During a trial, when an attorney asks a witness a question that is later stricken from the record it cannot be stricken from the minds of the jurors. In most cases, this is done deliberately. The attorney knows that he is asking a question which will be deleted from the official record, but he knows that the judge cannot "strike it" from the minds and hearts of the jurors. This is true of our own speech as well. When we have spoken unkindly of someone, we cannot ask our hearers to "unhear" our careless words. We can replace something that was stolen; we can fix something that was broken; we cannot take back words that have been said.
St. James, in today's first reading, has some strong words of caution about how we speak. Our tongues can be lethal weapons, "tiny sparks that set forest fires ablaze," if we do not use them charitably. The power of speech is as mighty as the proverbial pen (to say nothing of the sword!) Perhaps a good "litmus" test for our speech would be to ask ourselves if we would say the same words about a person if the person about whom we are speaking were in our midst. In some cases we might indeed say the same words, but we might say them more gently or more kindly. And when we find ourselves listening to unkind words about others, it is helpful to communicate, at the very least, a lack of interest and -- better yet -- a gentle disapproval. Folks around us will be less likely to speak uncharitably of others if they know that we dislike hearing it.
"Above all, let us carefully keep silence on occasions that mortify us. Let us be charitable and humble, both in our thoughts and words."
St. Margaret Mary Alacoque