Language is one our greatest gifts. Our capacity to symbolize reality by sounds and words is nothing short of astonishing. The fact that you are able to decode these letters, words and sentences, and have an echo in your mind of what I am thinking, is a miraculous gift. It is a gift that we often take for granted.

But, I have often wondered if one of our greatest gifts also imposes on us a significant limitation. For, words distinguish as they must:  a tree is not a horse, is not a star. And yet, even while we distinguish, as we must, it is possible for us to miss the great and mystical unity of all things. Perhaps a tree, a horse and a star have more in common than we might imagine. As we use words and make necessary distinctions, it is possible that we stop reflecting on the ultimate mystery of all things. We learn early on to call this a “tree,” that a “horse,” and the points of light above “stars.”  But then, the danger is,  we just file these notions away and stop reflecting on “star-ness” and how it relates to “tree-ness” and so forth.

You may think I am being absurd but I’d like to illustrate how words can sometimes get in the way and that silence can have an important value. Consider some examples:

1. It is widely attested that Albert Einstein did not talk until he was three or four years of age. Thomas Sowell even wrote a book called The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late.   Some biographers think it was just that he was shy and thoughtful, others wonder at a mild autism. But in the end, Einstein spent a longer period observing the “is-ness” of things before “reducing” them to words. 

I have often wondered if this is how he was able to think past the usual categories and see the ultimate inter-relatedness of things. Who would have thought that matter is really frozen energy and also be able to relate its quantity to the speed of light!?  E=MC2 is a bolt out of the blue! The amount of energy in something is its mass, multiplied by the speed of light squared?!?  Who would have thunk it? And yet, there it is. It is almost as though an angel must have whispered this great secret to Einstein. And yet again, how could he grasp that time and space were really a continuum?  How could he abstract that, as we approach the speed of light, time would slow down?  Where did he get this insight which is far from obvious or easily tested by experience?

My own theory is that Einstein, in addition to his intellectual gifts, had spent more time in silence than most of us. Words didn’t “get in the way” too soon for him and he thus spent more time in an enchanted world where things were all aspects of some “One great thing” that caused them all to be inter-related and, ultimately one. I am not saying it was necessarily a conscious awareness he had as an adult. Perhaps it was just that this intuition of the oneness of things had deeper roots in him because he did not “too early” sort things out and file them all away in separate boxes.

2. In terms of our faith, it makes sense that, ultimately all things are one. Scripture says that Jesus holds all creation together within himself (Col 1:17). Scripture also asserts that God spoke all creation into existence through his WORD. Notice it is “Word” not “Words.” The Gospel of John says it is though this one Word, (Jesus), that all things are: Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:3). Hence there is a unity at the heart of all things, Jesus. St. Augustine says, that in the end there will be unus Christus, amans seipsum (one Christ, loving himself).

3. Hence, our many words, necessary though they be for us, ultimately lead to one Word, Jesus, through who all things are and are held together. For me, as a man of faith, it would seem clear that the enchanted world Einstein experienced before “words got in the way,” the world where all things were aspects ultimately of one great thing, was ultimately a glimpse into Christ, the mystical unifier and cause of all things. The one Word uttered by the Father.  

4. St. Thomas Aquinas had and “Einstein moment at the opposite end of his life. Aquinas was the great distinguisher and no one could articulate and classify like he could. His work is beyond compare and has been an enormous gift to the Church and mankind. And yet, at the end of his life he seems to have had a mystical experience which confirmed powerfully what he already knew, that words were inadequate to express the true mystery of things. It is reported that he said to his secretary: ‘Reginald, my son, I will tell you a secret which you must not repeat to anyone while I remain alive.  All my writing is now at an end; for such things have been revealed to me that all I have taught and written seems quite trivial to me now.  The only thing I want now is that as God has put an end to my writing, He may quickly end my life also’ (Bernard Gui, Vita 27, trans. Foster (p. 46)). Aquinas died three months later.

The apostrophe of silence at the end of his life is probably the most important thing he ever “said.” God is other, and our words, necessary though they are fall far short of the glory of God and the mystery of his creation. Unless we grasp this, as Aquinas always did, words get in the way and cause us to over-simplify. Words necessarily distinguish, but reality is ultimately more mystical than we can ever express. 

