To Speak with Authority

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They were all amazed and said to one another, “What is there about his word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out.”

Luke 4: 36

We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God. And we speak about them not with words taught by human wisdom, but with words taught by the Spirit, describing spiritual realities in spiritual terms.

1 Cor. 2:12-13

Many years ago when studying in graduate school, I lived in a community of brothers that was located in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In good weather, I would often reflect and pray in the morning by walking around a field that was behind the school. Adjacent to the high school was a school for deaf students. One morning, as I struggled to find the words which could honestly and simply present myself to God, I heard from the open windows of that school, a student struggling to speak words whose sound she or he had never heard. At that moment I realized how much the two of us were engaged in the same struggle, to really, sincerely, and honestly communicate who we were and what was inside of us.

Words can often come fairly easily to me, but perhaps often a bit too glibly. When Jesus spoke, those surrounding him could recognize the “authority and power” his words contained and expressed. When he spoke, it was clear that he was expressing the truth in a way that resonated with what was most authentic in his listeners. That kind of speech has a power to affect and to change things: to expel evil and to make a space for the true and the good in the world.

It is a painful and difficult struggle, however, to “tame” our speech in such a way that it becomes an expression of what is true and an instrument for the good. The reason, at least in part, that this is so difficult for us is that we use our language in the service of so much other than the true and the good, other than for love and healing. Very often we use it in an attempt to justify ourselves and to enhance our egos. We use our speech to manipulate the view and impression of others, to convince them of our position, and to enhance their view of us. So often, our speech is a servant of our needs and desires rather than of the truth.

Authentic speaking and language is impossible, it would seem, without some reference to our innate transcendent or spiritual nature. If there is no more to us than our functional or egoic selves, then there is little reason why our speech should be any more than our attempt to use or manipulate the human world to our benefit, or perhaps more apparently altruistically to our vision of the truth. If there is ultimately no greater truth or reality to which we are accountable, then our own ideas and aspirations become the measure of the authenticity of our speaking.

What is the measure of the truth of our statements and opinions? We experience in our socio-political lives that there seems to be no measure outside of our own feelings and thoughts. We lament our societal inability to engage in dialogue and conversation with those who think and feel differently, but, in truth, we have no horizon against which to speak with each other whose opinions or feelings are different from ours. In such a dialogue of differences to what or to whom do we hold our words to account? In 1 Corinthians Paul writes: “we speak . . . not with words taught by human wisdom, but with words taught by the Spirit. . . .”. If our speech and language, as our very lives, are a gift from Another, then we have a great responsibility to that Other for the use of those gifts. It is not for us to do whatever we selfishly want with them, but rather to use them in service to the truth from which they come.

In lived experience, at least for many of us, the connection with the Spirit in us that is required for authentic speaking does not come easily. Our lives are most often lived in diaspora, at a distance from our true homeland. The connection between our heart and soul and our tongues is often a broken one. It is more social convention in service to our social standing that governs our speech. There is perhaps no better barometer of our growing authenticity and spiritual reformation and transformation into “the mind of Christ” than the words that we speak. May we today be a bit more “sober and watchful” over our tongues, that we may increasingly dispose ourselves to becoming the instrument of the Word that is our true destiny.

In mysticism that love of truth which we saw as the beginning of all philosophy leaves the merely intellectual sphere, and takes on the assured aspect of a personal passion. Where the philosopher guesses and argues, the mystic lives and looks; and speaks, consequently, the disconcerting language of first-hand experience, not the neat dialectic of the schools. Hence whilst the Absolute of the metaphysicians remains a diagram—impersonal and unattainable—the Absolute of the mystics is lovable, attainable, alive.

Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, loc. 546

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