Language is tricky. Every word or phrase that reveals God also conceals God. Why? Because God is bigger than the limits of the human mind.
— Carl McColman (@CarlMcColman) September 19, 2013
@CarlMcColman Language does this to all sacred things… Which is to say, language does this to all things. 🙂
— Jeff Lilly (@druidjournal) September 19, 2013
“Losing the language means losing the culture. We need to know who we are because it makes a difference in who our children are.” — Dottie LeBeau
In his book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff notes that when we talk about language itself, we tend to use particular kinds of metaphors. We say that we put our ideas into words (although sometimes they’re difficult to capture) and that our words are therefore packed with meaning. If you don’t grasp the idea I’m trying to get across, then my words might seem hollow or empty. (Or maybe our conversation is just going in circles or it’s gotten derailed.) In other words, Lakoff says: ideas are objects, words are containers, and communication is a kind of sending. This metaphor is built into the way we talk (and therefore, the way we think) about language.
So it’s no wonder that, when we talk about the gods or other sacred things, we have a sense that our words can’t do them justice. How could something so vast fit into such a small container? When my friend, author of Answering the Contemplative Call, Carl McColman says that language is tricky, and that God is bigger than the limits of the human mind, we might imagine our words are just so many rigged-up rubber bands, paper clips and packing tape with which we are, MacGyver-style, trying to capture a wild and mighty wind.
Yet our words are our own breath given form by our body and its movements, and where else have we drawn that breath but from the winds themselves? Our speaking is a shaping of the wind within us, released back into the wild to work its way into someone else’s body, moving with the ebb and flow of sound waves, pressing in against their eardrums, stirring the tiny hairs of their skin.
To talk about language this way is to break out of the metaphor of objects and containers, and to see words as experiences in themselves. Words do not merely contain meaning; their meaning, like the meaning of all experiences, arises from the cascading relationships of memory, color, taste and mood that they drag in their wake.
When I describe a chair, I am not sending you the idea of the chair, let alone the chair itself — I am not even sending you a part of that idea. I am not packaging a set of personal assumptions and expectations in a single, simple, boxy turn of phrase for you to unpack at your leisure. Rather, I am inviting you into an experience of the chair crafted of the words themselves. When I tell you that the chair is made of wood, I call forward all those experiences of wooden chairs that you have known: Your desk chair in second grade, etched all over with the graffiti of bored schoolkids, and the way it felt to slouch uncomfortably for hours in that stuffy classroom as the morning waxed towards noon with its promise of recess on the playground among the freshly fallen autumn leaves. Your grandmother’s rocking chair, draped with an ugly orange afghan whose fuzzy fringe was unraveling with age, and the way the armrests were worn smooth and bare from years of her worrying hands gripping as she rocked. The cheap, straight-backed kitchen chairs from the first dining room set you ever bought when you finally moved into an apartment big enough for a kitchen table, the ones that creaked and shifted when you sat down, their skinny legs bumping each time in the same syncopated rhythm against the uneven plastic tiles. Even chairs that were never real in the first place. Like the chair from that joke about the philosophy student who was asked a single question on his final exam — to prove that the chair existed — to which he simply wrote, “What chair?” and stood up to go.
We might be tempted to say that the experience of these words is a shared experience, but this is not quite true. The experience of the speaker will always be different from the experience of the listener. Words move through our bodies in different ways, touching off ripples of mind and memory shaped by the histories of those bodies. Perhaps you didn’t have a grandmother with a rocking chair and worried hands. If I have done my work well, you will remember her nonetheless. My words will become an experience of such a grandmother, cobbled together from sensations half-remembered, half-imagined — the texture of wood and wool, the smell of wrinkled skin, the sound of rocking like a rolling pin against a cutting board or the opening of a drawer.
If I have not done my work well, if I have relied too much on the assumption of a shared history that does not exist between us, my words will be empty for you. You will not know what an “afghan” is or how a rolling pin sounds, you will not have ever examined the wrinkles of an old woman’s hands or seen the way that yarn snags on the rough grain of unpolished wood. When we can no longer speak to one another, we will know for sure that the cultures that shape our lives have parted ways. With the loss of every language, there is the mutual loss of the culture — the shared history of experience, sensation, movement and custom — that lends that language its context and meaning.
But even empty words are not completely meaningless. Your experience of these words will be an experience of emptiness itself — sentences haunted like an abandoned theater stage on which the actors never arrive, paragraphs vast and echoing like an auditorium filled with empty seats. The words themselves, stripped of memory and context, retain the artful curves and textured surfaces of breath. Words like gasp and river, drum and stone, move in and through our bodies, taking their meaning from the shape of our teeth and tongues, throats and lips. Within the experience of emptiness, we sense the meaning which is embodiment itself — the meaning that a bird has when no one is listening, the meaning that a mountain has when everyone’s asleep. What is it that we hear when we listen to the emptiness of a forgotten language? Within this very experience of emptiness, we might sometimes sense the wild winds of the sacred moving. E pur si muove!
I want you to know that this is perfectly okay.
“Blue Chair” by Doug Wheller (CC) (source)