Word by Madeleine L’Engle

I, who live by words, am wordless when
I try my words in prayer. All language turns
to silence. Prayer will take my words and then
reveal their emptiness. The stilled voice learns
to hold its peace, to listen with the heart
to silence that is joy, is adoration.
The self is shattered, all words torn apart
in this strange patterned time of contemplation
that, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me,
and then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended.
I leave, returned to language, for I see
through words, even when all words are ended.
I, who live by words, am wordless when
I turn me to the Word to pray.  Amen.

The Life of Words

image copyright Rebekah Choat

image copyright Rebekah Choat

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.

I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

~ Emily Dickinson

A word is dead when it is said, some say.

Dead things do not change (except to decay). There is nothing pulsing inside them. They do not grow or stretch or think. They are cold, stiff, unfeeling. They do not change direction. They do not respond. They are finished, over, chiseled in stone.

Some words, it seems, die quietly, of plain old age and disuse. Their passing, if we are even aware of it, doesn’t affect us much. They’re a little like the great aunts we might have met once at a family reunion when we were very young, the ones whose pictures look vaguely familiar when we flip through old albums. We may recognize them with a half-smile, murmur something about what interesting lives they must have had, and forget them once the page is turned. Widdershins, for example: she was a fine old character, but she only appeared once or twice on the periphery of my experience. And remember ugsome? Not really, but I heard an amusing story about her once. I can’t honestly say I miss them, or even notice their absence from day to day.

It’s harder to accept the loss of words that have been waylaid and maimed. You know the ones I mean. Queer. Retard. Gay. A dozen others now declining in similar fashion. Like beloved grandparents ravaged by Alzheimer’s Disease, their appearance hasn’t changed, but the meaning, the personality behind the face, is so altered as to be almost unrecognizable. The body is still here, but we mourn the death of the original spirit.

Then, sadly, there are words that meet violent ends – maybe sometimes as accidental casualties of simple carelessness, but sometimes through malice aforethought. Some say words in such a way that they fall, already lifeless, from their lips.

Who are these some, and what are the death sentences they pronounce? Absolute literalists: “That’s what the Bible says. Period.” Hopeless fatalists: “The doctor said it’s incurable.” Immovable traditionalists: “It’s sacrilegious to change the old way of saying things.” Smug pedagogues: “It means what I say it means. How dare you question my authority?” Harsh critics: “You’re never going to be any good.” Implacable parents: “Don’t ask again. That’s my final word on the matter.” To all of these, a word is dead when it is said.

 

I say it just begins to live that day.

Living things breathe. They are warm and fluid. They grow, they ripen. They move and change and interact with other living things. They feel and remember and dream. They have the power to engender more life.

I am awed by the innate power, the pulsing life of words. I believe that when we speak or write them, we give words birth. And like children, they fare forth and grow in ways we don’t always expect. It’s a risk, sending our words (and our kids) out into the wide world, among people who neither know nor care what pains we took to plan and prepare and present the fruits of our labors. We can’t be sure that they will be understood and appreciated for what we think they are; in fact, it’s more certain that they sometimes won’t be. And this is the frightening and freeing mystery.

“…our works never mean to others quite what we intended; because we
are re-combining elements made by Him and already containing His
meanings. Because of those divine meanings in our materials it is
impossible that we should ever know the whole meaning of our own
works, and the meaning we never intended may be the best and
truest one,” C.S. Lewis says in “Bluspels and Flalansferes.”

We do the best we can, as writers, as speakers, as parents. We struggle to make our ideas clear, to impart our values, to get everything just right. We invest ourselves, body, mind, and soul, in our offspring of flesh and blood, pitch and timbre, paper and ink. And then we let them go, trusting them to the Omnipotence, knowing they will go places and touch people we will never see, in ways we can’t anticipate. We understand, if only dimly, that although we gave them birth, the breath of life within them is not of our making, not subject to our control, not dependent upon us. We are, at best, conduits. When we allow echoes of the Word that spoke the world into existence to flow through us, they begin to live that day.

 

This piece was first published as “A Word Is Dead” on http://www.allninemuses.wordpress.com on September 9, 2012

 

Tuesday’s Word: humility

humility (n):  a modest or low view of one’s own importance; the quality or state of being humble

humble (adj):  (1) not proud or haughty, not arrogant or assertive; (2) reflecting, expressing, or offered in a spirit of deference or submission

Looking just at the dictionary definitions, it’s not hard to see why so many people equate humility with putting themselves down, refusing to accept credit when it is due, keeping their sometimes brilliant ideas hidden away.

