“4-2-9.” While serving on a leadership team for a Catholic youth conference during my high-school years, I was first introduced to this little reminder to serve God and neighbor in one’s speech. “4-2-9,” short for Ephesians 4:29, stood as a code we could use among ourselves not to gossip or speak negatively — and to speak well!
The passage in its entirety reads as follows: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.”
One way of living “4-2-9” is to practice the art of conversation.
‘Good for Edifying’
In the world of Twitter and Facebook, which cultivate communication in the briefest, most impersonal sense, maintaining meaningful conversations becomes an endangered social reality.
How often do we linger with family and friends over a meal, coffee or a walk, engaged in conversation? Do we seek to edify, to build up, or do we just enjoy hearing our own thoughts and ideas?
Engaging in intentional conversation can be an exercise in charity, placing ourselves at the service of others. In the family, dinners can be times in which not only a meal is shared, but ourselves and the stories of our day.
Perhaps driving home from work or to meet up with friends, we can think of particular topics of conversation that share the joys of life and daily blessings, words of encouragement and praise rather than merely the local “complaint department.”
As we can prepare for receiving Holy Communion at Mass by making a daily offering, we can also anticipate moments of coming together or “communion” with friends and family by such practices as reading good books or articles, to have subjects in hand for more meaningful conversation. And, of course, conversation is never one-sided, but entails really listening to others, as well.
‘As Fits the Occasion’
Practicing “4-2-9” also involves little acts of mortification: not simply sharing every little thought that pops into one’s stream of consciousness, or what I want to talk about, but what is appropriate to the occasion.
Think of whom you’re speaking with, the setting, and what is appropriate to that moment.
For instance, a teacher in a non-Catholic school might not be able to easily or prudently bring stories of the saints into his classroom, but he can still impart tales that highlight human virtue and heroism.
He can seek to convey the realities of truth, goodness and beauty, even if he can’t explicitly speak of God.
Likewise, if a child or spouse has had a bad day, one should consider what might serve as an encouragement in that situation.
Our words can be an opportunity to be compassionate and merciful and to practice such spiritual acts of mercy as comforting the sorrowful.
Several years ago I heard of a challenge to give up complaining. In certain situations this can seem impossible, but with practice we can see that speaking well or exercising oneself in silence can often be a fruitful experience.
While the practice of “not complaining” or “not gossiping” can be valuable, we ought to remember that this is not the end goal. We are to praise God and love neighbor.
Conversion is not simply a turning away from sin and imperfections, but toward the good and the practice of virtue.
Interestingly enough, when we “impart grace” in our speech, we too are blessed.
We grow in charity when we make use of the opportunity to practice “4-2-9,” to introduce wholesome topics of conversation, and to elevate the conversation.
May the Eternal Word assist us in this noble effort, to serve God and neighbor in our speech.
Laura Dittus writes
from Irondale, Alabama,
where she serves as a theology adviser for EWTN.