The Stewardship of Language

Presented by the Rev. Ann Stevenson and the Rev. Dr. Tad Meyer, husband and wife priests of the
Episcopal Church

 

A WORD is dead

When it is said,

  Some say.

I say it just

Begins to live

        

  That day.

 

 

--Emily Dickinson

 

The first piece of serious scholarship that I ever attempted was my honor’s thesis in Seminary which dealt with the aesthetic function of early Christian art. I won’t bore you with details, you will be delighted to know, but the basic issue that I was trying to deal with was how early Christians used and perceived art, principally iconography. In preparation for the study, I had to do a great deal of reading on the theory of aesthetics examining a number of ancient and modern philosophers. One of the most interesting questions that such theorists tried to address was who was responsible for the aesthetic experience. When someone was moved or inspired by a work of art, what exactly was inspiring them? Was it the artist who had implanted in the art work a particular aesthetic experience that was then perceived and appreciated by the viewer or was the viewer bringing to the art work a complex matrix of aesthetic experiences and needs which were then reflected – so to speak – in their appreciation of the art’s beauty? One very interesting theory that I remember was by a German philosopher Otto Baensch who believed that the aesthetic power of a work of art was in the art work itself and was independent of both the creative vision and input of the artist and the artistic appreciation and mind-set of the viewer. The artist certainly created the work of art but what it represented, communicated and inspired was not dependent on either the artist’s aesthetic intent nor the viewer’s aesthetic perception and appreciation. In her pithy poem, I think Emily Dickenson is saying something similar about words. Once uttered, words take on a life of their own and that life is no longer completely dependent on the will or vision of the speaker or the reception of the hearer both of which may have very different intentions and reactions to the word’s living power. It is what makes words so powerful and their effect so unpredictable.

In a similar vein, the contemporary American poet David Lehman writes: Words can have no single fixed meaning. Like wayward electrons, they can spin away from their initial orbit and enter a wider magnetic field. No one owns them or has a proprietary right to dictate how they will be used. Because of this inherent and unstable relativity, Jean-Paul Sartre thought words were “loaded pistols” and the illusive Pearl Strachan Hurd believed that they had more power than “atom bombs.” Words have enormous power, that is certain, but the point here is that that power is not always easy to control. What is said is not often what is meant and what is heard is not always related to what was said or what was meant. Words can be as slippery as eels and once uttered they can take on a life of their own, some time with devastating results.

I remember once a number of years ago, visiting a parishioner of mine who was dying of cancer in the Hospice wing of a local hospital. She had had a very full and successful life with a fulfilling and exciting career, a solid marriage and a loving daughter who had just gotten married to a delightful young man. Her life was marked with numerous professional accomplishments and also included many hours of outreach and service through various church programs. She had a generous spirit, a deep and abiding faith and was surrounded by loving friends and family. I was a bit surprised when I visited her one day and found her agitated and anxious and as we talked she looked like she wanted to tell me what was bothering her but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it – something was holding her back. We prayed and as I prayed I asked that she find the courage to speak what was on her heart. Afterwards she hesitantly began to speak, her voice filled with emotion. Her father died when she was five or six and her mother remarried a year later. Her step-father was not overtly abusive but was not really interested in her and seemed to avoid her whenever possible. One day when she was in the kitchen, he came up to her and knelt down to look her in the face. In a calm but powerful voice he told her she was worthless and would never amount to anything and then he got up and left. As she told the story she started sobbing and the deep pain which she had carried all these years poured out in all those tears. Those words had been like a knife plunged into her heart and for all these years that wound festered in her soul, inspiring her on one hand to prove them false but also wrecking havoc because she lived in fear that they might be true. I don’t think I have ever prayed harder with any person in my life as I did that afternoon as we sought to open up that terrible wound to the healing touch of God’s relentless love and mercy and I am happy to say that I think our prayers were answered as the incarnate love of friends and family showered her with a feeling of acceptance that finally silenced that cruel man’s horrible, abusive words.

Words, of course, are also one of our greatest gifts and resources, the primary means by which we communicate thoughts, ideas, concepts, feelings and emotions. Words enable us to express and share our deeply held values, our most cherished dreams, our fondest memories, our most heartfelt desires and our most poignant fears. In an important sense, they are the primary vehicle of intimacy, intimacy with God as well as each other. It is through the gift of words that we organize and encounter our own thoughts and feelings. Putting things in words, articulating them, often allows us to experience them with fresh meaning and understanding. As Christians, we are told that we must be good stewards of the gifts God has given us: the gifts of nature, the gifts of work and wealth, the gifts of relationships and, of course, the gifts of words. We must be good stewards of our language, trying our best to use it to deepen our intimate relationship with each other and with God.