5. A parable- Abba Moses stood before his students in the desert one day and gave this teaching: “Every word or image of God is more a distortion than a description!”  The students were shocked and said, “But Abba, when you teach us of God you use words!” At this he laughed and said, “When I speak of God, listen less to the words, and ponder more the silence between the words.”  Now this parable exaggerates to make a point. Namely that words are necessary, but silence is even more necessary because of the limits of words.

6. The Gift of contemplative prayer as St. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross describe it is the gift to pray and experience God beyond words, or images. It is the experience of God as other, as beyond. Those gifted with this prayer cannot reduce it to words, it is ineffable, unsayable, beyond words.

In the end, words do fall short. They are our greatest blessings, but if we do not understand their limits they also curse us to a reductionist understanding of the world. A tree is not a horse, and neither is a star, but mystically they all come from one Word and have a unity far greater than we know. 

(Image above  taken from http://www.britannica.com/blogs )

OK, this post has been a little heavy. Time for some humor. Imagine you and I are having a conversation. Here is what my cat hears:

 

34 Responses

  1. Vijaya says:

    Great post and I feel terribly self conscious typing in this box right now. My son was a late talker (now he talks back). I bought Sowell’s book to understand him better. We never had any problem communicating, btw.

    I almost forgot but when he was two, Bach’s Air in G would make him cry. There is a lot of music that fills my heart and brings me to tears, but I didn’t know a toddler could have that response until then. One has to wonder what mysteries were transmitted from God to Bach to my son …

    The quote from Aquinas is so beautiful, how he expresses his longing for God and knowledge that has no words. We haven’t read any of his works. What would you recommend for a beginner like me?

    ps: have you ever seen the Gary Larson comic about what a dog hears? Too funny.
    http://classes.yale.edu/03-04/anth254a/gallery/gallery_images/language/Images/i10_31.jpg

  2. jj says:

    GREAT REFLECTION. Does this mean I can anticipate a five second homily?(lol) Just say ‘Jesus’ end of homily. I do believe in miracles. :)

  3. crazylikeknoxes says:

    Word.*

    [*This is a response I often receive from my teenage daughter. According to urbandictionary.com, it means "well said" and/or "is used to convey a casual sense of affirmation, acknowledgement, agreement." It is all I have to say on the matter. Peace out.]

  4. John of Roncesvalles says:

    VIJAYA

    Certain music does that to me too, especially when hearing particular relatively ancient Polish Christmas carols that bring to my memory family that I miss.

    I recently came across an account of Frederyk Chopin’s musings that he believed words fell far short in impacting the soul the way music does.

    • Music has a hidden power.

      • John of Roncesvalles says:

        No question about the hidden power, but like all power it can be used for evil as well as good.

        I recall a Shakespeare line ”Beware of the minstrel” which I always interpreted as referring to music’s ability to sway humanity for ill as well as for good. I think we’ve seen plenty of evidence of that in the past century.

    • Vijaya says:

      John, I know how you feel. All I have to do is listen to music of my childhood or the music that my husband and I listened to when we were courting and all the memories come back. I think Chopin has written something for each and every one of my feelings …

  5. John says:

    Your reflection reminds me of the writings of the late film artist Stan Brakhage. My favorite quote from his work is “how many colors does a child see in a field if he hasn’t been told what ‘green’ is?”.

    • Scott says:

      Technically, I believe this is a pseudo-problem. As a physicist would tell you, green and its various shades do not change based upon what we call it or label it. They are objectively present whether we call it ‘green’ or ‘yhgiujkb’, and whether we label them carefully or haphazardly (such as adding some red shades to the green group).

      Another way to think about it, the child and a man would see the exact same thing if they had the exact same eye properties, and saw the same field from the same position at the same time, etc. Mental constructs/categories do not alter the fact of the field and its properties.

      • hum, I wonder Scott based on what I’ve read of the brain I wonder. I agree that there is an objective “there” out there. But the brain does an amazing amount to fill in details. I suspect the scenario is a little less all or nothing that you say.

  6. Maria says:

    This article makes perfect sense to me.
    I was a late talker (4 yrs old). My mom thought I was autistic. The doctor told her my thoughts were ahead of my motor capabilities.!?
    I love St. Teresa of Avila & St. John of the Cross, love Carmelite spirituality.
    Funny enough (perhaps) I studied Math because to me it is the language of science. Now I work as an interpreter and translator. I use language all the time!! I speak English, Spanish, Italian I’m trying to learn Portuguese and in October plan to sign up for Latin.
    But now you’ve made me think “do I really need all these languages”? Maybe I should just be silent.

