Tag Archives: words

Wonderful Words

birdIt’s been a week of words, words, words, and more words. 

Some words were heated such as those between Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz in the Republican debates. Some words were measured and thoughtful, such as those of Mr. Carson and earlier Ms. Fiorina in those same debates on Thursday. If words had trajectories, the former words were missiles launched; the latter words were birds circling and weaving.

I’ve been thinking about words and their power, particularly this last week of Epiphanytide when the Church celebrates the Word made incarnate in Bethlehem, Christ manifested to us, the world, the Word alight in the darkness. 

Words continue to light the dark, to beam bright epiphanies into despair and loss and confusion. Words comfort and heal and explain and judge. They forgive. They love.

The Bible is called the Word of God, and I’m glad the Gideons still supply hotels with free copies in nightstand drawers. The Gideons, a society of Christian businessman formed in 1899, has distributed over two billion copies of the Bible in two hundred countries in one hundred languages, today printing eighty million copies a year. Lately I’ve noticed the Bibles sitting alongside the Book of Mormon and sometimes the Teaching of Buddha. I wondered about the rarity of the Koran in these rooms but understand there is a concern about disrespect. One imam said that Muslims don’t need a copy of the Koran for they have memorized the first chapter, prayed five times a day.

It is good there are other faiths represented in these nightstands. Inclusivity protects the Bibles from the charge of exclusivity when guests complain of religion in their room. Americans are a freedom-loving people. We believe in freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of thought and conscience. It is why we debate conscientious issues before choosing our president. It is why we fearlessly use heated words, or words launched like missiles across a stage toward our opponent, missiles targeting other words.

I enjoy the politically incorrect Republican debates. They show that America still has a pulse, her arteries are flowing, her heart beating, in her celebration of free expression. Some pundits have complained there are too many candidates in the field, but I laud the number. Let us encourage this multi-faceted discussion and be proud of the raucous, boisterous conversation. Let us appreciate the talented and articulate candidates who give of their time, talent, and treasure, of varying gender and generation, race and ethnicity. This is America at its best. This is how we elect our governors.

And we use words, words, words. Let them fly through the air, circle and weave, and come home to roost in our hearts and minds. Let the words win and lose, as they become forged in debate, fired by truth.

Lots of words. I’ve been sorting our late bishop’s words, his sermons, scrutinizing the yellow lined pages, the brown parched sheets, scraps from hotel stationery scrawled with words, handwritten, prescient ideas pressed onto paper, words written in the purple ink the bishop favored. Staples or  clips join some pages, linking sermons back to 1951, his year of ordination to the priesthood. I’ve come to see an order in the pages, and the words, how they fall naturally into Church Year seasons and feast days within those seasons. There are also speeches given at dedications, ordinations, baptisms, synods, pilgrimages, retreats, and funerals. Dates, places, and occasions are recorded in the pale pencil script of his loving wife. 

Hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of words. “He was a mystic,” a friend said recently. But then, all sacramental Christians are mystical by definition, for we believe in the mystical and mysterious action of the Holy Spirit among us in this hard world of matter. We believe in the mystical change in the bread and wine as the Word once again becomes flesh and dwells not only among us but within us in the Eucharist. We believe in the Spirit mystically flowing through the waters of Baptism and the oils of Unction and the words of absolution given by a priest to a penitent in Confession. The Spirit mystically weaves into the vows of bride and groom as they say committing words before a priest who, in the name of the Body of Christ, blesses their marriage, and the Spirit works mystically through the hands of a bishop in Ordination and Confirmation. 

As I study our bishop’s words, his purple script on yellow paper, I pray that God will enter my mind and heart and speak to me just as he entered my bishop’s mind and heart and spoke to him, that I might share these words bridging heaven and earth, spirit and flesh. One day, God willing, the words will flow onto pages bound into a book to be held and read, words that will instill the greater Word.

This last week, before the political words and the sorting of the words on the yellow lined pages, I sent off my review of Michael D. O’Brien’s Elijah in Jerusalem to CatholicFiction.net. In this end-times novel, Bishop Elijah confronts the Antichrist in Jerusalem. Like his namesake, the Prophet Elijah, Bishop Elijah listens for the still small voice of God. I too am listening for it, hoping to hear those huge words spoken by the little voice, whispering in the stillness of heart and soul. I often observed my bishop listening, listening to all of us with our many words and opinions, hopes and fears, but also listening to something else, someone else, trying to catch the quiet voice that wove among us as well. 

