Of Words and Wonder


I’m finding that the familiar has a tendency toward the invisible. The more I grow accustomed to a thing, the harder it becomes to see that thing in its fullness. And oftentimes, I don’t even recognize when this happens: because many things are so familiar, so ordinary, such an integral dimension of the warp and weft of my everyday existence, that I become unconscious of them altogether. This has puzzled me exceedingly. Why is it easier to see the beauty of a new place, than the tree, or river I pass every day? Why can I recognize the gifts and strengths of a person I’ve just met more readily than the friend I’ve known for years? What causes us, simply because we know a thing, to reduce it to what we know about it, and cease to expect any more? Cease expecting to be surprised?

Usually, in order to break the fog of familiarity, and really recognize the depth and significance of something requires another: it requires someone with new eyes, who has recognized something new and surprising in a thing, to restore to us our own awareness of it: when you bring a friend to a familiar place for the first time, and witness their reaction to the beauty you have grown accustomed to. When you return to a beloved story years later, and discover new things, because of the new experiences you have had in the meantime.

Recently, several encounters have been restoring to me a new wonder in the face of the very everyday reality of words themselves. I use words everyday. I’m using them right now. When I’m not speaking them, reading them, writing them, I’m at least thinking them. Words are as familiar to our experience of being human as our own bodies, our own breath. Have you ever stopped to think, though, what the world would be like without words? Without language? When you encounter someone who can use words to bring to life things unseen, inexplainable, it is an experience of freedom. And it was George MacDonald and Andrew Peterson this time who became the ones to give me new eyes.

George MacDonald has an amazing essay entitled, “The Imagination: its Function and its Culture”, in which he explores the beauty and importance of our imaginations to what it means to be human, and to our ability to fully enter into the world that God created, and to live our “imaging” of God more fully. (See full article here). There is a wealth of reflection in the essay to which one could devote an entire post in itself, but for now, I simply want to share how MacDonald explores the significance of language, and its ability to give voice, to give flesh to our experience of the world. For MacDonald, all words exist to draw a connection between things in the external world, and man’s interior experiences. They work as mediators, per se, between our internal life, and external realities. Describing this process, he says:

…let a man become aware of some new movement within him. Loneliness comes with it, for he would share his mind with his friend, and he cannot; he is shut up in speechlessness…Gazing about him in pain, he suddenly beholds the material form of his immaterial condition. There stands his thought! God thought it before him, and put its picture there ready for him when he wanted it…man cannot look around him long without perceiving some form, aspect, or movement of nature, some relation between its forms, or between such and himself which resembles the state or motion within him. This he seizes as the symbol, as the garment or body of his invisible thought, presents it to his friend, and his friend understands him. 

He uses the word “Emotion” as an example of this:

Take any word expressive of emotion–take the word emotion itself–and you will find that its primary meaning is of the outer world. In the swaying of the woods, in the unrest of the “wavy plain,” the imagination saw the picture of a well-known condition of the human mind; and hence the word emotion.

What MacDonald is drawing attention to is not only the fact that words serve to give flesh and form to our thoughts and interior experiences, but also that they are born out of man’s desire to communicate his interior experience with another. It is our burning longing for communion, to share ourselves, that inspires this need to find a way to share what is interior to us with others. This is the motivation, this is the longing that drives language: that drives man to create, and then speak and use words.What follows implicitly from this is the fact that language is also essentially communal: it seeks to both draw a relationship between things, (interior and exterior) and in such a way then as to be able to create a shared understanding of these things between people.

I experienced this process of words in a striking and concrete way when I encountered a post at one of my favorite blogs, called “The Rabbit Room”. Founded as an online community for artists, Andrew Peterson, the founder, in his description of why he began the blog, talks of his love of C.S. Lewis. (See post here). One line of his struck me in a way I will not forget:

…The world knows little about Lewis and lauds him not. But the marks this man’s stories left on my soul–the gospel in his stories–are deep and lasting and I believe I’ll one day show them to him. 

He is speaking about the effects of another man’s words, another man’s communication of his experience, on his own life. But in the process, I, reading his description am in turn enabled by his own words to enter into this experience with him: to share in his experience of another person’s experience! In other words, Andrew Peterson, by the use of his words, opened up the experience of C. S. Lewis’ work in a way that perhaps it would not have been opened merely by my encountering Lewis unmediated. Yes, Andrew is thus the mediator between Lewis’ experience and my own: Andrew’s experience becomes a mediator for me. Words are essentially mediatory, between people, between us and reality itself, between myself and my own experience of the world.

How does Andrew’s sentence work as a mediator? He appeals to forms, to things outside of us, that are a part of our common human experience in the world, to shed light on what he is drawing attention to. Therefore, it is because I, in my own experience, have encountered wounds, and scars, that leave marks, that I can enter into the reality that Andrew is pointing to. I can suddenly enter into his experience: know on a certain level, what his encounter with C.S. Lewis was like. But the deeper beauty is that this does not end with the first time I hear the word from Andrew. I have been touched, moved, changed so many times by the witness of different people, by countless authors, by countless works. But it took Andrew Peterson’s phrase to give a shape, a name, a language to my experience. He had found the words to give flesh to a reality that until then had been only interior to my experience: his words unleashed this experience of mine, and gave it freedom. Now, whenever I am moved by someone’s writings, or art, I think of that line, I picture the vivid image, of showing off the wounds of that beauty like battle scars to the artist in heaven, and I am enabled to experience even more fully and deeply the original beauty before me. Therefore, suddenly, because of Andrew’s image, because of his words, this experience I have lived over and over in the face of writings that have moved me now is given a communicable form: it is something that can be shared, that can be lived in communion.

To say that words are mediatory, metaphors, analogies, communal… is also to say something more: words seem to be, in a way, sacramental. They point to, and in a mysterious way, perhaps, make present a deeper reality they signify.

And pondering this brings me another step deeper: Perhaps, just perhaps, this whole drama of the experience of words is precisely why God chose to reveal Himself, among all the other possible images, as the Word. Our common experience of language, of the gift of words to make tangible, to enflesh our individual experience in order to share it, to communicate it with another… maybe this reality is a privileged entry point for us to understand what God meant by sending His Son, by taking on flesh… for the sake of communion with us. To be able to share with us His own interior Divine life! The Word, in whom all words find their origin and name, became a living, enfleshed Word to share Himself with us. Because God is in love with communicating Himself. In fact, He is communion: He is Love itself. It was the Word of this Love, of this Communion, Who became Flesh: in the Body of our humanity, and in the physicality of His written Word on a page, in order to communicate, mediate, give tangibly, in the language of our human life and in language itself, His own reality, His own life. The event of the Incarnation, as with human words, was likewise born from God’s desire to give Himself, to communicate the interiority of His life, with us.

I am fascinated, overcome, intrigued with this art, this need we have of naming things. The process by which man aches to find a word, a language, to give form to his experience, to his feeling, to his interior life. And yet, I have never until now stopped to think about how this desire, this longing is so deeply intimate to our imaging the God Who made us: that, in fact, our using words themselves is one of the ways that we live in the image of a God Who is communion, who is the desire to give Himself fully… Who is the Word.

And if this awareness doesn’t leave deep marks on our souls… I don’t know what will.



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