Words are miraculous. Formed from letters, they grow into sentences and paragraphs. While usually letters alone do not represent thoughts, a single word does. So it is a big jump, a stupendous growth spurt, from letters to words.
Letters make sounds when spoken, spurted into the air, breathing upon the hearer. Letters don’t have to be heard, however, they may be merely seen on a page or screen, but even then they are heard silently in the mind and sometimes even in the heart and memory.
You could say all expression begins in the mind. I have a thought and I desire to share it with you. So I look for words, not letters – the letters are assumed, whole language is so automatic – to string together so that I may express my thought. “Pass the box of chocolates.” In addition to my simple expression of desire, I have learned to soften statements with please and thank you. I have been encouraged, through the social mores that have raised me, to couch arguments in pleasing phrases, perhaps even more cogent phrases. “Please pass the box of chocolates.” or “Could you possibly pass the box of chocolates? Please have one first… I would be ever so grateful… many many thanks…”
Language grows, is supplemented with leaves and tendrils and flowery shoots. Sometimes it is pruned back to brutal stalks. Language changes with social desire. And then, there are many language gardens in our world, each with its own landscape plan, varying beds of flowers and herbs, each with its own history of planting and fertilizing and harvesting.
Today we celebrated Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples:
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind and if filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language…the wonderful works of God. (Acts 2)
I love this passage in Acts, written by St. Luke. The rushing wind. The cloven tongues that looked like flames of fire. The sudden speaking in other languages. The devout in Jerusalem understanding them, learning of the love of God in the ultimate Word made flesh, their Messiah come.
The Holy Spirit, promised by Christ when he ascended to Heaven, gave them the power of miraculous words, of expressing the news of God’s coming among men to those who spoke in other languages. This was a practical gift. As a reversal of the dispersion in Babel centuries earlier, here in Jerusalem, the people are brought together.
How does God bring us together? How do we share, console, encourage, love? Through words. Through action and touch, to be sure, but through words, a divine and miraculous form of action and touch.
It is interesting that it is the devout in Jerusalem who come together and understand the disciples when they speak. It is those men and women who listen for God’s voice who hear and understand. It is those men and women faithful in prayer and synagogue, who have tried to keep the law as given to Moses, who hear God. True today as well.
Words. From the mind and through the lips, ideas birthed to breathe the air, breezing if not rushing into the ears of the listener, into the heart and mind. I have read that there is a listening component in the effort to hear. There must be a degree of attention paid, of mental effort. Growing deaf and not trying to hear causes a person to slip in the mind as well as hearing. The deaf often retreat into their own worlds. So words, like the seeds in the parable of the sower, must fall on listening ears, ears hearing, minds minding. Those devout men and women in Jerusalem were listening. They were mindful.
The Spirit descends and rushes upon us like a mighty wind. It reforms our minds with new words, new expressions, new ways of seeing the world and God the Father. And yet they are the old words, the old expressions, the old ways, rebirthed uniquely in each of us in the Church where this Spirit lives. Rebirthed in those who listen, who have ears to hear, who pay attention to words on a page.
After Mass we gathered to share coffee and snacks and words. A new family from Nigeria has joined our parish and I asked them how they pronounced their names, hoping beyond hope that the g in Igbonagwam was silent. And, praise God, it was! But still the sounds were foreign to my American ear. The sounds were foreign but so beautiful, like the deep blue of the sea and the rich green of grass. Like a coral sunset. Like a melody in a major key, lilting, dancing. I asked about another name, Ikeme. My new friends explained how the e sounded like an a, and the i sounded like an e. From their culture into their minds through their lips to my listening ears, into my mind. Then, miraculously, I exhaled the names through my lips into the air, not creating a mighty rushing wind, but definitely a sweet breeze.
A miracle indeed. Come, Holy Spirit, come.