The nineteenth century American poet Will Carleton wrote:

 

Boys flying kites haul in their white winged birds;

You can't do that way when you're flying words.

"Careful with fire," is good advice we know

"Careful with words," is ten times doubly so.

Thoughts unexpressed may sometimes fall back dead;

But God Himself can't kill them when they're said.

 

Eighteen centuries earlier, the Roman poet Horace famously quipped that a word once uttered could never be recalled. Words can do enormous damage within the fragile realm of intimacy where, as we have seen, partners are often exceptionally vulnerable. In the throes of anger or hurt, we can say something that will have a devastating effect. There are times, I must confess, that I worry about the unknown damage I have caused with a word thrown out in anger or contempt or in a misguided attempt to be funny or humorous. There are times when I know that I have spoken words intended to wound and diminish and I pray daily that I will be forgiven for them by God and by those I have offended. There have often been times, however, when the words that I have uttered have been misunderstood and caused harm that I never intended. Within intimate relationships such misunderstanding can easily occur as a casual comment uttered in an environment of vulnerability can strike an unexpected chord and create dissonance and defensiveness. Within that fragile realm of intimacy, we must be very attentive to what we say and how we say it and that often requires that we need to be very thoughtful and conscious of what we say and how we say it. Calvin Coolidge once noted that he had never been hurt by what he did not say. Being a good steward of language often simply means pausing before you say something and reflecting for a moment on how it could be understood or received in an intimate context. On the other hand, within intimate relationships sometime the problem is not simply with what was said but concerns instead what was left unsaid. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famous nineteenth century author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, once observed that the bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone. Indeed we often speak of a good death or departure as one were nothing was left unsaid. Intimacy means sharing with words our deepest thoughts and feelings, trusting that they will be heard, understood and respected.

On another front, I think that Ann referred to “unsaid words” two week’s ago when she was talking about words of affirmation. She very kindly did not use me as an example which I fear she could have with ease and integrity. Like many men, I used to think that you didn’t need to repeat things like “you’re beautiful” or “you are so bright and intelligent” or “you’re so hot I have to take some clothes off” or “I love you madly.” As our intimate relationships age, we sometime take things for granted. “Oh, she knows how I feel about her.” “She knows I think she is beautiful and intelligent, I don’t have to say it.” “After all, if I do say it, it just sounds like I’m sucking up – it won’t sound sincere and she’ll know I am just saying it to please her.” Wrong, wrong, wrong! Those words of affirmation need to be articulated with passionate regularity. And that does not simply apply to our intimate partners. In looking over some material for this presentation, I came across two quotations that I really enjoyed. The first is by a French aristocrat, Stephan Grellet, who escaped the French Revolution, moved to America and became an influential member of the Society of Friends, the Quakers. Grellet wrote: Keep your words sweet -- you may have to eat them. I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again. The second comes from a contemporary spiritual writer Ed Hays who is in his eighties: Our lives are fed by kind words and gracious behavior. We are nourished by expressions like excuse me and other such simple courtesies... Rudeness, the absence of the sacrament of consideration, is but another mark that our time-is-money society is lacking in spirituality, if not also in its enjoyment of life. In their different ways, Grellet and Hays speak about the importance of words of affirmation not simply within the bonds of intimate relationships but within the web of all the human relationships and interactions that form and shape our daily lives. We have no idea where a kind and affirmative word may be needed or where it might have a dramatic impact for the good which is why we have to cast them abroad with reckless abandon to friends, neighbors and even strangers. I am sure that you, like me, have had experiences where something we have said – some time without a great deal of thought – has made someone’s day and conversely when an act of verbal kindness has subtly but powerfully enhanced our own perception of ourselves or our situation.

We are all called upon to be good stewards of our language both within our intimate relationships and within all those encounters that mark the mundane patterns of our everyday lives. I can think of no better way to bring these disjointed remarks to a close than with the beautiful and inspiring words of the 19th century Swiss philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel – a blessing that I was first introduced to by Ann Stevenson:

Life is short, and we do not have too

much time to gladden the hearts of

those who travel with us, so be quick to

love and make haste to be kind.

And may the blessing of the One who

made us, and the One who loves us, and

the One who travels with us, be with

you and those you love this day and

always.

 

Wendel W. Meyer