“I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.“
Thirteens Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
(Way 5) by Wallace Steven
What’s in a word? We throw them around. We bounce them back and forth to one another. We effortlessly string them together like little pearls. We play with them like children with legos. We stumble over them. We forget them. We love them. We are hurt by them. We are healed by them. We use them as weapons. We create with them. We care about and share all things within our daily lives with them. We make love with them. We find ourselves at a loss for them. Words fail us. They become weak and ineffectual. We become bored with them. The best and most consequential of them can seem like “noisy gongs or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1).
“We live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) in language. Words fill our days and our unspoken thoughts. One of the most extraordinary gifts our Quaker tradition offers us is the constant linking of our language and words to silence. Our words come out of silence like particular and shy green shoots spring out of the dark fecund earth. They return to silence as waves return to the formative sea. Silence becomes the milieu of all language. Words come to have a strange and fascinating kinship with the biblical account of creation arising “ex nihilo” — out of nothing. Words can no longer be set apart from silence. Silence is their eternal mother. Over time, in our sitting in silence, we come to listen beyond the world’s compulsive chatter and noise. Language deepens, thickens, surprises. Points beyond itself. We learn that words overflow their presumed and expected meanings. They trace or hint at something more than any possible literal definition. They break out of their dictionary container and become alive, suggestive, fresh; freighted and overflowing with meanings beyond meanings. Nuanced and liberated, they court the unsayable.
The 14th century Dominican mystic and preacher Meister Eckhart, responsible for the spiritual care of congregations of nuns, once dared to preach, “I pray God to free me from God.” He was challenging this immense and impossible word ‘God’; overflowing and overwhelming any possible conceptual meaning. Religious words especially are always inadequate fingers pointing to the moon. Their whole purpose is to be humble gestures beyond themselves. For that, we still have good need of them. Not to describe something that is concrete and fixed, but to heighten life in its native wonder, to remind us of the Holy and the Wholly Other. “The Letter kills, the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). We need some few words that are not afraid of or embarrassed by the unsayable. That arise over our earth as aboriginal and as haunted as a blackbird’s song.
“In the Beginning was the Word . . . “ (daring to break the silence)
Grace and peace.
Welcome back from Poland, Stan!
Words have the power to shape thought, belief and action. With that in mind, for many years I have noticed the insidious way that violent language creeps into everyday conversation and writing about topics that are not inherently violent, even if they involve some measure of struggle.
In my field of education, we read about demographic trends “impacting” school enrollments. Teachers helping beginning readers talk about “word attack skills.” Students analyzing data from a physics experiment might work together on “crunching” the data.
Perhaps this trend merely reflects a common tendency to use exaggerated language, like describing a book or soccer game as “awesome.” However, I believe that the use of needlessly violent language for everyday activities can habituate our thinking by lessening awareness and concern for the harm that results from truly violent events. Becoming inured to violence in language might even lead to passive acceptance of angry outbursts and hurtful behavior in ourselves and others. Beware of violent language creeping into everyday discourse.
I will finish with the salutation used by the poet John Ciardi at the close of his NPR commentaries on the English language back in the 90s. “Good words to you.”
Wonderful! Well said and very inspiring. Thanks for your insightful thoughts and terrific writing Chris
Thank you, Stan. A man who brings together Meister Eckhart, Wallace Stevens and Paul the apostle like that is one after my own heart! We need words used like this, to show us light by their own light. Well said indeed – bless you!
Thank you Mike, the restless wanderer. People should follow you at https://alongrestlessness.com/
Always this pregnant mix of word and silence. As guys we can only imagine and perhaps be humbled into receptive joy. Corum Deo . . . before the sacred . . . before the great mystery . . . . before the Tao or Logos.
Grace and peace.