When Words Get in the Way – A Meditation on the Value and Limits of Language

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: