What Language Shall We Use?

Once again, the images come from the generous camera and heart of Rex Nelson. This post follows on the heels of a recent conversation with my friend Candis Whitney who chairs the Central NH Permaculture Meet-Up. Check out the site. Build one in your area.

For the past few years, in my book and in my blogging, I have – with intention – been extrapolating the spiritual language of the Church from its institutional life and grafting it onto the root stock of where most of us actually live, that is, outside the Church. I am wanting to make accessible to all of us, the language familiar to people in churches, language developed to give flesh to the profound spiritual questions around all life’s exigencies to which we yearn to attribute meaning, suffering and dying, for example, or love, or – even more basic – why am I here? My thinking has been simply this: the language best suited to articulate the sacred doesn’t belong solely in the Church; it belongs to all of us.

And when I speak of the language of the Church, I am not talking about the archaic stilted (still loved by some) language of thee’s and thou’s and wither thou goest’s and praiseth . . .

Yet in an institutional way, I suspect churches are quite satisfied to perpetuate the illusion that the meaning of all things holy and the language which describes them belong inside the institutional orbit; if you want to participate, then you have to come inside.

The assumption is patently untrue, and yet those of us in churches and those of us outside live as though it were. I think of it as the language of sacred meaning, and most of us outside churches aren’t familiar with it. Truth be told, many people in churches aren’t familiar with it either.

Case in point, me. I rarely spoke a word during my first year of seminary. I didn’t know the language, and I didn’t know the meanings of words that my peers tossed about with abandon. During my first weeks, I called my friend Dick and asked him, “What does liturgy mean?” When he began to expound philosophically and historically, I interrupted him, “No, What does the word liturgy mean?” I wrote my best friend’s mother, “What are the names of things you find in a church? Why do people get baptized? What is Compline? Why would somebody ask me if I was a postulant; what are they asking, exactly? What are the names of the clothes that priests wear? What does incarnation mean?”

I dared once to approach a fellow student and asked her why she wanted to be ordained. She puffed herself up like a blowfish, and added a couple inches to her short frame. “It’s all sacramental, of course,” she said. I called my friend Dick. “What’s a sacrament?”

During a required summer internship, I worked in a Psychiatric unit, on a lock ward. After one particularly distressing encounter with a woman who had climbed over the wall, had broken a glass Pepsi bottle against a rock, and then swallowed the pieces, my supervisor asked me to reflect theologically.

“I don’t know what you’re asking of me,” I told him.

“I want you to talk to me about the meaning of this encounter,” he said.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I told him.

Over the past few years, I have watched those of us committed to ecological healing, watched those of us who have recognized the ever more pressing need for safe habitat for animal and bird populations displaced by the sprawling human enterprise, struggle with or even be unaware that the spiritual thread is essential to the strength of the environmental movement and the health of the planet. And the spiritual thread needs commensurate spiritual language.

The irony is that the very language we need to express our deepest yearnings for the health and well-being of what Carl Safina calls the whole enterprise, has been sequestered within the confines of the Church. The further irony is that my attempt to bring the spiritual language out into the world is like introducing something so alien and alienating into our communities that the experience that I described above, of my silence in the face of all that I didn’t know, is multiplied exponentially.

SO, what to do. How do we begin to have the conversation together about the sacredness of earth, water, creature, wind, and fire?

Well, first, I’d like to ask you who are reading this, to consider how you go about describing that which gives your life, your relationships, your work, your passions, their most profound meaning. Why do you care about the healing of the planet? What does it mean to you that humans are an integral part of a vast living network, interconnected and interdependent, and why does it matter? What language have you found to give expression to all that is sacred, mysterious, unknowable?

For example, if you engage Rex Nelson’s images in this post, what language would you use to describe the ineffable nature of such an evening sky, ineffable meaning of more mystery and beauty than can be described in words. What does that mean, exactly? And what common language might we find? Well, when you look at Rex’s image, in what ways does the sun as it sets mirror your life? Can you see the wind and know it’s the same air you breathe? Or the clouds, and know they are the same water of which you are made? Or the image as a whole as a visual expression of the vastness of the universe? Whether or not you claim a belief in a deity, this is holy stuff. The whole world is of sacramental value; how do we learn to talk with one another about that? How do we begin to learn from it? How might this understanding inform our decision making, and our behavior toward the planet?

Or consider the three different colored blossoms on a single back yard tree? A plant scientist could explain how it happens. A Christian might see it as the symbol of a Trinitarian God. But if you are neither of those (or even if you are) how do understand it sacramentally, as the symbolic expression of a deep inner yearning, say, for peace? Or a deep yearning for the revisioning of a broken democracy? What might this tree have to teach us? What kinds of seeds ought we be planting?

This may well be the most important conversation we need to be having, and the invitation to you who read this is that you make use of the comment section at the bottom of this post.

Second, I think I am going to follow this post with a glossary, to which I will continue to add substance.

Third, I am pretty convinced that the language the Church uses to express the ineffable and unknowable sacred is powerful and explicit, equally convinced that such language serves to give spiritual meaning and depth to our lives, and, in the context of this site, spiritual meaning and depth to our ecological efforts (in a sense they are one and the same). The language of the sacred is the language of hope, and gives us resources to resist cynicism and defeat. Still, I suspect there are other ways to tease out the same things. I’d like to make this a both/and experience; for those of us outside churches who might not claim the status of believer, this is our language, too, developed over thousands of years, to give expression to the sacred.

And . . . we need to be able to talk with one another, even with the youngest among us, in ways that reclaim the spiritual underpinnings of our ecological efforts for healing. Because the spiritual thread is essential; we cannot accomplish the sea change required to turn around our behavior without it.

Fourth, I will do my best to remember that the language and thought process I use now so effortlessly is language and process that has burrowed itself deep inside me, over more than a quarter of a century, language and process which has come to me at a pretty steep cost over an even steeper learning curve.

How about that?

2 comments on “What Language Shall We Use?

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Molly on August 29, 2014 8:38 pm

“Whether or not you claim a belief in a deity, this is holy stuff. ” and “I am pretty convinced that the language the Church uses to express the ineffable and unknowable sacred is powerful and explicit, equally convinced that such language serves to give spiritual meaning and depth to our lives, and, in the context of this site, spiritual meaning and depth to our ecological efforts (in a sense they are one and the same). The language of the sacred is the language of hope…”

I wonder whether you still feel this way, Caroline?

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Caroline Fairless on August 30, 2014 5:27 pm

I do still feel this way, Molly. In the two years that have passed since this was posted, not only has nothing changed in my philosophy and experience that would countermand what you’ve quoted above (I had to read the post again, to put what you’ve quoted in context), but I feel even more strongly.

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