A woman once came to St. Philip Neri, in Rome, and acknowledged she was much given to backbiting; she asked him to advise her how she was to get rid of this fault. First of all the saint impressed upon her the grievous mischief that she did by slandering others. But she would not allow that she did much harm by it. Then the saint said: “Do this for your penance, my daughter. Go to the market and buy a fowl in its feathers, and carry it through the streets; as you go along, pluck out the feathers one by one and scatter them on the way. When you have done this, come back to me.”
The woman did as he bade her, and returned to him, wondering what he would say next. St. Philip praised her obedience; then he told her to go through the streets again and pick up all the feathers which she had thrown away. She answered: “Father, that is impossible, for the wind will have carried them away in all directions.”
He replied: “Just as the wind disperses feathers in all directions, so it is with calumny. The persons who hear it go their several ways and carry it far and wide, so that it is beyond recall.”
The same truth was made evident by a catechist to his scholars in the following manner. He said: “Throw enough mud, the saying is, some is sure to stick. For even if the slanderer wishes it, he cannot go round to every individual and revoke what he has said. . . . I have often noticed how, when a stone is thrown into water, it makes circles on the surface of the water, small ones at first, and these go on increasing. So it is with calumny. The slanderer may only speak to one person; but he has thrown the stone, and his hearer spreads the lie in ever widening circles.”
Text from Francis Spirago, Anecdotes and Examples Illustrating the Catholic Catechism (New York: Benziger, 1904).