When I entitled this column In Exile, I had a double reason in mind. Superficially, the title was drawn from the fact that I was living abroad, away from much of what I considered as home. More significantly, however, it was chosen because we are in exile in a much deeper sense. We live “as through a glass, darkly,” in our separate riddles, as pilgrims looking for a home, separated from consummate community. Recently I experienced a homecoming of sorts, I returned from abroad after three years. The question arose: Will I continue to write In Exile? The answer is Yes! I will continue to write this column from its former perspective, that of the foreigner, the alien, the one not-at-home. Only the most superficial aspects of my exile have changed. I remain the traveller. Far more serious is the question: Why write at all? At least, why write words? Lately I have taken to pondering that question. The written word is limited and limiting.
Gutenberg’s press was in fact a press, but, I am afraid, not just a press for printing. Like a winepress, it works by compression, condensing things, squeezing the grape into juice, life into a few scribbles. The written word skims off a certain amount of life, draining the blood from the individual grape, mixing it with that of others, and, at last, leaving everything looking the same, like ashes, arranged in neat lettered rows. There is perhaps more to be said for leaving the grape on the vine, untouched and unsqueezed, amid the heat of the sun, the buzzing of insects, the sweat of the grapepickers, and the odors of life and rot. Moreover, the words we write in books and newspapers are not nearly as important as the ones we write on human hearts. The world is full of meaningful words, written ones: novels, poems, visions, romances, explanations, assorted prose; all of it sitting on shelves in waiting, waiting for someone who wants a food shot – an evasion, an insight, a vicarious thrill, an arousal, a scotch, a war. All those words on all those pages, written, typed, waiting! What are they for?
And meanwhile there is a paper of a different kind with too little written on it. The human heart. It also waits – for a word, a smile, a kind gesture, an undeserved love, a deed detached from price, a warm cloak for its journey. On it we need to write our important words. There are millions of hungry readers for these words. Words with flesh. So why write written words? For the same reason that a lost soul stranded on a lonely island puts notes into milk bottles and floats them out to sea. Who knows? Someone might actually find the note and read it. Rescue ships might be sent, the bottle might come back with a reply in it, or its finder, as helpless as you are, might take consolation in knowing there are other shipwrecked exiles. Instinct says put notes into bottles and float them. Obviously it has survival value.
And there is another reason, perhaps more telling, for writing. David taught it to Israel. To survive you need to fling stones, written words in our case. You need to look at your heart, your values, your vulnerability, the words which are deepest inside of you. And you need to hone them, press them, make them smooth as David’s pebbles, and, then, you need to fling them in the face of the giant. This doesn’t come from instinct, it’s part of revelation. David’s palmed-smooth stones saved Israel. In the face of the giant, we had best be honing our stones, picking our words, flinging them to save life, church, sanity. But the honing isn’t easy. Words which have flesh must also have blood, our blood. The words of the greatest writer of all time dripped from hands ripped by nails and from a body pressed by the most monstrous and merciless of winepresses. Words like that have power. They turn confusion to clarity, despair to hope, hatred to love. They become the map leading out of exile.
They also become stones, a shepherd boy’s stones, smoother than David’s, honed to a razor’s edge, filled with sacrament and prayer. They penetrate; they stun the giant. His head can be cut off later with his own sword. They also write on human hearts. Words that become flesh can write on flesh. The important words, the undeserved smile, the deed detached from price, the willingness to forgive or to suffer for others, are not written on pages of paper. They are David’s stones, lying deep in each of our shepherd’s pouches, waiting. Press them, palm them, hone them, fling them; they will penetrate the skull of the giant. With these thoughts that humble the writer of the written word, I begin a new year of comment In Exile.