John Woolman, the 18th-century Quaker saint and antislavery pioneer, lived and worked among Native Americans for a time. He recognized the spiritual depth of native people and felt deep concern for their suffering.
Once, after an indigenous uprising, Woolman made a difficult and dangerous trip to visit the Delaware Indians on the Susquehanna River so that he might understand their lives with greater empathy. One night during the trip, Woolman tried to communicate through an interpreter with the respected Delaware leader, Papunehang. It wasn’t going well; the man couldn’t understand him. So Woolman asked the interpreter to let him try it without translation, then poured out his heart in a passionate prayer.
Moved by Woolman’s tenderness, Papunehang turned to the interpreter and said, “I love to feel where words come from.”
It’s a question worth asking: Where do our words come from? From what place in the soul do our words arise?
We make word choices all the time. Just this morning, my ophthalmologist summed up the state of my eyeballs with a two-word diagnosis: “incipient obscurity.” I imagine he thought it sounded more charitable than “aging peepers.”
Words matter. Our speech possesses the power to build up, bless, transform, liberate. As Christ-followers, we have a God-given mandate to use our words in the service of Love and in behalf of those whose necks are under the boot of any oppressive system.
“More and more, I find myself abandoning words in search of a more fertile silence grounded in the presence of the Holy.”
But from what place in the soul do words like these arise: illegals, invaders, deplorables, snowflakes, Rethuglicans, Libtards, swamp-dwellers, YeeHawdists, loser, lyin’, cryin’, dopey, dummy, sleazebag, horseface, pig, dog, disgusting animal? Our brother James might well have been anticipating 21st-century America when he wrote to 1st-century Christians scattered abroad: “By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell” (James 3:6, The Message).
The social and political climate in America – including much of American religion – has left me exhausted by words. I feel depleted by the dehumanizing language of the President; the blaming language of Congress; hateful words festering in the toxic petri dish of social media; and the pandering words of preachers and politicians who “sit at tables to bless moldy bread,” as Kenyatta Gilbert, professor of homiletics at Howard University School of Divinity School, puts it.
Faced with the overwhelming abundance and appalling emptiness of human speech these days, something inside me wants to follow Job’s lead and “lay my hand over my mouth.” More and more, I find myself abandoning words in seach of a more fertile silence grounded in the presence of the Holy. I’m reminded of T.S. Eliot’s haunting question in his poem, “Ash Wednesday”:
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence…
What if the source of our words is as important, if not more so, than the words themselves? When we sanctify moments of silence in our lives and allow ourselves to drop down into Love – beneath words, beneath ego, beneath the rational, dualistic mind with its need to label and judge – then the words we do eventually speak, not to mention the care we offer, the leadership we attempt and the prophetic actions we undertake, will be grounded in the healing, empowering, life-affirming presence of the Beloved.
When the 16th-century mystic John of the Cross wrote, “Silence is God’s first language,” he was making a profound theological observation. In the beginning, God’s great, creating word arose from a prior eternity of silence: Let there be light…and there was light. In the same way, when the words we speak rise from the love of God, nurtured in the soil of silence, you and I will shine some light at last in this darkened world.