  7. Jon White says:

    I do not think your statement that “E=MC2 is a bolt out of the blue!” is not accurate. As far as I know, the idea did not come to Einstein from out of nowhere. Instead, he came across it fairly systematically by following logical and mathematical rules while working on his special theory of relativity. In that theory, he postulated a single new assumption (based on experimental results that seemed to indicate it was true): the speed of light in a vacuum is constant for all observers moving at a constant speed. It was his willingness to think through – in meticulous detail – what physics would “look like” if his assumption were true that produced that equation with cosmic significance. Interestingly, several other famous equations from Einstein’s special relativity theory had already been discovered by another person named Lorentz who had derived them from the same experiments on which Einstein based his assumption. But Lorentz did not have Einstein’s vision to see that the experimental results pointed to a single, universal speed of light for all observers moving at a constant velocity. Consequently, when Einstein first published his special theory of relativity, Lorentz (along with many other physicists of his day) voiced significant disagreement with its conclusions.

  8. Sean M says:

    Fr Pope,

    It’s funny that you should post this a day after this was posted at a Philosophy of Religion blog I read:

    http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2011/03/vagueness-epist.html

    It goes over the vagueness of our language and how we might seek to parse that fact with our experiences. Theism is offered as one of the ways solving the problem.

    Best,
    Sean

  9. Scott says:

    Msgr.,

    Do you have a comment on the fact that demons have been stripped of the faculty for audible language? Obviously they communicate with us (tempt us) by direct, inaudible suggestions to our soul, but unless they possess a human body they cannot speak according to our empirical experience. Apparently they can audibly laugh, roar, fulminate, whoosh, etc., but cannot render audible, intelligible sentences. Thoughts?

  10. AJ says:

    Msgr. Pope,

    Interesting thoughts. I thought it interesting that your point about St. Thomas’ “Einstein moment” was at the end of his life … wasn’t he also called, from his youth, the “Dumb Ox”? I believe this was in reference to his silence even while learning as a young Dominican from St. Albert the Great. Also, it’s interesting to note that Einstein had quite a fascination with the Church’s doctrine of the Holy Eucharist.

  11. Brennan says:

    You may be interested in what some semioticians call “lack of referential truth,” or the theory that no “sign” is completely separate from any other “sign.” You can find some good basic information from author Daniel Chandler, who’s written a nice book called simply “Semiotics.” Postmodernist thought may also inform some of your ideas regarding signs and signifieds. Psychoanalysis goes a long way toward addressing the idea that “all things are ultimately one.” Because in theory, without language, all things are indeed one thing. The stage before linguistic acquisition in children is often described as a sort of phase wherein we are shielded from the whims of linguistic expression experienced in the wider world. God is said to represent a return to this purported “shielded place,” as all symbols and representations collapse in upon themselves.

    • Scott says:

      Brennan,
      Please note that post-modernist thought as well as psychoanalysis are historically hostile (and substantively) to a Catholic natural law understanding of the human condition. Take your claim “without language, all things are indeed one thing”. Does language then explain the difference between gay “sex” and sex within a sacramental marriage? Of course not. Language, how we conceptualize things and turn them into cultural artifacts and markers, have nothing to do with the basic fundamental objective conditions that the natural law assumes, describes and makes normative (through God’s sovereignty). I urge you and others caution, because if I took seriously the epistemic claims of Lacan, Castoriadis, Derrida, Zizek and other post-moderns, I wouldn’t be a Catholic for very long.

  12. Piotr says:

    What Darwin Got Wrong (Hardcover)
    J P Fodor
    This book was written by two main stream academics and may be of interest to those who wonder whether or not Darwinian process of evolution can account for language development in humans
    Excellent post Msgr. Pope

  13. Rob Kaiser says:

    Words are inadequate to describe my thoughts on this article. :)
    Thanks again for another thought provoking post.

