8 GOOD AND BAD WORDS
CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #8
GOOD AND BAD WORDS
Consider your experience when:
You are given a complimentary or encouraging word;
You overhear someone mention the word that is your name in a caring way;
You read a good story;
You hear a good speaker;
You have an evening of lively conversation with friends.
All of these are everyday intimations of a world beyond the superficial, of the Real beyond the real. Such experiences appeal to and reveal something deep within us as human beings, they evoke a dimension of life that remains unknown to us until the word is spoken. We experience this as something good and life-giving. Such words invite us into deeper relationship, to seek more conversation. We recognise something good and right about this.
Compare the above with the following:
A derogatory word about you gets back to you;
You hear a speaker who is articulate and clever but not thoughtful and wise;
Someone loses his temper and aims foul or abusive language at you personally;
An individual uses a forum of conversation for self-promotion or to express or vent unacknowledged conflicts.
In these instances the words reveal the darker side of the human condition. Such words do not invite us into relationship or to further the conversation, except perhaps to seek redress. However, it is potentially lifegiving to face what is so revealed, acknowledge it and work through it. These words, unpleasant as they might be, have exposed things that must be dealt with.
Good words are a matter of self-transcendence and self-forgetfulness, not self-indulgence or self-focus. In good words something beyond ego is highlighted; we seek the Real, we wait upon the moment listening for Truth to break in. Words, at their best, are sacramental, they point. They can take us into wonderful depths of healing and riches of life-giving experience.
Absolutely fundamental to the pursuit of good words - and particularly good conversation - is an effective pursuit of self-knowledge. If I bring unresolved conflicts or chronic anger or unacknowledged anxieties and fears to my words, they will form "hidden agendas". If these unnamed and unattended dynamics are awakened - as they frequently will be - they will tend to confuse and misdirect the words. Good words demand at least a measure of objectivity and inner freedom. If this measure is present, along with good will, the words can become a source of growing self-knowledge as I accompany myself in that experience. Eugene Gendlin’s little paperback Focusing (Bantam, 1983 - about $10) is highly recommended.
Spirituality in the Pub has been developed as a forum for good conversation. The intention is that adults come together and share words about things that matter. The forum, if it is to be genuinely good conversation, requires that the participants are willing to be honest with themselves, coming along with a sincere desire to change, believing that the Holy Spirit can use the forum to everyone’s benefit. Some simple, basic dispositions are required - a willingness to listen, to be patient, to respect others and to refrain from using the forum for ulterior intentions, such as venting my anger or promoting myself.
It can happen that a guest speaker at Spirituality in the Pub might have an unnamed and unattended "agenda", that he or she is in fact incapable, at this time, of engaging in good conversation. Such a speaker might use emotionally-laden language, speak half-truths, quote texts (eg the Bible, Church documents or writers from the tradition) out of context. Or they might turn out to be bad public speakers or egotistical or just have nothing to say that is worth listening to. So some conversations, set up with the best intentions, might fail. That is life. However, we should think very carefully about such public forums and choose speakers who are willing and able to promote good conversation - as distinct from polemics or argument or debate or taking cheap shots at people or institutions or promoting their own egos.
There is an old Irish invocation that points to something of the spirit in which we might choose our words:
These things are of God:
The merciful word,
The singing word, and
The good word.
May the power of these
Three holy things be on all
The men and women of Erin
TEXTS FOR REFLECTION
1. "The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living" (Abraham Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy Of Religion, Farrar, Straus and Young, 1951, 37).
