Bearers of the Word

When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say. For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

Matthew 10:19-20

These past days I have been living in a non English-speaking environment. One of my great impoverishments is my inability to hear and to communicate in any other language than English. So, I hear about a third of what is spoken, and what I do hear I hear only at the most literal and translatable level. The result is that I am not really able to come to really know what those around me are communicating about themselves and their lives, but only, at best, the narrative level of their self-expression.

This present experience is reminding me of all the words we utter day to day, even among those who share a common mother tongue with us. We are pretty much constantly expressing ourselves, but then, at rare moments, we transcend mere expression and actually communicate. It is at these moments that we become aware of the power of words, of human language, to carry and communicate a truth that far transcends the literal significance of the words spoken. To this day, I live by words that my parents and teachers (in all the forms those teachers have taken) have offered and continue to offer to me. Yesterday at dinner, for example, we were speaking of the paradox of how in the name of religion people can do such violent and cruel things to each other. As we spoke I remembered, with some help, the words of a teacher from forty years ago:  “Human beings have a capacity to put things together that don’t belong together.” And last night, while dreaming, I found myself understanding in a way that shed light on my current experience a construct of human formation which was taught to us at around the same time. These words that had been given to us so long ago were still revealing their truth to me all these decades later.

Yesterday there was an essay in the New York Times by the Harvard philosopher Sean D. Kelly. Some years ago I had read, with great benefit, a book by him and his teacher of years before Hubert Dreyfus. The essay was Kelly’s tribute to Dreyfus who had died in April of this past year. The essay began with a line that Kelly had found in his lecture notes that he thought must have come from Dreyfus: “The goal of life, for Pascal, is not happiness, peace, or fulfillment, but aliveness.” This line leads Kelly to reflect on how it is that so many years after he had copied down this line in class that Dreyfus was continuing to speak to him.

Reflecting on this experience of ongoing communication between his teacher and friend and himself, Kelly writes:

There are things that you know must be said, that are necessary, even though you don’t know why. And only later, in your later years, will the necessity and the significance of those statements become clear. Because you grow into them, or they grow into you. Or both.

Today’s feast commemorates the martyrdom of St. Stephen, that is, that St. Stephen dies for speaking the truth of what he sees. At the moment and in the situation where he utters that truth, it cannot be received. In fact, it is experienced as a threat that must be exorcised, even by killing him. Yet, Stephen is not the source of what he speaks, so killing him only gives the truth he utters greater life. This is the reason that the church celebrates martyrdom; it is a witness unto death of the truth of things, for, as Jesus says in Matthew, it is not the martyr who speaks at such moments but rather the Spirit of God that is speaking through him or her.

In my struggles to understand literally the words that those around me are speaking, I cannot hear the depth, the truth, of what those words are communicating. And ultimately, of course, this is the true significance of human language. Most of the words I hear these days, I will, in Kelly’s sense, never “grow into” nor can they “grow into” me. Thus, there remains a distance between us that seems impossible to bridge. This pain, however, is a reminder that in day to day life, in the sharing of a common language, there remains a similar distance. From morning until night my days are filled with words, and yet very few of them will ever bear growing into.

Most often we feel very removed from any identification with the martyrs of old. Yet, if we recall the etymology of “martyr” as “witness” we can begin to see its applicability to our daily lives of speaking and listening. Kelly says that Dreyfus, when Kelly was his student, “buried . . . [those words] in my lecture notes, long ago, as a secret treasure.” We are all martyrs, that is witnesses, to a truth that transcends ourselves. We are, thus, both bearers and recipients of a secret treasure both hidden and revealed in the words we speak and hear. To celebrate the martyrs, then, is to remember the responsibility that our capacity to witness to the truth imposes on us.

When I recall the words that continue to offer life and truth to me years and decades after my parents, teachers, and friends have spoken them, I long to be a better disciple of the truth they bear. I am filled with gratitude to them for being sent to me as witnesses, and I hope that my words, in return, may bear such truth to others. In Roman Catholic theology, sacraments are not merely signs, they are also ongoing realities. It is in their words that continue to reverberate within me that those who were witnesses and bearers of life continue to live and to give life in and through my life.

In the Gospel of John Jesus tells us that “the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn 6:63). Every so often, we find even ourselves having spoken such a word. We hear ourselves and ask, “Where did that come from?” Today Jesus tells us that those words are the spirit of the Father speaking through us. Although there are countless persons throughout the world who are giving their lives for the truth, this can seem quite a foreign experience to many of us. It may, however, be closer to us than we realize. We can ask ourselves, how much is our speech mere expression rather than communication? And, what is it that we truly long to communicate? What is the secret treasure we long to give, to leave to those we love, to those with whom we would like to communicate aliveness, or as Jesus puts it, “life to the full”?

Those who have bequeathed to me this treasure live fully in whatever life I carry. May we speak and act in such a way that we shall bear the truth of eternal life in the lives of those who share our lives and hear our words. As we see with St. Stephen, the significance of speaking the truth lies not in the immediate reaction it evokes. Often the truth was spoken to me long before I was able to hear it. Yet, as truth, the word and words remain alive and active until such time, often far into the future, when the treasure they carry is received and appreciated. May we learn a discipline of hearing and of speech that allows us to communicate and to be communicated with through and beneath the words that we hear and utter.

A few weeks ago, I found a surprising line in my lecture notes. I don’t know how long it had been there or how it got in. I don’t remember having written it or even having seen it before. It said, “The goal of life, for Pascal, is not happiness, peace, or fulfillment, but aliveness.” I believe the line may have been written by my teacher and friend, the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus. Bert died in April at the age of 87. 

It is strange, on the face of it at least, to think that Bert may be speaking to me from the grave. It is stranger still, perhaps, that from that less-than-ideal vantage point he could be telling me about a possible goal of life. . . . 

But recently, I began to wonder whether there isn’t a more literal sense in which Bert was the author of that line as well. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe I ever heard him talk about aliveness, and I don’t associate the thought with any others I know he had. It doesn’t even look like it belongs with the other lines around it there in the notes. But even so I am certain that line somehow emanates from him. For as surprising and unexpected as it is to hear that the goal of life is aliveness, I can see now that it is the view demanded by the life he led. And after all, isn’t that the way it is sometimes? There are things that you know must be said, that are necessary, even though you don’t know why. And only later, in your later years, will the necessity and the significance of those statements become clear. Because you grow into them, or they grow into you. Or both.

And isn’t this, ultimately, another way to be alive? That we overflow with words and actions and ideas, at each moment saying and doing what it seems we must, but rarely understanding in its full depth why it is required? And sometimes we are wrong; we say or do things that mischaracterize or mistake. But sometimes we are right, deeply right — we say what is really and actually true — without knowing that we are right or understanding why. And when that happens our words and actions take on a life of their own — they come from us but extend beyond us, extend beyond even themselves.

So if Bert really was the author of that line, it’s not just because he wrote it. It’s because moreover, without even knowing it, he somehow buried it there in my lecture notes, long ago, as a secret treasure. And there it lay for years, for decades, waiting for the time when it could sprout up and come to life. A gift. A gift from him.

And now it is announced.

Sean D. Kelly, “Waking Up To The Gift of Aliveness,” New York Times, Dec. 25, 2017

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