In this age of social media, twitter, texting, etc., the question has been loudly posed: what is happening to our language? What effect is there on a person or society that our communication can be whittled down to 120 characters, or that our attention might only be captured by sound bites?
Recently I have found myself thirsting for good books. I read the novel Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell (yes, from which the movie with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry was made) and was surprised by how delighted I was while reading it. It was like sipping a really great wine, or being enthralled by a powerful movie. I was taken by Mitchell's mastery of the English language. His ability to write six stories using six different styles, crafting English in a way I had never seen before, was simply impressive. Moreover, with seemingly little effort, he transported me to an exciting and boundless world that I was all too happy to enter. Not long after finishing the book, I was on a long road trip with another brother on which we listened to lecture by Peter Kreeft entitled: The Language of Beauty. After it finished, I felt as though my eyes were opened to the depth, importance, and power of the written word. I was saddened by how woefully ignorant I felt in how to properly appreciate it. I had the sudden urge to crack open great poetry and literature, but realized I didn't know how, didn't know where to start, and lacked the tools to do so. I yearned to learn to read differently so that I could unlock this enticing mystery of words before me, so that through them I could discover the world.
In the lecture, Kreeft expounds on the idea of how words carry and preserve the character of a thing; that through words we can come to discover the world around us. He opens with a simple example: the word "silver." This word has a particular sound which carries a certain tonality and "color." He then compares "silver" to the word "argent." Argent, also meaning "silver," has a whole different texture, feel, context, and history. There is a majestic quality to it. Both "argent" and "silver" point to the same thing, namely the color/metal/object we call "silver," but what does each word tell us about it? What would happen if the English language lost the word "argent" from its vocabulary? Do we as an English speaking society lose something important if of our understanding of silver could only be expressed through the word "silver"?
Kreeft gives resounding praise to J.R.R. Tolkien who through his writings, especially The Lord of the Rings, demonstrates just how important and powerful words can be. Kreeft considers him to be the great master of the word, and encourages us to learn from Tolkien the extent to which words, especially names, carry meaning, authority, and a dignity that is to be respected. Moreover, and more fundamentally, Tolkien can teach us how words affect how we relate to each other and how we can come to more deeply understand our human nature.
Kreeft poses a real challenge to us: Be careful to preserve language, because in language is found the depth of the human experience, a wisdom and knowledge of the human past, and an avenue to discover the world around us, even God. It is no coincidence that in our Christian faith, God manifested himself to us as logos, the Word, and that this Word comes to us in Jesus Christ. Christ's name has the power to cast out demons, heal the sick, and convert hearts. It is in this Jesus that the fullness of humanity and divinity resides. Moreover, the Catholic Church teaches that an essential element of the Mass is the encounter with Christ through the reading of Scripture. Through its recitation, and in our hearing of it, Christ is made present in our midst.
Some parting questions to ponder:
1) How do we use words today? How do they draw us to people or separate us from them?
2) Do we take language for granted? What of the world can be discovered through a deeper appreciation and exploration of language?
3) How do we encounter Christ in the written word, Scripture? Where do we struggle with it? Where do we find nourishment? What can we do to better engage God through Scripture?
4) What is the role of language in the liturgy? How do words shape and change the experience of ritual? Should there be a difference between the way we speak in a ritual context vs. at the kitchen table?