Leap and Stutter


Piety makes for awkwardness, and where

Balance is not urgent, what one utters

May be puzzled and perfect, and we respect

Some scholars’ stutters. — Richard Wilbur, “Grace”

If there is one credo that I carry with me every day, it is that all that matters most is a matter of communication. Love, faith, hope, despair, being with someone and being apart from that one, speaking in all honesty and listening to others with a fierceness that defies obstacles—all of this is communication. And communication is, in its deepest and most profound sense, more than simply a transmission of information. It is communion.

One of the maxims of a psychology of communication is that we cannot not communicate. We’re always on, so to speak; we’re always sending out signals and we’re always receiving them, too, with varying degrees of awareness. Communication 101 says that we are not solely senders or receivers, but simultaneously senders and receivers. The warden in Cool Hand Luke was wrong when he sneeringly drawled at his prisoner (played by Paul Newman) that “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” No, there was communication between prisoner and warden; it’s just that one side of the dialectic refused to recognize as communication anything but abject subservience.

Communication and communion are based on trust—we don’t get anywhere without it. And the companions of trust are hunger, wonder, and yearning. Trust is first a verb; later, it can be a noun. The motion of someone who trusts is forward, out of oneself, a thrust outward from inside oneself. It can be a response in kind, it’s true, but the sort of trust that moves mountains and melts cold hearts is that which leaps. Trust is faith’s body.

In matters of the heart and in faith, we’re all amateurs, those who do it for the love of it. When we try to communicate with others across our self-imposed boundaries we are asking, in trust, for a certain latitude as we step into this new country. Like any traveler to a new place, we are all strangers, self-conscious and prone to mistakes, many of which we do not know we’ve committed until after they land in our midst, showering sparks and making the dogs bark. For communication to become communion, to go beyond information to intimacy, we need to recognize in the other the yearning to be understood. It sometimes gets disguised as bravado, an insouciance that covers insecurity.

With a desire to do right, to live right, to be right, we may cling to the old norms and practices, less out of understanding than to cover some weakness we might have overlooked. Trusting and leaping may seem almost ludicrous; we prefer to hedge our bets with the accustomed answers about the location of God (up and out there), our nature (inherently and seismically corrupt), and the authority of the church (incontestably the voice of God).

“Piety makes for awkwardness,” says the poet, Richard Wilbur,

“and where

Balance is not urgent, what one utters

May be puzzled and perfect, and we respect

Some scholars’ stutters.”

In grace, as in communion, we puzzle out words to each other that have the ring of authenticity, whatever they may lack in polish and certitude. Just as we might write to see what we think, so we may speak to learn what to say. “Where balance is not urgent” nobody will laugh if we fall, and though our piety may be awkward it becomes graceful as we practice it. “We write from aspiration and antagonism, as well as from experience,” Emerson mused. “We paint those qualities which we do not possess.”

As originators of messages our continued communication is only as clear as our ability to interpret and adapt to those signals which we receive in response from others. What we have given to others with sincerity may be returned in like manner, but there are no guarantees. Communion is a dance of memory trusting chance, and we dare not look at our feet.

“Now we aid and influence other people simply by being who we are,” says Richard Rohr, in Falling Upward. “Human integrity probably influences and moves people from potency to action more than anything else.” It may be that our most effective communication is simply when we are with each other, body and soul. There is a silence that is fertile, on the cusp of a feeling so deep that a word of comfort spoken will open the wellsprings of weeping.

How does this desire arise for communion? Gerard Manley Hopkins calls it the “dearest freshness deep down things,” as good a description of the Holy Spirit as I have found. “How can human beings speak of God?” wonders Barbara Brown Taylor in The Seeds of Heaven. “We do not do it well, that is for sure, but because we must somehow try, we tend to talk about what we cannot say in terms of what we can—that is, we tend to describe holy things by talking about ordinary things.” Metaphors become windows, a way to see through our walls to what lies beyond.

“So much talk of God has been punitive in focus over the centuries,” writes Mark Oakley in The Splash of Words, “a God out to take revenge on human depravity. It is surely time to start talking again, as the scriptures do, of a restorative God who takes it upon himself to uphold human dignity and asks us to join him. Although we have often begun with idolatry and ended in violence, for the Christian all must start in wonder and end in humility.”

