from these and [turn] to meaningless talk.” 1 Tim 5-6.
It is in this way that I best understand My Maureen and my own clinging to behaviors which can seem “childish.” My Maureen can cuss up a storm – but it comes from a loving heart, without using friends as objects to scorn, criticize or belittle. Gossip never pursues love and always impedes our journey toward the pure heart, good conscience and sincere faith that unite us as Catholics. To pursue these goals, we must reason like adults, speak like adults and think like adults who pursue love above all else. “This,” My Maureen might whisper “is the only [expletive deleted] way to go.”