Ashes to Ashes: The Three Monkeys

Trinket shops at roadside tourist spots used to sell items like shellacked coasters cut from cross sections of white pine or birch logs, or faux-bark mottoes inscribed with uplifting sentiments, or bawdy farmyard postcards. That sort of thing. Perhaps they still do.

Among the trinkets, one could always find the three monkeys telling us to “Hear no evil, See no evil, Speak no evil.” I always found the business infinitely depressing for some reason. Whether it was the simian ambience, I don’t know. I don’t think I had any fierce schedule myself that entailed some furtive hearing, seeing, and speaking. It just all seemed squalid to me—as did these trinket shops to begin with, actually.

But those monkeys were in a very ancient tradition. I recently came across one of the Desert Fathers who gave a young inquirer what seemed to be a blanket warning against all hearing, seeing, and speaking. If the poor boy had tried to take the old hermit at his word, he would have been left deaf, blind, and dumb, of course. Those grizzled Egyptian Fathers were not given to softening their maxims. They snapped out what they had to say and went back to plaiting their palm mats, and God help you.

What did the old man mean? Is there a trace in what he said for our profit? It would seem so. Hearing, for a start: such an innocent faculty, The very gate of a thousand pleasures: the voice of my beloved; the music of Mozart; the sound of wind in the spruces high on the White Mountains; the song of the hermit thrush. Indeed. But also the funnel for all that titillates: Ahal How’s that again? He what? Say that again? Oh, I’m so saddened to hear that!

No, my soul. Before the Dreadful Judge, I am not saddened. Nothing has given me a greater frisson than to come upon this hint that my colleague (or parson, or friend, or enemy, or neighbor) has purportedly faltered. Just the merest rumor. What hell in my soul— and how I lard it over with oleaginous piety. I’ll just mention it to so-and-so, so we can pray together . . .

Hear no evil, my soul. Flee it. Expunge it. Loathe it. Detest it. Hate your delight in it. Kyrie!

Seeing: such an innocent faculty. The very gate of a thousand pleasures: the face of my lady; the books on my shelf; the curtain going up at the opera; my dog looking sheepish. But also hell’s own periscope. Did you happen to see that? Well, I mean. It can only have been . . . I’ve noticed several times lately . . . Oh, I’m not drawing any conclusions, but . . .

How beady are my eyes? What is my scope peering at? I have come across that text about the pure finding all things to be pure. Have I ever even so much as approached those quiet waters? Or have I brought perspicacity to a highly wrought art, like the Accuser of the Brethren? Am I massively astute when it comes to “reading” situations? The great difficulty here is that all of this astuteness may well be turned back upon my own case in the end. My skill will be obliged to go to work on the only task I have: to give an account of the one person in the universe for whom I am answerable, alas.

Speaking: not such an innocent faculty. The tongue is a great evil that no man can tame. Most of us will go to our graves still struggling. God bless the Cistercians and the Carthusians who are learning one way of settling the matter. The trouble about “speak no evil” is that it hails me every time I open my mouth at all. Everything I say seems to have some edge to it, or some suggestion in it, or some veiled reproof or remark. I’m too clever. O Charity, where art Thou?

Tom Howard

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Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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