Saturday, January 24, 2015

Week 3 - Words

Went to Kentucky last week; read Merton, visited Gethsemani.
Words. This week I have been thinking about words. In no less than three of the books I have been reading the importance (and non-importance of words) has come up. One (The Name of the Wind) seems like an obvious contender to discuss such a thing. Gilead, which I have read before had a nice section on words; and On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness delightfully plays with words that we normally use all of the time.

What is shaping in my head is the importance of meaning as opposed to the actual words that we use. This morning I was reading the introduction to one of Thomas Merton’s Journals. The author talked about the way Merton would slip in French and Latin words in the midst of his journals, especially in his early years. I have no doubt that part of this was because sometimes our limited words have to find another way to express things.

Often times we hear someone say something like, “We have this phrase in German, and it does not really translate into English, but it means…” and what follows is a weird little explanation that the speaker nailed—it doesn’t translate. I find myself in this situation quite often. But I think this is where something like music or the Pentecostal practice of praying in tongues makes so much since. As Paul wrote, there are “Groanings too deep for words” within us and these feelings struggle to get out.
One of the best ways I have read describing this is in The Name of the Wind. After a character his experienced a deep loss he talks about picking up his instrument, a lute in this case, and begins to play. I found this pretty beautiful:

“Soon after that I began playing…how can I describe it?
I began to play something other than songs. When the sun warms the grass and the breeze cools you, it feels a certain way. I would play until I got the feeling right. I would play until it sounded like Warm Grass and Cool Breeze.
I was only playing for myself, but I was a harsh audience. I remember spending nearly three whole days trying to capture Wind Turning a Leaf.
By the end of the second month, I could play things nearly as easily as I saw and felt them: Sun Setting Behind the Clouds, Bird Taking a Drink, Dew in the Bracken. Somewhere in the third month I stopped looking outside and started looking inside for things to play…”

I think that does due justice to Patrick Rothfuss. What he describes is what many of us encounter: a lack of words. Not in the sense of not being able to speak, but of being unable to communicate something that we feel so deeply. I feel like I live there.

Being recently married there are plenty of times where this comes into play. Betsy and I are not so much people who lash out or really even fight. We are people who pass by each other, desiring to communicate to one another our affections, but often fumble toward that. I think sometimes we do a better job of just simply sitting with one another. I think the feelings that we share are better portrayals than the words that leave our lips. Which, when I think about it makes me laugh a little bit. Betsy is a therapist, and I work with patients at a hospital. It seems we would do better with words.
But that is exactly the thing about words. I can come up with words that come close to meaning, but don’t actually get us there. I can throw out words like compassion and love and grace and mercy to hint around at this thing that I feel. The problem is none of those words can come close to "I Like the Nearness of Your Presence in the Silence that Brings Me Comfort and Lets Me Know Everything Will Be Okay." Even with something like that, it doesn’t get quite to what burns inside.

And thus, why I think of words. Words. Words. Words. Words. What good are words when you cannot find a way to use them to explain to a small child that you loved them from the moment you first held them in your arms before they could ever do a thing for you? How can words describe the understanding of salvation you got just by having that person draw near to you? How often words fail when you try to describe that nature is the sanctuary you return to; the place where you know the transcendent is real and draws near to you…almost like a kiss on the forehead.

But these words are what we are stuck with. In the book mentioned above a young man is trying to discover what his professor means by the "name of the wind." The young hero thinks it is exactly what it sounds like, a particular name that you can pronounce.

Marilyn Robinson
I think we are like that with our friends. How many times we have been asked to describe a friend? We default to things like short, tall, black, white, thin, chunky, tow-headed or has a weird gait. But if the person is close to us we would describe them as the one with wild eyes, that hides an ocean of loneliness cloaked by a desire for true friendship or the one with the gentle demeanor that lets me know I can let my guard down even if just for a few minutes. Those come nearer to names than something like James or Betsy or Tom or Tina.

All of that said, I think what astounds about the limitation of words is how they draw us together. I can read the words of someone like Thomas Merton or Maryilynne Robinson and feel within me a connection, a knowledge that this person is a kindred spirit. I can feel that same struggle when I eat lunch with a friend and we clash into the limitation of our grasp on language. We cannot communicate the deep things of our soul, but we can point them to a song by Mumford or some other artist that comes nearer than our attempts.

Words. Words, words, words words. What a beautiful mystery and misery.

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