There is a story told about the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. During the Stalin purges, she was standing one morning outside a prison along with some other women, all of whom were trying to deliver letters and packages to their loved ones inside. Their waiting was made more painful because they were not even sure whether their loved ones were still alive and by the fact that the guards made them wait needlessly for hours simply to assert their authority. But, if they wanted to get messages to their loved ones, they had no other option but to wait.
On this particular morning, another woman recognized the poet, approached her, and asked: “Can you describe this?” Akhmatova replied: “I can,” and a smile passed between the two women.
What had happened? Why did these women, caught up in the madness of a dictator, exchange a smile? Because to describe something, to simply name something properly, in some way already sets you above it. To name something is to be somehow transcendent to it, not fully imprisoned by it, free of it in some way, even if, like Stalin, it has you under its yoke. To name something properly can be prophetic, a defiant act, an act of freedom. Indeed that is what prophets do. They don’t foretell the future, they name the present properly – often times in a way that exposes its faithlessness and injustice.
Nearly fifteen years ago, David Tracy wrote a book entitled, On Naming the Present Moment. In it, with an objectivity that most of us can only envy, he tried to name, philosophically, the present moment within secular culture so as to highlight what is best both inside of liberal and conservative biases. His essay was hope-filled and gave us direction in the same way that a trip to a good doctor gives us hope and direction concerning our health. Good diagnostics is the prerequisite for good prescription, just as bad diagnostics, bad naming, leads to either bad or useless prescription. Today, both in the church and in the world, there is, I feel, a lot of sloppy naming. We need, both for better diagnostics and better prophecy, to name our present faith moment more accurately. A symptom suffers most when it doesn’t know where it belongs.
But there is more: To name something properly is also a form of prayer. Jesus called this, reading the signs of the times. What does he mean by that expression?
What Jesus had in mind was not that so much that we should try to attune ourselves intellectually to all the cultural, psychological, and religious trends of our time. To read the signs of the times, for Jesus, meant trying to read what is happening in our lives, communally and individually, in such a way as to discern the finger of God inside the outer movements of our lives. My parents called this trying to see “divine providence”, namely, trying to hear what God is saying inside the outer events of our lives.
There is a rich biblical background to this. Indeed, in many ways, this is central to the faith of Israel in the Jewish scriptures. For them, nothing happened that was purely an accident. God’s finger was always inside of every event, no matter how secular or accidental it seemed, and the task of faith was to try to read what God was saying inside every event. For example, if Israel lost a war, it wasn’t because the other army had superior soldiers. It was because God was trying to teach her something, there was something she was supposed to learn from this defeat. Likewise, if there was a drought, it wasn’t because there was global warming, it was because, for reasons Israel had to try to discern, God wanted her to live on less that year. For her, nothing was purely accidental, God’s finger was somewhere inside of every event, speaking to her.
James Mackey once defined divine providence as a conspiracy of accidents through which God speaks. That runs close to what John of the Cross meant when he said that the language of God is the experience that God writes into our lives. Our task is to read that language, and we read it when we properly name the events of our lives. A proper naming does three things: It is prophetic, it names our faith and our faithlessness, our justice and our injustice; it is diagnostic, it points to the correct prescription to help remedy our ills; and, most importantly, it is a form of prayer, it tries to hear what God is saying inside the outer events of our lives.
Today we tend to name things too much according to our particular ideology, liberal or conservative. This is true both in politics and in the church. The challenge is to be more careful and especially more prayerful. Not everything can be fixed or cured, but it should be named properly.