  14. Peter Wolczuk says:

    I really like the reference to Einstein. It’s so easy to assume that those who are different are less than ourselves. Such as Einstein’s late beginning with words. Most likely he was doing something uotstanding in grasping concepts instead of the words which imperfectly express them.
    I do, however, tend to agree with John White’s comment that E=mc squared was not a bolt out of the blue. Sir Isaac Newton however, another man of faith like Einstein, seems very much to have discovered gravity in a “bolt out of the blue.” For thousands of years people knew that things come down but, it was like water to a fish or … so obvious that it took a man of that high an intellect to see something that simple. Simple is not easy.
    For thousands of years there was a knowledge of gravity but not an understanding until Newton opened the door. Look at the great work since. Speed of a falling object 32 feet per second squared. Before Newton there was work on the knowledge like dropping a large and small rock from the Tower of Pisa and discovering that each fell at the same rate. Knowledge close to understanding but not quite there. When understanding came the knowledge purified and grew.
    Your use of and/or reminds me of recent guidance I’ve encountered in following the evolution of English. Books of a few hundred years ago used a lot more words – likely because no one was in a hurry to get through them to get to the instant electronic gratification of ipods and other ‘borg type stuff.
    Now I see it suggested that the use of “and/or” be discontinued since it’s not used much anymore and that the same concept can be expressed other ways. I doubt if anyone will bother with those other, awkward, ways for long though and a piece of communication will be lost. If this trend continues long enough the day may well come when words evolve into smooth flowing, highly efficient and meaningless noise. Then, when the Truth which can set us free from slavery to sin is told … will we be able to understand it?
    As for Einstein being called a “dumb ox” I’ve heard that it was a result of dyslexia which is now much believed to be the result of a special talent which society in general had no scope to allow for so, it was transformed into dyslexia.
    As for the link where gn (sic) constituting a “heap” and gn – 1 being less than a heap, we find a threshold level. like a certain amount of radioactive material reaches critical mass when it crosses a threshold level.
    This reminds me of a similar appearing concept about peak efficiency. As the system progresses efficiency increases until the peak; then efficiency starts decreasing. As we add more carbon molecules to gasoline, along with more hydrogen molecules, more power per molecule is achieved until we reach octane with eight carbon molecules. Then add another carbon molecule and the energy which is required to split the non combustible molecule into combustible atoms is so high that splitting and burning the 9 carbon molecule gasoline yields less energy than the 8 carbon molecule of octane. Hence gasolines are compared to octane (at the peak) by using an octane rating.
    I mention this to help illustrate the three peak.
    A one or two legged stool will be unstable but, a three legged stool, if the legs are arranged in a triangle, will be so stable that all three legs will contact ground even on irregular surfaces. Four or more legs will have stability on many surfaces but, unlike the three legged stool, will rock and clunk on some surfaces. Three legs have to be on an extremely bad surface to be unstable. Handy for a farmer going from one cow to another during the morning milking of pre technology days.
    With three showing a peak efficiency of stability science seems to have reached the point where it shows God’s perfection. He manifests in a Holy Trinity.
    Was this part of what God had in mind when He had Daniel teach one of Nebuchadnezzar’s administrators how to conduct a scientific experiment. Daniel 1:12-16 and when Thales of Miletus (termed the first scietific thinker) went travelling to find a logical explanation to natural phenomina he almost certainly would have been in Babylon at a time to hear of that.
    More of God’s great and perfect plan? May have unfolded slowly by our viewpoint but then; Psalm 90:4 A thousand years are to you like a yesterday which has passed, like a watch of the night.

  15. Paul Rimmer says:

    Excellent post! You think very deeply on these issues.

    Silently listening and watching is essential to good science. It’s one of the benefits of a mathematical basis. You can’t blabber in mathematics. Statements have to be thoughtfully considered before they can be even written down or expressed; otherwise, no matter how smart someone is, the statement is often wrong.

    There was a joke about Richard Feynman, the great physicist, in this strain, told by a good friend at his funeral:

    “How did Feynman solve a physics problem? Always in three steps. 1. Write the problem down. 2. Think about the problem very hard. 3. Write down the solution.”

    I think artists do the same thing as well. My brother in law is a great potter. I’ve watched him work. He spends hours in silence, very softly touching clay. No words, but there’s a lot of expression.

  16. Peter Wolczuk says:

    The comment about Feynman reminds me of one about Neils Bohr (another great physicist who worked with Einstein to disprove quantum physics) where he’s alleged to have said to another physicist; “Your theory is crazy, but not crazy enough to be right.”

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