Humility is essential because everything we can say about God is incomplete, bounded, simplistic. Ludwig Wittgenstein understood the limits of language better than most preachers: ‘That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent’, he said. We don’t know how to pray, said St. Paul, but the Spirit prays for us in language that is beyond the spectrum of our understanding.

The intimate secret about God that has been known from all eternity is that Christ is the very Word of God, the ultimate metaphor for that whereof we cannot speak. For us, Christ is constantly being remade in the images we need in our time. Unlike us, he is capable of adapting for us so that he may meet us where we are. If we find ourselves on the road to Emmaus, brokenhearted and blinded by tears, he may appear alongside us, the eternal promise of the Word made flesh in space and time. Only in his disappearance do we finally see.

Thomas Merton says, “I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

Richard Wilbur, with a cheerful wink, assures us that:

“To be unchecked

Is needful then: choose, challenge,

jump, poise, run…

Nevertheless, the praiseful, graceful soldier

Shouldn’t be fired by his gun.”

So, let us “come boldly before the throne of God,” and in that spirit hold our communion with each other through trust. A certain exuberance is called for in the presence of corrosive cynicism. In a time of lies we hunger for the truths that set us free.

Photo: Nick Fewings, Unsplash.com

Every Breath We Take

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1 (NRSV)

According to the Gospel of John the world begins with the Word. Communication requires two, not just one. The Tao Te Ching, the book of wisdom in Taoism, notes that:

The Tao gives birth to One
One gives birth to Two
Two gives birth to Three
Three gives birth to all things

In the astonishing clarity of the prologue to the gospel the writer gives us three phrases that build in intensity, each one leaping farther into the unknown.

“In the beginning was the Word.”

Not simply a word, but the Word. It’s a Word that is mysterious, yet so encompassing that the singular article exists to create the One that is all and communes with all.

But lest we think that this Word is alone, there is from the beginning a simple preposition, “with,” that evokes the image of relationship.

“And the Word was with God.”

This is not just proximity, an accident of spatial congruence that creates a false sense of belonging. To be with someone implies a confluence, a commingling, a relationship that continues even when the two are separated. “Are you with someone?” we ask the stranger at a party or a gathering. ‘Yes,’ comes the reply, ‘I’m just waiting for my friend.’ “And the Word was with God.”

Then comes the third phrase that jolts us with its audacity.

“And the Word was God.”

Not only is the Word with God, the Word is God. And it implies that the eternal One creates out of desire: it takes two to tango, it takes two to communicate. Bruce Springsteen and the Book of Proverbs say, ‘Two hearts are better than one.’

Everything begins with communication, with the Word. Communication gives rise to communion with the other, the one to whom we turn, without whom we are but silence beating the air, the sound of one hand clapping, a tree falling forever in a forest born before sound and light.

Everything and everyone begins with the Word; not just a word but the Word, and the Word is life and light and love. It brings us into being for each other, for without each other we are simply syllables looking for completion. Our lives against the vastness of the light of the stars are so fragile that we are drawn to each other in order to reflect God’s glory to each other.

The Word was and is God and thus is there from the beginning. The beginning is not just the beginning of us or of our glorious, fragile world, but a beginning of which we cannot conceive because we have no way of grasping how time can expand in all directions at once. We think in linear fashion: front to back, up and down, left to right, start to finish, but this beginning takes us back and back until, gasping, we are drawn in through the first word to some place infinitely beyond the beginning point.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That is a description of communication in action, of communion in process. That Word creates community within itself, and every time we open our mouths to speak we take on the risk to become one with that community, a community that exists within us and without which we are not complete. But as Thomas Merton reminds us, “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, beyond speech, beyond concept.” The Word draws us into communion.

Communion is that possibility that exists between people—the eternal possibility—that we may actually come to understand one another, the first step toward loving another. In all our faltering attempts at communication, with every word that rises up from within us, that possibility is there. It is not yet embodied, not yet made flesh until breathed out in our words, but it is there. So in every breath we take—no matter what the word is—in that breath not yet become a word lies the hope for true understanding between you and I. Between Sunni and Shiite, Protestant and Catholic, homophobic and gay, progressive and conservative, man and woman, Israeli and Palestinian, Tutsi and Hutu, sex worker and client, border guard and immigrant.

Once upon a time God came to this earth; the Word became flesh and lived here with us. Now the Word continues in our communion with one another. The infinite possibility for peace is literally within us at every moment if we will imagine our words to be the Word that came into the world to bring us light.

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”