“Every word–even every idle word–will be accounted for at the day of judgment, because the word itself has the power to bring judgment. It is of the nature of the word to reveal itself and to incarnate itself–to assume material form. Its judgment is therefore an intellectual, but also a material judgment. The habit, very prevalent today, of dismissing words as “just words” takes no account of their power. But once the Idea has entered into other minds, it will tend to reincarnate itself there with ever-increasing Energy and ever-increasing Power. It may for some time only incarnate itself in more words, more books, more speeches; but the day comes when it incarnates itself in actions, and this is its day of judgment.”
– The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers
There is nothing in me that entitles me to say, or do, anything. Isn’t that the quintessential dilemma of our post-modern existentialism? The unsettlingly persistent zeitgeist of our times: the very real comprehension that we, like Sandra Bullock in the recent movie Gravity, are excruciatingly isolated self-conscious and suffering specks in the midst of a incalculable empty darkness…in which the only option we appear to have is to choose to exert our will zealously towards self-preservation (as she does), or towards self-annihilation, whether altruistic or self-aggrandizing (as her fellow astronaut does)? There is nothing that entitles me to say, or do, anything. There is only a quiet, inner prodding. “Utter,” it soundlessly, rhythmically, repeats. “Speak.”
“Speak what?” I ask. “Speak why?”
For one thing, what can I possibly have to say or do that has not been said or done before, a thousand times, that has not been uttered, prayed, shouted, groaned, chanted, or sung? Is it not the wise Solomon himself who agonizingly admits that there is nothing new under the sun? That all is vanity?
“Speak what? Speak why?”
At first, the answer is that I do not know. Each time I open my mouth, or put my pen to paper, the absurdity strikes me. What hubris to imagine I have anything to add to the cacophony.
It is then that the inner prodding insists, each syllable accented, stressed: “This is no cacophony. Hear, see, and comprehend a magnificent symphony.”
I understand. We have been given words. Among all creatures we, made imago Dei, have been given language. I hear the prodding: “Use it: Observe. Name. Sing. Make.”
Suddenly, the voice is no longer a prodding. It becomes an insistent demand. I disobey at my peril. Strong verbiage, I know, for what seems a mere, innocuous thing. But it is here that I discover my place of fear and trembling. It is in this submission to what sometimes seems a wind-swept mirage in a dessert of illusions that my soul struggles most. It is at this point of potent hesitancy that I must choose: depart, move forward, speak; or remain, embrace immobility, ignore the words. I have spent much of my life hovering nebulously in this ambiguity. For I know that I do not know how to speak rightly.
Scripture tells me that the tongue is a fire. It warns that I will be accountable for every idle word. Some take vows of silence. There is good reason for this, beyond the dangers of harming others with carelessly tossed ideas or purposeful, hurtful darts. Contemplation of the Divine necessitates stillness, the stifling of one’s own voice. Thomas a Kempis wrote that “In silence and quiet the devout soul advances in virtue…There she finds a flood of tears with which to bathe and cleanse herself…that she may become the more intimate with her Creator the farther she withdraws from all the tumult of the world (The Imitation of Christ).” All this is so true. Yet the inner prodding urges: “Speak.”
I have often felt the discomfort of this ambiguous, dangerous, place. Folly more than once prompted me forward, unhesitatingly, and the risk of that danger then took on barbs that lashed out when the potency of my own words hit the world too hard, and bounced back, striking deep, teaching me unequivocally that there are no such things as “mere words.”
Words are productive, creative. They incarnate. Too often they leave woe in their wake. Lately, I feel words coming; almost with a second sense I see the inevitability of incarnational speech…and I want to flee from the prodding. Like Eve, naked in Eden, I want to run and hide while God commands me: show thyself. But, like Eve, I cannot show myself without also revealing my nakedness, my shame.
When I speak, I know I am unclothed, laid bare. For those who can really see and hear, words are not a dressing, simply a context for expression, or a way to achieve ends. They are an unveiling, a shedding of veneer, even when decorated with persuasive artifice, to the perceptive ear and eye—to God—they expose all layers of artificiality even while embracing all artfulness. To speak is the essential human act: to uncover, to thereby reveal, to be vulnerable, to be creative; to be utterly Coram Deo: before the face of God.
And yet, this is what the inner prodding demands. Without complete monastic seclusion, how could it not? I am a wife, a homeschooling mother, a teacher, a member of communities; all demand words. So that in my moment of submission to both necessity and demand, I also enter into the moment of greatest risk, of enormous temptation, of the heaviness of potential sin: the moment I speak is the moment I release self into the Creation, exerting my nature imago Dei. In the very same instant of obedience, I commit the sin of self-assertion. Even when proclaiming truth I cannot extricate myself from the proclamation. All my deeds are as filthy rags.
How is it possible that the same God who made me in His image, as a creative soul to reflect Him, will not judge me in that moment? How is it possible not to flee, from Him and from myself, in fear and trembling? How is it possible not to hide, and crush my words in the depths of a dark, inaccessible place? How is it possible not to bind my words up inside me as though my stewardship of them required their burial?
I must understand, says the comforting, quiet prodding, that the curse has been reversed. Just as deception and deceit entered into the Garden hissing “Did God really say?” authenticity and Truth entered into Hell, announcing the healing of Creation and undoing death and sin. Thus the redeeming Word redeems words, making of speech a priceless treasure. To entomb speech would be to emulate the servant who buried his treasure, and incurred the Lord’s wrath. To hold speech back, and not to risk words, is for me to forget my Maker: to reject His grace and mercy.
“Speak what? Speak why?” Realizing that with each and every utterance I do sin, whether I recognize it or not; yet, realizing that with each and every utterance in submission, I fulfill my nature imago Dei. In faith, I speak, and am redeemed by The Word. I am thankful to remember “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you…” (Colossians 3:16).
“If all experienced God in the same way and returned Him an identical worship, the song of the Church triumphant would have no symphony, it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note… For doubtless the continually successful, yet never completed, attempt by each soul to communicate its unique vision to all others (and that by means whereof earthly art and philosophy are but clumsy imitations) is also among the ends for which the individual was created.”
–The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis
I have learned to rest upon the edge of ambiguity, and to cherish continual recognition of my sin in continual repentance. I have been shown how to speak while pleading for mercy in the very act of utterance. I hover no longer in a dangerous place, but find rest singing a constant liturgy of the soul: Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy.