Saturday, August 27, 2005

Words, Words, Words

I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words over the years, and tens of thousands on this blog alone over the past few months. What is the value of all these words? Is a word only worth 1/1000 of a picture? Talk is cheap, and words can be mere lip-service, chatter, blather, garrulity, superfluity, and fluff. But I’d still like to say a few words about words, the two sides of the coin.

On the negative side, we know that “actions speak louder than words,” and that words can often be meaningless, mendacious, or hurtful. “When words are many, sin is not lacking,” says the author of Proverbs (10:19). Therefore great caution is advised concerning the use of words. Indeed, the Lord Himself said, “On the day of judgment, men will render account for every careless word they utter” (Mt. 12:36). Woe is me! I’ll have a lot to account for on that day!

Abraham Heschel explains what happens when our words become disconnected from the depths of our own souls, wherein the word of God ought to dwell: “Estranged from the soil of our soul, our words do not grow as fruits of insights, but are found as sapless clichés, refuse in the backyard of intelligence... We all live in them, feel in them, think in them, but failing to uphold their independent dignity, to respect their power and weight, they turn waif, elusive—a mouthful of dust...” (Man’s Quest for God).

On the other hand, words have great potential to express noble ideas and even divine truths, and to do so in a beautiful, moving manner. Words can be vehicles of enlightenment, healing, revelation, and reconciliation. Words are a manner of self-expression. God’s own definitive Self-expression, his only-begotten Son, is called the Word in the Gospel, First Epistle, and Apocalypse of John. In the beginning was the Word, and as it was in the beginning, it shall ever be, for “the word of the Lord endures forever” (1Peter 1:25). I call this blog “Word Incarnate” not only in honor of my Lord, but as an acknowledgement that words have the ability to “take flesh” in people’s lives, to make a difference, to help lead them, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, to the whole truth. I pray that this will in fact happen, that my words will not be mere dust in the wind, but seeds of the Spirit.

Words have power. They have changed lives and altered the course of history. When taken up into the sphere of prayer, they realize their highest potential. “To begin to pray is to confront the word, to face its dignity, its singularity, and to sense its potential might... The words must not fall off our lips like dead leaves in the autumn. They must rise like birds out of the heart into the vast expanse of eternity... In our own civilization, in which so much is being done for the cause of the liquidation of language, the realm of prayer is like an arsenal for the spirit, where words are kept clean, holy, full of power to inspire and to keep us spiritually alive... In crisis, in moments of despair, a word of prayer is like a strap we take hold of when tottering in a rushing street car which seems to be turning over...” (Heschel).

In order to be able to speak words of truth, love, beauty, and healing, we have to be immersed in the word of God, first to be purified of our false and empty words by that divine word: “Thus says the Lord: Is not my word like fire?” (Jer. 23:29). Once we are purified in the fire of the word of God, it becomes for us sustenance and joy: “I found your words and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jer. 15:16).

Let us remember Jesus’ warning about the judgment upon careless words, but also that this is call to wisdom, not to an intimidated silence. For “a wise man advances himself by his words” (Sirach 20:26), using them to bless and instruct, to build up and not to tear down. We ought to realize what a great gift we have been given in the ability to express ourselves in words, to communicate something of our inaccessible interior to others.

Words must be chosen wisely, both those we speak and those we read or listen to. There are plenty of words available that are deceptive, seductive, lascivious, mean-spirited, degrading, trite, or just plain stupid. We are offered so much of that “junk food” through the TV, magazines, internet, etc. Yet there are beautiful, holy, uplifting, profound, instructive, motivating, edifying, encouraging words available as well (you may even find a few on this very blog!). By our words we will be justified and by our words we will be condemned (Mt 12:37). It always comes down to a choice, doesn’t it?

Hear the word of the Lord. Let it define you, delight you, and lead you to wisdom. Let it purify you, nourish you, and enable you to share it with others—so that your words will have the weight and the power to bring more beauty and wisdom into this world, to raise hearts to a vision of the good things to come. And then return your words to God in hymns of adoration and thanksgiving, as our liturgy says: “weaving a melody of words for the Word.”