With the many threats at home and abroad, threats to freedom and faith, to liberty and law, let us celebrate free and faithful words, expressions of who we are and who we are meant to be, as Americans, as believers in God who became the Word made flesh.

Hell’s Vestibule

Sayers.Hell.Dante2It seemed appropriate, since the Bay Area is currently gripped by a heat wave, to reread Dante’s The Divine Comedy beginning of course with Hell. I’m using Dorothy Sayers’ translation in verse, and finding it surprisingly readable. I especially appreciate her “Story” summary at the beginning of each Canto, and her “Images” at the end, all most helpful and clear.

It was also appropriate, in this heat wave, to arrive at our local parish church, St. Peter’s Oakland, surrounded by its courtyard demolition. The garden and patio will be lovely, to be sure, when finished, but in the meantime we are negotiating chicken wire fencing that guards churned earth and pavement slabs. We enter the church, not ceremonially up the steps to the open narthex, our normal route across the threshold, leaving the public space to enter the sacred, but through side doors, maneuvering through back hallways.

So between the heat pushing down upon us like a great closing lid and the courtyard disorder, Dante seemed quite at home in my little brain.

Then, to this turmoil was added the Epistle and Gospel for today, taken from the Sixth Sunday after Trinity in our poetic Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The readings seemed to be all about sin and death (St. Paul) and hell and judgment (Our Lord).

We don’t speak of sin, judgment, and hell these days (in polite society, or rather politically correct society), and try to avoid speaking of death. I had forgotten how these Scripture readings appear like sudden flames in high summer, hard words not content to be safely corralled in Advent or Lent later in the year. And these words are so out of fashion. Today’s culture claims there are always reasons for why we harm one another and ourselves, always explanations, always escape from judgment by changing words and banning others from discourse. It is interesting that Christ not only mentions judgment in this passage but Hell as well, and we are to be judged for the simple sin of disrespect, calling someone a fool. “Whosoever shall say to his brother, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell-fire,” Christ warns in St. Matthew 5.

Such a delicate sin, it would seem, even a lighthearted sin, silly really, part of me secretly says, calling someone a fool whether in thought, word, or deed. Yet on second look, it seems more serious, something spawned by pride, an arrogance that slides subtly into our speech as it takes hold of our hearts, like a snake constricting our love.

For love is the opposite of pride. Love is the sacrifice of self for the other, not the uplifting of self over the other.

Words matter. Today especially. Sin is banished by embarrassment. Judgment deserted. Hell has long been hidden quaintly in fable and fantasy. Or has it? We pretend death does not await us… are we pretending about Hell?

I’m not too far into Dante, but the third Canto places us at the Vestibule of Hell, Hell’s Gateway. Spirits whirl about, distracted, following something here, then there, all the while groaning and shrieking and turning in anguish to keep up. Sound like our world? These are those who, when given the choice of Hell or Heaven, choose to not choose, to remain neutral. They are the undecided, those called by St. Paul “lukewarm,” who are neither for God nor against him. Even Hell spits them out. And so they spend eternity running after the latest thing, just as they did on earth. As Sayers points out, Christian eschatology allows us to choose Heaven or Hell. It would make sense that some choose not to choose. Dante could see our world; his world must have been similarly sophisticated.

I’ve known many people in this vestibule, or headed for it, inside the Church and outside. They slide along in a colorless and unfeeling world by banishing words that are uncomfortable or perhaps too true, too painful, to face. 

As a Christian I am glad to be reminded of hard words, thankful to be forced to face sin and Hell and judgment. The facing makes it far more joyous to be given the antidote to sin and Hell and judgment, an antidote in those same readings of today. And so, St. Paul explains, in one of the most profound and possibly difficult passages in his letters, that we are baptized unto death. He says that when we are baptized our sins die with the “old man,” the sinner in us. And as part of Christ’s body through this baptism, we follow Christ into his own death in this way, but we also follow him into his new resurrected life. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

This is good news indeed, real gospel. These are strong happy joyous words of truth. I would rather know and face my enemy – sin – that old man within me – so that I can die a bit so that I can live a lot. I don’t want to chase the latest idea, blown about by the whirlwinds of pride and arrogance, screaming in anguish and doubt and indecision. I want to know the truth, face life as it is.

