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“Love” is a troublesome word, as our pastor pointed out at Mass last Saturday. “I say I love God,” he said, “but I also say I love hotdogs.” It’s a problem that many have tried to remedy. In the movie Annie Hall, Alvy struggles to explain his feelings — he doesn’t just love Annie, he “luffs her with two f’s.” In our own circle, SueBE, Ruth and I have turned to the word “loave.” Sue started it; in an exhausted stupor after working on her latest book, she nearly typed the word “loave” rather than “love” in an e-mail to the other two of us. Ruth, of course (with her love of wordplay), seized on it immediately. It now liberally dots our e-mails to each other. I like it, the way it summons up yeasty, warm rounds of bread, fresh from the oven. To bake bread for another: That’s love. Is there a bigger word than “love”? No, but we’re working on it.

How wide a word can contain
the heights of hope and the terror of loss?
How can a mouth move sufficiently to utter
what is utter — the strange shift in my chest
when I attempt to grasp the totality of You?
It is light. Heat. Pressure. Pain. Loosed bounds.
Open air. Joy. It is a rising, quick and breathless.
It is grounded to the earth. Perhaps it is a word
we cannot say. Our lungs ought to be trumpets.
Instead we cram its meaning into too small a box.
It lacks capacity, much like our hearts.
And so, “love” suffices. (Can you hear the
wordless word, thrumming in my veins,
bounding, banging, bursting, breaking?
It will deafen me yet, I fear.)

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Clue: “Kid with X-Box changes left for right and makes an appeal.” Answer: Prayer, of course! As anyone who loves cryptic (or British) crosswords knows, the solution is right there in front of you. In cryptics, part of the clue provides the answer; the rest consists of the mechanics to get there. In this case, a kid with an X-Box is a “player”; you then exchange the “l” (“left”) for “r” (“right”) to get “an appeal,” which is “prayer.”

But why am I bothering to explain this? Either you already love cryptics (and found the answer annoyingly easy) or you have developed an antipathy merely from reading the opening paragraph of this post. I am obsessed with them, often creating my own clues (see above) just for the fun of playing with language. But I wonder, why do I so adore these puzzles? They are frustrating, hilarious, stupid, wickedly difficult, unfair and deeply satisfying. They are like my mind.

They are also a link to my family. When I was very young, I’d hear, from my bedroom at night, my mother and my Aunt Beverly working cryptics in the living room. They’d shriek with laughter. I wanted in. So I taught myself how to do them (there are a finite number of ways to solve the clues, such as hidden words, anagrams, charades, double meanings, etc.). I have spent many a happy hour since then unraveling these puzzles with my mom (with my father often playing straight man and voice of reason) or alone.

Maybe that’s why I’m so comfortable with the many mysteries of faith. Jesus is both God and man? Sure, why not? The Eucharist contains the real presence of Jesus? Stranger things have happened. Cryptic crosswords have opened my mind to the possibilities and seeming impossibilities of creation. I get why God made aardvarks and platypuses. I’ve never struggled with the lack of reason sometimes involved in spirituality. Because I believe the reason is there; it’s just hidden — cryptic, but present.

When I run into a problem with my faith, it does me good to remember my puzzles. I’ve often stared at a clue for hours before the answer clicks into place (“murder victim sounds qualified” had me stumped until I remembered our biblical friend Abel). Maybe faith is like that. Maybe our frustrations come not from a God who is inconsistent, but from our own inability to decipher his clues.

Because you gotta know that God is far more complicated than a crossword puzzle. But the joy of understanding God? A million times more rewarding than any puzzle could be.

 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So begins the gospel of John…and the deepest roots of my spiritual connection to God. I have always loved words, loved what they could do with sound and meaning, loved them in their inadequacy and perfection. As a child, I was teased for my advanced vocabulary. “But that’s the right word for it,” I would think. “I could use a more common word, but it isn’t right.” From the beginning I knew that God was in both language and silence, that as flawed as words could be, they were a link to God — a beautiful and fragile link.

In The Little Prince, the fox tells our titular hero that when you tame something, it becomes yours forever. The same is true of naming things. That’s why I respond so warmly to John’s gospel-opener: God is, in my mind, the first named thing. In a world of small-w words, God is The Word.

Our words for God change and persist; they speak of power and authority. But God is also in the tiniest places, the humblest nest of the lowliest sparrow. God is in all words, from thunder to shame, eternity to crumb. Maybe that’s a compelling enough reason to use our words judiciously.

On the other hand, why not celebrate words? Why not lavish them luxuriously, paint a thick coat of them all over everything, dress up a tawdry world with silvery syllables? Isn’t that what poets and musicians do? Yeah! Don’t paint the town red; paint it God.

That’s what we try to do on this blog, at least in my eyes. We invoke God through God-as-Word. We praise God. We cry out to God. We participate in Godliness and ask our readers to do the same.

That’s a pretty sweet gig, from where I’m sitting.

From the time we were babies, my mother read to us. Not just children’s stories, either. She read poetry: Poe, Wordsworth, Eugene Field. My favorite of all was “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. It is a poem about a dashing criminal and his ladylove, who, in order to warn him that the Redcoats are waiting for him, kills herself. Despite the warning, he is gunned down “like a dog on the highway/ with a bunch of lace at his throat.” Not exactly Dr. Seuss. Still, I loved it. Part of that love came from my mother’s analysis and explanation of rhythm, rhyme and meter. “Listen to the way the words sound,” she said. “It sounds like a horse galloping down a road.” I listened. I heard it. My whole world changed.

From these early experiences bloomed a love of language. I’m fascinated by what words can do. Onomatopoeia thrills me. I dig a good palindrome. Anagrams are amazing. I consider language a gift from God. In communication, we are brought together. Imagine a world where each one of us were bound in his or her own metaphoric prison, unable to communicate our feelings or experiences! How lonely we would be!

So, in the spirit of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty,” I offer this paean to the world of words.

Blessed be to God for the look of letters!
The curve of the “s,” the slick feel on the tongue.
The piquancy of “p,” the feel of “r” as it resonates, roars.

Blessed, too, the sounds —
heavenly diphthongs! Glorious blends!
The sunny way “yellow” glints from the page,
the blank stare of “morose.”

And, oh, for the way words bridge our gaps,
fill our chasms with sound and sense,
bring together the unlikeliest of minds,
smooth over our offenses.

Letters become sound become meaning
and a way is lit to heaven;
we need only to follow them
to find You.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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