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Words Fail – Another Meditation on Silence Before the Mysteries of this Christmas Week

December 21, 2015

archangel-gabriel-struck-zechariah-mute-1824Though I wrote last week of holy silence, something urges me (a man of many words) to write of it again. During Mass today, the words of Zechariah came to my mind:

Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord … Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling (Zechariah 2:11, 13).

There is a common idiom: “Words fail me.” It is in this context that we can best understand God’s call to fall silent before the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation. Notice in the passage above that the call to silence follows the call to “sing and rejoice.”

Is there a difference between singing and rejoice, and just speaking? Of course there is! Singing, by adding the inscrutable sighs we call “song” (a deeply mysterious emanation from our souls) to the words, is declaring that “words fail.”

To be sure words, are a “necessary evil” for us. But honestly, in using words we indicate more what a thing or reality is not than what it is. For example, if I say to you, “I am a man,” I have really told you more what I am not than what I am. I have told you I am not a woman, nor a chair, nor a lion, nor a rock. But I have not told what it means to be a man. I have not told you myriad other things about myself that I could: I am a priest; my father was a lawyer and Navy veteran; my mother was a teacher; I am descended from Irish, German, and English immigrants. I have not told you about my gifts, or my talents, or my struggles, or numerous other aspects that make me who I am. And even if I spent several paragraphs relating my curriculum vitae to you, there would still be vastly more left unsaid than was said. Words fail.

Further, words are not the reality they (often poorly) attempt to convey. They are symbols of what they indicate. If you see a sign, “Washington” you don’t park there and take a picture of the sign. The sign itself is not Washington; it merely points to the reality that is Washington. You pass the sign and enter into a reality far bigger than the metal sign and begin to experience it. Words fail.

Many words are also more unlike the reality they describe than like it. My philosophy teacher once asked us how we would describe the color green to a man born blind. We struggled with the task but were able to come up with some analogies: green is like the taste of cool mint; green is like the feel of dew-covered grass. To some extent green is like these things, but the color green is more unlike these things than like them. Green, as a reality, is so much richer than the taste of cool mint or the feel of dew-covered grass. Words fail.

And if this be so in the case of mere earthly things, how much more so in the case of heavenly and Godly matters. The Lord therefore commands a holy silence of us as a kind of reminder that words fail. Silence is a proper reverence for the mysteries of the incarnation and of God. Words are necessary; without them orthodoxy could not be set forth and truth could not be conveyed. But, especially as regards God and the truths of faith, there comes this salutary reminder from St. Thomas Aquinas: “Now, because we cannot know what it God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not” (Prima pars, q. 3, prologue).

Therefore, fellow Catholics, as the mysteries of the incarnation unfold for us liturgically, Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand, Christ our God to earth descendeth, bearing blessings in his hand (from the hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”).

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Comments (3)

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  1. edraCRUZ says:

    In the midst of confusion of the modern man, he must find solace in the deep recesses of his mind, heart and soul the true essence of one’s being that he is a creation of One who is much much greater than himself, HE Who is GOD. Yes, Monsignor only in silence can we enter into this realization. Thank you for the series of posts on silence that even in the cacophony of noises in my life I have found HIM in the Scriptures and in your reflections. GOD Bless you and your ministry.

  2. Benny says:

    Monsignor,

    Great reflections on Words Fail. Although I don’t comment on each article, this blog post is very helpful to me for its ability to make a layman like me understand .

    I found this quote I a recent Reader’s digest that might sum of your gift of writing and speech.

    ” The best comics/writers/artists are angry people, but they channel their fury in ways that are infinitely smarter than merely yelling.”

    God bless you Monsignor for giving us all a wonderful god filled 2015.

    Merry XMas and a Great 2016.

  3. kim says:

    A deaf student that I once worked with uses an interpreter to comunicate through sign. When the interpreter was not present no words. I intently watched the student for understanding, difficult and successful. When there is no voice, how can one hear? I suggest that love finds a way. Scripture tells us to watch, pray and to wait upon the lord. Our dear lord has sent his holy spirit to interpret Our Father’s will if we are willing to listen to his unction and read scripture and wait. Waiting is not doing nothing but knowing He will come and he is preparing us to hear. Silence is waiting and this is an act (verb) of humility and through love a wonderful way to be heard; through love and a soul of adoration.