The Church helps with this by reminding us, again and again, what is real and what is not, what is true and what is false, through Scripture and Sacrament, through Council and Creed, using words carefully chosen and honed and perfected through two thousand years.

We cross the vestibule and enter, not Hell, but Heaven, every time we enter a Church that holds these words close to her heart.

On Shame and Shakedowns

Writing ImageI just counted the tabs that appear across the top of my computer screen, those websites that I check regularly, and I seem to have fourteen, not counting OakTara (my publisher), Amazon, and Goodreads. Seven are websites I maintain, adding new content on a regular basis, and seven are sites to which I occasionally submit. 

My latest addition is Liberty Island (www.LibertyIslandmag.com), a site supporting conservative fiction authors. I recently posted the first chapter of my novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail. Last night I read a short story that so closely mirrored my own family experience (my husband and I are way outnumbered by vocal leftists), I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry with relief: “Caravaggio’s Isaac” by Scott Steward Smith. The story therapeutically re-enacted some of my own life trauma.

Words matter. Ideas matter. Words and ideas drive and form culture.

I haven’t seen Dinesh D’Souza’s movies yet, but I am looking forward to them. Jay Nordlinger recently wrote about D’Souza in National Review (July 21, 2014), saying that D’Souza contends that “the shaming of America is related to the shakedown of America.” Many liberals, with the power of the media to pummel conservatives, accuse and judge America, exaggerating the dark side of our history and twisting the truth, not telling the full story. They say we steal, we commit genocide, we enslave, we conquer, we degrade. This is the one-sided “narrative” told again and again in our schools and our news outlets and our books and our movies. Many generations have been raised on this self-loathing. Many are ashamed to be Americans.

The dictionary defines “shakedown” as the act of taking or restructuring through threats or deception. Accuse Americans even falsely and they feel guilty, regardless of the injustice of the accusation. When they feel guilty, they open their wallets. They vote the ticket that absolves their guilt, regardless of unwise policy, regardless of harm to our country. Many wealthy find the shaming and shakedown of America agreeable. They feel guilty also, but it is the guilt of the rich, and their guilt is absolved. They use their play money to support those who tell the story they want to hear, regardless of what works to grow our country, protect our country, or advance world peace and prosperity.

So through this shaming, America is deceptively taken and restructured.

And in this restructuring, the creation of a culture without free speech, without the institutions of family and church, will, ironically, eventually silence even the press that now appears to support the shakedown. And they don’t seem to see it coming.

Words matter. Story matters. When an unborn baby is called a fetus it is easier to kill it. It is an it not a he or a her and has no rights greater than the mother’s convenience. Other words make it easier to submit. Her “convenience” becomes an issue of “health.” She is making a “choice.” One could also say a murderer makes a “choice.” But the right to choose resonates with our desire for freedom. It sounds good. Words matter. We feel for the woman with an unplanned pregnancy. It might limit her options in life. That’s one side. But the child might open new worlds to her. That’s the other side we don’t hear. We want to absolve her of her guilt, soon to be grief, by saying it is her “choice.” We are a caring people. The liberals accuse, “For shame, pro-lifers, you do not care enough. You are warring against women.” Warring? When a new life is created and protected? Sounds like pro-lifers are defending women. Shakedown. Threats and deception. Words matter.

We should not be ashamed of America. We aren’t perfect, no nation is, no person is. But we must acknowledge what is good about our country in order to preserve it and water and feed it, in order to survive even flourish in a world that could quite possibly destroy our freedom and our way of life. We must be respectful and honorable, law-abiding, law-giving, law-enforcing. We must practice courtesy, return manners to our discourse, whether personal or national. We must wait our turn, not cut in line, share from love and not coercion. We must care for one another, giving generously to charity. We must encourage creative enterprise, inspire the next generation to use the minds and hearts God has given them to make a better world. We must vote, armed with knowledge of the issues and the candidates. We must be responsible to our nation, to our communities, to our families. We must support religious institutions that provide the myriad of services we take for granted in a democracy, from hospitals to schools to soup kitchens.

