13 November 2010

Words of Life

Words, I keep reminding myself, are rather like musical notes and chords: you can never tell what musty old emotions they're liable to arouse, or what secrets, and secret treasuries, what lost memories and yearnings it lies within their ancient power to unlock. We all know of music so rich, and so unhurried, we can hardly be sure if its most abundant life lies in the notes themselves or in the pauses between them. Listen to almost anything by Ravel from his middle period - Le Tombeau de Couperin just now comes to mind. Try listening not just inside the notes, but between them, as it were. It's as if the music had enabled you to hear not just itself, but to hear, and see, so many other things besides - a withered leaf, a stairwell down an empty street, a gazebo in rain - things you'd normally never take the time to notice even sideways. But suddenly there they are, not only amplified front and center, but made purer and more alive, by the weaving stillness between the sounds.

In the same way, there are sounds of words, and word-arrangements, and whole word-compositions that can take you very deep into the heart of things: into the deepest, quietest part of the house, or the cave, or the garden - so deep, it is as if the space occupied by the words had suddenly become alive with things you'd have sworn only a moment ago were dead, or inert, so accustomed are they to being drowned out, or stomped on, or bullied into the obscurer corners of the Room of Life. But now hear them stir, roused and welcomed by the hospice of silence our words have created. Now see them, one and all, come edging slowly, gingerly, tentatively into someplace rather closer to the heart of that Room, and of its Maker - and alive, every one of them, with such frail or forceful spark of life as either dwells in them already, or as only God can enliven them with. (And may we never put limits on God's power to enliven anything - much less on His tenderness for even the shoddiest piece of wood's dream of becoming Pinocchio.)

The best words are always like that. The best words are always those which awaken silence, or bring us into those places in which silence can be heard with the most liquid clearness. And remember, without silence there is no sympathy, no understanding, and ultimately no mercy. Perhaps you think it's a hard, daunting thing to empty yourself of mercy towards another creature. Not in the least. All you have to do is talk over somebody loudly enough, arrogantly enough, and I promise you, in a very short time everything she needs - everything her soul pines for - will be drowned out by the roar of your agenda. (Maybe that's why, nowadays, we have such a devilishly hard time imagining each other's Selfhood: grasping what it's like to be you, or to be me. Or finding words that actually let that Self breathe, instead of making it choke on its own importance.)

Of course our loud talk has other practical and edifying uses, too, like deafening our hearts to the various muffled sounds going on inside them, or the various things desperately trying to get their attention. Loud bluster in particular can be most efficient at cowing not just other people, but other parts of ourselves - and especially those parts of us in which Imagination is not (quite) dead, but, like Jairus' daughter, only sleeping. Though I'm told that, even when asleep, it can on occasion hunger simply for the sound, the wind, the cry, of someone or something - perhaps, again, the sound of anything to which God can give a voice, and words. Indeed I'm sure there are not a few rooms, even in our busiest, most callused hearts - rooms seldom visited, perhaps never cleaned, but nonetheless of an exquisite quiet - in which, you'd almost swear, you can not only hear the pin drop, but half-hear its desire to climb back up again.

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