2. "The teaching of our society is that more knowledge means more power, more civilization - more comfort. We should have insisted in the spirit of the prophetic vision that more knowledge should also mean more reverence, that more civilization should also mean less violence. .... Knowing is not due to coming upon something, naming and explaining it. Knowing is due to something forcing itself upon us. Thought is a response to being rather than an invention. The world does not lie prostrate, waiting to be given order and coherence by the human mind. Things are evocative. When conceits are silent and all words stand still, the world speaks. We must burn the cliches to clear the air for hearing. Conceptual cliches are counterfeit; preconceived notions are misfits. Knowledge involves love, care for the things we seek to know, longing, being-drawn-to, being overwhelmed." (Abraham Heschel, Who Is Man?, Stanford University Press, 1965, 100 & 109)
3. "Yet another reason for reticence in matters religious has to do with the infirmity of language itself. Language is a living organism and, as such, is subject to certain organic ailments. In this case it is the exhaustion and decrepitude of words themselves, an infirmity that has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the sentences they form. The words of religion tend to wear out and get stored in the attic. The word 'religion' itself has a certain unction about it, to say nothing of 'born again', 'salvation', 'Jesus', even though it is begging the question to assume therefore that these words do not have valid referents. And it doesn't help that when religious words are used publicly, at least Christian words, they are often expropriated by some of the worst rogues around, the TV preachers. So decrepit and so abused is the language of the Judeo-Christian religions that it takes an effort to salvage them, the very words, from the husks and barnacles of meaning which have encrusted them over the centuries. Or else words can become slick as coins worn thin by usage and so devalued. One of the tasks of the saint is to renew language, to sing a new song." (Walker Percy, "Why Are You A Catholic?" in Patrick Samway, ed., Walker Percy: Singposts in a Strange Land, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991, 306).
4. "Plato's concern (about sophistry) points toward something else, and he insists on it, and he challenges us with it, even challenging himself and his own profound sensitivity for linguistic form: the possibility that something could well be superbly crafted - that it could be perfectly worded; brilliantly formulated; strikingly written, performed, staged, or put on screen - and at the same time, in its entire thrust and essence, be false; and not only false, but outright bad, inferior, contemptible, shameful, destructive, wretched - and still marvellously put together!" (Joseph Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, Ignatius Press, 1988, 18-19).
5. "The endless cycle of idea and action,/ Endless invention, endless experiment,/ Brings knowledge of motion but not stillness;/ Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;/ Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word". (T S Eliot, The Rock)
6. "Modern people listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, if they do listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses. … We are well aware that modern people are sated by talk; they are obviously often tired of listening and, what is worse, impervious to words. We are also aware that many psychologists and sociologists express the view that modern people have passed beyond the civilisation of the word, which is now ineffective and useless, and that today they live in the civilisation of the image. … The fatigue produced these days by so much empty talk and the relevance of many other forms of communication must however not diminish the permanent power of the word, or cause a loss of confidence in it. The word remains ever relevant, especially when it is the bearer of the power of God (cf 1Cor 2:1-5)." (Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41-42)
7. "Communication is more than the expression of ideas and the indication of emotion. At its most profound level it is the giving of self in love." (The Pastoral Instruction, Communion et Progressio (1971) 11)
8. "It was named Babel therefore, because there Yahweh confused the language of the whole earth." (Gen. 11:9)
9. "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God remains forever." (Is. 40:8)
10. "All you need say is 'Yes' if you mean yes, 'No' if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one." (Mt 5:37)
SUGGESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
Reflect on your experiences of the different uses of words as indicated at the beginning of this reflection.
What do you think it means to say "good words are a matter of self-transcendence and self-forgetfulness"?
Have you ever experienced this "self-transcendence and self-forgetfulness" in conversation? What was it like?
What do you think it means to say "good words are … not a matter of self-indulgence or self-focus"?
Have you ever experienced this "self-indulgence or self-focus" in conversation? What was it like?
How might self-knowledge be connected with good conversation?
What might Walker Percy mean when he says "one of the tasks of the saint is to renew language"? (cf #3 above)
What might the connection be between silence and good words? (cf #5 above)
Reflect on the comment by Pope Paul VI. (cf #6 above)
Reflect on the comment from the Pastoral Instruction. (cf #7 above)