Ten years ago John Patrick Shanley’s play, “Doubt: A Parable” was first produced. The play takes place in 1968 and one of the characters, Father Brendan Flynn, delivers a beautiful and funny sermon on the destructiveness of gossip. Although the sermon can be viewed as sexist I look at as a revealing illustration of gossip’s power:
A woman was gossiping with a friend about a man she hardly knew- I know none of you has ever done this- and that night she had a dream.
A great hand appeared over her and pointed down at her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt.
The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’Rourke, and she told him the whole thing. “Is gossiping a sin?” she asked the old man. “Was that the Hand of God Almighty pointing a finger down at me? Should I be asking your absolution? Father tell, me, have I done something wrong?”
“Yes!” Father O’Rourke answered her in his strong Irish brogue. “Yes, you ignorant, badly brought-up female! You have borne false witness against your neighbor, you have played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed!”
So the woman said she was sorry and asked forgiveness.
“Not so fast!” says O’Rourke. “I want you to go home, take a pillow up on your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me!”
So she went home, took a pillow from the bed, a knife from the drawer, took the fire escape to the roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old priest as instructed.
“Did you gut the pillow with the knife?” he says.
“And what was the result?”
“Feathers?” he repeated.
“Feathers everywhere, Father!”
“Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out on the wind!”
“Well,” she says, “it can’t be done. The wind took them all over.”
“And that,” said Father O’Rourke, “is gossip!”
I came across this lovely anecdote while studying Shanley’s play in anticipation of auditioning for the part of Father Flynn for a community theatre production of “Doubt.” I enjoy the sermon so much that I intend to learn it deeply enough that I am able to verbally whip it out whenever a suitable occasion arises.
By the way, in his strong Irish brogue, from the quote above is a slight adaptation of Shanley’s script. Shanley simply wrote (Irish brogue) as a note in the script.