Words are really all we have to fend off the chaos. They can’t make or remake reality, but they can give us a vision with which to lift ourselves out of the ordinary.
But today so many of the words we need to fend off the chaos no longer have much power to do that. We’re like D. H. Lawrence’s, Lady Chatterley. Of her world, Lawrence writes: “All the great words were cancelled for her generation. Love, joy, happiness, home, mother, father, husband, all these great dynamic words were half dead now.” That’s true too for us. More and more, the words we need to give us meaning have less and less power to do that. The deep things aren’t deep any more. What’s meant by that?
The meaning we give things depends upon the words, the symbols, with which we surround them. For example, suppose you suffer from chronic backache. Your doctor can tell you that you have arthritis, a biological way of explaining your pain. You feel better for that. A symptom is less painful when it’s named. But there are various levels of naming. You can go to see a psychologist and she can tell you that your pain is more than a medical condition: “You’re in mid-life crisis,” she says. Those words speak of more than simple arthritis. Your symptom now has a meaning beyond the simple creaking of age. But it can go deeper still. Talking to a spiritual director, you are told that this pain is your cross, your Gethsemane, your dark night of the soul, your river of Babylon, your desert-experience for transformation. Ordinary pain now becomes something with a religious meaning and significance. Meaning depends upon the words we use to describe our pain.
The same holds true for love. What does it mean to “fall in love”? That you have “great chemistry” with someone? That you have found a “soulmate”? Or that you have found the person whom God, from all eternity, has destined you to meet? That last interpretation doesn’t exclude “great chemistry” or finding a “soulmate”, but it adds a wonderful extra dimension, God’s providence in our lives. A deeper set of words sets your finite experience against an infinite horizon and that, precisely, is the secret to faith and meaning.
When we surround our everyday experiences with the proper words then our experiences are longer half-dead, as D.H. Lawrence says. Ordinary experiences – love, joy, pain, happiness, marriage, being a father, being a mother, being a husband, being a wife, making coffee, drinking it, doing our ordinary chores – will contain something of the timeless, the eternal. Meaning and happiness are less about where we are living and what we are doing than about how we view and name where we are living and what we are doing. A symptom suffers less when it is correctly named and an experience is only sublime when it’s given its proper name.
There’s a famous story of a journalist interviewing two workers at a construction-site where a new church was being built. She asked the first: “What do you do for a living?” His reply: “I’m a brick-layer” She asked the man standing beside him: “What do you do for a living?” He replied: “I’m building a cathedral!” Perspective changes everything and it comes from how we understand and name what we’re experiencing.
Canadian poet, J.S. Porter, once said: “When you take away the sky, the earth wilts!” He’s right. When we don’t surround our ordinary activities with the proper words and symbols we soon lose all enchantment and our experiences become precisely half-dead. We need wide vision, high symbols, and the right words to turn the seeming poverty of our ordinary lives into the stuff of faith and poetry.
Rainer Marie Rilke once received a letter from a young man who complained that it was difficult for him to become a poet because he lived in a small town where life was too domestic, too parochial, and too small- time to provide the stuff of poetry. Rilke wrote back something to this effect: If your daily life seems poor to you, then tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches because there are no places or lives on earth that are not rich. Every life is potentially the stuff of poetry, of romance, of the sublime.
What’s the secret to calling forth those riches?
G. K. Chesterton, I think, had it right when he said that we need to learn to look at things familiar until they look unfamiliar again. We’ve an unhealthy itch for what’s new – salvation through novelty alone – but the words we need to lift us to the heights of poetry and the sublime are more often found in the ancient wells of faith, on old parchments of scripture, and in over-familiar hymns and confessions that we call the creeds.
When our own words are half-dead we need to relearn some older secrets.