Sunday, November 30, 2014

We are set free

‘Words… words, Bernardo!
There was a time when I believed in words!’

Francesco di Bernardone, in the cold of a snowy winter morning standing barefoot atop the stone wall of the ancient, consecrated ruin of San Damiano church, where he was carefully placing stones to rebuild it, responded to his sincere but confused best friend, Bernardo da Quintavalle, a knight just returned home from the Crusades, who had ambiguously offered, ‘I want to help you,’ without really understanding what that help would mean.

What started out as a vague offer of help spoken out of sympathy, in the end became a life-long devotion not only to his friend, but to a life of poverty and chastity, following the example of Jesus Christ.

How little we know what the words we think and say really mean. We live in mental and emotional worlds whose boundaries and rules are maintained by words that we have established by repeated use, half the time knowing that they were never intentional, never what we really wanted to say or think, but were forced to, by words coming at us like an armed assault by others. An army of words can capture whole nations to harness them for good or evil.

A most difficult word is ‘love’, because to say it unhinges huge doors and evokes from ourselves and others immense commitments, most of which we do not understand and cannot truly fulfill. When this becomes clear to us, gradually, we find ourselves saying ‘love’ with new meaning, or even with no meaning at all. The doors we removed from the walls of our hearts, once doorways lavished with garlands, become gaping holes resulting from bombardment.

Technically, our words can be quite specific when we speak of concrete things. It’s when we use them to express immaterial things that we get into trouble. Yet social life, even inner life, without them is impossible. It is here that words can become means of unity or division, both resulting from their vagueness and liquidity. Here words are either symbolic, bringing together, or diabolic, splitting apart, ‘a time for throwing stones away, a time for gathering them up’ (Ecclesiastes 3:5).

Hence we have to call the confession of the Christian faith the ‘symbol’ of Nicaea, not the ‘creed’ as many others do. It is not the Truth, but speaking its words unites us to the Truth in a way that mouthing the words of a mere belief system cannot do. We needn’t have to call upon God to distract us from building heaven-reaching towers by dividing our tongues as at Babel. It is obvious that we have already divided our own tongues. That’s why He reverses our work with the Nicene symbol.

So we are captive to the words we speak whether in knowledge or ignorance, whether in clarity or cloud, and what results from our captivity is either heaven on earth, or hell, but mostly in between. The Lord says openly, ‘So I tell you this, that for every unfounded word men utter they will answer on Judgment Day, since it is by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words condemned’ (Matthew 12:37). Calling the Word of God to mind, in fact living in Him, from captivity we are set free.

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