And most importantly we must be unashamed to speak, to use words and tell stories while we can, tell the truth about our country, our people, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help us God.

Rare Books

I visited an intriguing bookshop in Walnut Creek this last week.  It is owned and operated by a friend who loves old books – those printed before World War II. After creating a significant inventory in her home and setting up an online business, she took a leap of faith and established a “bricks-and-mortar” store in a charming old-town area of Walnut Creek. 

Walnut Creek is a suburb of San Francisco, and while once a quiet crossroads with horses and cattle grazing the surrounding hills, today it is a bustling town. But Main Street has retained its small town feel, not too different from my childhood memories with quaint shops, cafes, and shade trees. Parallel with Main runs Locust Street and the two streets form a quaint village center, perfect for strolling after a movie (around the corner) or a bite to eat or a coffee. 

Bookstores have had challenges here just as they have everywhere. A Barnes & Noble is farther away in a larger shopping area. There used to be a used bookstore in the Main Street neighborhood, but it closed its doors a number of years ago. So it is pleasing to see another store appear in the mix of shops that is book-related. 

Swan’s Fine Books is just that – run by Laurelle Swan and full of rare books. Set back from shady Locust Avenue and across the street from the Lark Creek Inn café, her store is immaculate. There was little musty smell that accompanies old books; the ambience was more of a genteel library with good lighting, attractive shelving, cozy corners to sit and browse. Only a few of the titles are behind glass – the rarest of the rare – so the visitor may enjoy holding and peeking into titles of all kinds. A Winnie-the-Pooh first edition caught my eye, but there were many other temptations. A few folks came in to look around, and I liked the fact that Laurelle allowed them to meander about on their own. “Book lovers like to to that,” she said, smiling, and I nodded. How true, I thought. 

Laurelle tells us on her website: 

Our desire is to allow you to both find that treasured book you’ve longed for, as well as to experience the wonder and delight of finding a new author or book you never knew was out there: to fall in love all over again and experience the reader’s wonder and delight.

Yes, wonder and delight is what I felt as I traveled through time in this shop. She showed me her different sections, by country and era and subject. Each book – it’s binding, its contents, it’s generation – was like a visitor from the past pulling me in. Some volumes had etchings that made them valuable; others the edition made them rare; others were simply unique, never to be duplicated, found treasures. The children’s books, especially, opened a window on another time, a simpler time, a time not far from my own childhood.

I thought about reading and my courtship with words as I travel into them, hearing them echo other words and meanings, my finger on the corner of the page, ready to turn, not wanting to lose the flow. I thought about those writers who were gone from us but their words occupied these shelves and here I was looking at them, reading them, in downtown Walnut Creek in 2013. I thought about the miracle of our brains, how our minds work to link us with one another through language, spoken and written, link our time with other times, the present with the past and future.

This morning in Sunday School as we sat in our circle and prayed the Our Father together, I was struck by the enormity of prayer and praying and offering our words of praise and petition to God, for in offering our words we offered ourselves. We folded our hands. We knelt. Our several voices became one, as we gave voice to this best-of-all prayers. Our words rose to heaven. I was stunned by language and its power to silence us to listen to its voice. 

The journey of words is captivating. They form in my mind, drift to my tongue to become speech, travel into the air to become conversation with God or with one another. Or they slip into my fingers and onto this keyboard, suddenly appearing on this white screen. Or they live in a book waiting in time and space. A miracle. 

So it was fun to travel through time and space in Laurelle’s unique shop, a truly rare bookstore, one-of-a-kind. Swan’s hosts free events from time to time (last Friday there was live jazz and wine) so her shop is swiftly becoming part of the neighborhood. She also features a shelf of local authors (yes, my books are there…) even if they aren’t rare (authors or books). With validated parking, it’s a pleasant visit to a unique setting, with some nice eateries close by. She’s always adding to her collection and she welcomes browsers. 

To see photos of the store and some of her treasures online, visit www.swansfinebooks.com. Or stop by and say hi for me: Swan’s Fine Books, 1381 Locust Street, Walnut Creek.

 

 

 

 

The Miracle of Words

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.