But we are blessed to have the thoughts of saints and scholars to expand and enlighten our understanding.  Here are some words which I find particularly helpful in shaping a balanced idea of humility:

“The virtue of humility consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one…” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas

“But humility is in reality the opposite of self-deprecation.  It is the grateful recognition that we are precious in God’s eyes and that all we are is pure gift.” ~ Henri Nouwen

“Humility is simply seeing ourselves for who and what we are – no more, no less.” ~ John Michael Talbot

Now I know my ABC’s

first day of school

Spell
Malcolm Guite

Summon the summoners, the twenty-six
enchanters.  Spelling silence into sound,
they bind and loose, they find and are not found.
Re-call the river-tongues from Alph to Styx,
summon the summoners, the shaping shapes,
the grounds of sound, the generative gramma,
signs of the Mystery, inscribed arcana,
runes from the root-tree written in the deeps,
leaves from the tale-tree lifted, swift and free,
shining, re-combining in their dance
the genesis of every utterance,
pattering the pattern of the Tree.

Summon the summoners, and let them sing.
The summoners will summon Everything.

I’ll be starting first grade again today, for the fourth time. I’d thought our homeschooling season would end when Baby Girl the First finished high school, but you know what Mr. Burns said about the best laid plans of mice and men…Baby Girl the Second came along just in time for my fortieth birthday, giving me one more opportunity to begin at the very beginning.

When you read you begin with ABC, or summon the summoners, the twenty-six enchanters.  What a motley set of characters – only a couple of them able to stand alone, but let them start joining up, and there they go, spelling silence into sound.  How do they do that?  How do a bunch of little black marks on a white page bring forth purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain?  And that’s just the most obvious manifestation of their powers.

They bind:  once you know a rose is a rose you can’t very well imagine it by any other name; and loose:  the rose isn’t just a rose, it’s velvet and fragrance and innocence and my luve is like a red, red rose.  They are the shaping shapes:  sometimes they actually do take on something of the shape of the object they signify – bed, for instance, or hollyhock .  How cool is that?

These twenty-six little bits of code are signs of the Mystery – like the Word that is from the beginning, they lend form to the intangible, showing us glimpses of things beyond our comprehending; runes from the root-tree, searching down to the bedrock of our knowledge; leaves from the tale-tree, spreading, reaching, leaping greenly.  And speaking of re-combining, do they mean the things they name, or do they name the things they mean?

In a strange, fascinating book I read a few years ago (Libyrinth, by Pearl North), I came across an alternate ending that I really like:  “Now I know my ABC’s, all the books are mine to read.”  Yes.  They are the genesis of every utterance, the keys that open the books that open the world.  What a joy it is now to watch Baby Girl the Second testing her power to summon the summoners, and let them sing, and see the magic light up her eyes as she discovers how the summoners will summon Everything.

This post was originally published August 12, 2012 on http://www.allninemuses.wordpress.com.

Praying

photo courtesy of Joel Brotzman

photo courtesy of Joel Brotzman

Praying
by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The blue iris has always looked, to me, beautiful in a regal, formal, set-apart sort of way.  Prim and proper, standing straight and austere, head held high; I can easily picture it rendered in stained glass, shining above a wondrously-carven altar.

I sometimes catch myself heading down the blue-iris-lined path; in my writing, and in my relationships, I can fuss over a phrase or worry over a nuance for hours – hours that I could spend actually writing or relating – in my anxiety to make everything perfect.

I run up against this tendency in prayer, too.  I grew up in small churches populated by simple, salt-of-the-earth people; farmers, mostly, and mechanics, a postman, a piano teacher, sincere souls one and all.  I learned from their example that regardless of one’s natural manner of speaking, one addresses the Almighty in carefully chosen King James English, thereby making one’s petitions known and presentable.

Blue irises are lovely; so are stained glass cathedral windows and the poetic cadence of the King James Bible.  But they are not the only appropriate adornments for worship, not the only paths of prayer.  The tall grasses waving in an untended field have an approachable beauty of their own.  The sun-warmed shells that I pick from the sand and hold in my fingers draw me to their Maker more palpably than polished gems behind climate-controlled museum glass ever could.

Precisely cultivated flowerbeds and intricately worked icons can move me to awe, certainly, and lofty language can evoke visions of splendor.  Each of these has its proper place.  But it is the simple pleasant things, plentiful and near enough to touch, that assure me that I don’t have to produce an elaborately-worded application to enter the presence of God, that I may encounter Him walking along a back road, that if I sit quietly under a gnarled old tree I may hear His voice.

This piece was originally posted on http://www.allninemuses.wordpress.com on November 11, 2012.