Chris McDonnell’s Catholic Times column


In the beginning was the Word

Chris McDonnell CT January 15th 2021

Take a drive through any town or city and you will find yourself swimming in a sea of words. Instructions telling you what to do, directions telling you where to go, bill boards urging you what to buy, a brightly lit colour-wash of countless words.

Words, whether spoken one to another or read silently, offer each of us a means of communication, telling a story, offering access to the market place of ideas. It is indeed, to quote Henri Nouwen, a ‘wordy world’. He writes in his book ‘The Way of the Heart: “Wherever we go we are surrounded by words: words softly whispered, loudly proclaimed, or angrily screamed; words spoken, recited or sung; words in many sounds, many colours, or in many forms; words to be heard, read seen, or glanced at; words which flicker off and on, move slowly, dance, jump or wiggle. Words, words, words! They form the floor, the walls and the ceiling of our existence”.  

I remember a large collage I made and hung on the wall near my room in the school of my first headship. It was a collection of hundreds of words, both large and small, cut from magazines, single words haphazardly arranged, a multitude of black shapes in a variety of fonts, each with its own meaning.

When we attempt communication we arrange words in a significant order, telling a particular story that we wish to share with our listeners or readers, hoping that they might understand what we are saying and so respond to our initiative.

The opening of John’s Gospel brings us face to face with the Word that is God. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God”. A brief, yet profound statement, that brings us face to face with the reality of Creation.

The tone of our voice tells as much of the story as the meaning of the words we use, be it soft or harsh. There is a silence in the space between words that offers time for reflection on the sounds we hear. Sometimes the silence tells us even more than that, it gifts us time to pause and reflect. At other times the significance of a word goes way beyond its literal meaning having an association with time or place or an individual in an altogether different context. It revives memories.

That surely is why the Desert Fathers offer us a way of quiet, a space that is not immediately filled with the sound of language, an opportunity to listen rather than offering an immediate opinion. How often in a verbal exchange with someone do we find ourselves developing our response when we should be listening to what our companion is telling us?

Solitude is completed by silence, the active silence of listening. When we seek out the counsel of a friend, what is it that we expect in our time together over a cup of coffee? We have a problem which is the cause of anxiety and we wish to talk it through with someone we trust will be sympathetic. So what is it we expect in our time together? Some go seeking a solution neatly packaged and tied with pink ribbon. Others look for reassurance that everything will eventually be alright, that given time, all will be resolved. But sometimes the response is one of attentive silence. A Japanese proverb comes to mind.”I may not say much but don’t mistake me for a wall”.

We recognize this when we describe someone as ‘a good listener’

For some reason, many people are afraid of the experience of silence and so when they find themselves in the solitude of silence, they seek to fill the lonely hollow with the spoken word, anxious not to be left alone in a void.

All of this of course applies to our life in prayer for that indeed can be another ‘wordy world’. So often the words ‘Let us pray’ are followed by the copious eloquence of carefully chosen words, rarely by silence. We have our lists of requests, those who have asked for our prayers, the hectic fill that is for so many their day by day life-experience. Our lives are so busy that we can no longer hear what it is that God is asking of each one of us. Our life in prayer should be one continuous action, our doing from one moment to another a wordless prayer, carrying us on our journey in faith, a silent sifting of one action after another. An attentive silence is the reality of prayer.

We have too easily become dependent on words rather than on caring for the being who we were meant to be, an individual reflection of the creative word of God.

Carefully chosen words can inspire those who hear them to act in a particular way. Gandhi suggested that Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul’. And so we ought to begin our prayer by listening in that space between words rather than cluttering it up with noise.

Possibly one of the most necessary requests made by the community of their priests is this: ‘teach us to pray’. It does of course pre-suppose that the priest has already explored the life of prayer himself. It will not be answered by a glib formulation of worn-out words. Rather, we must address the root of our relationships and talk once more of our silent listening in time set aside. Simplicity, brevity, awareness, all have a part to play. That is why a liturgy that is built around a silent presence, one with another and all with God, can lead us into the depths of prayer.

Parish liturgies can only be enhanced by taking the risk of venturing into this unfamiliar territory, where the ground is cleared of unnecessary clutter and growth of new seed is encouraged.

I always remember the words of a Dominican whom we invited to talk with parishioners on the ministry of Reading, discussing with me the programme for the evening. I opened with the suggestion that we start with mass at 7.30pm His response was rapid and succinct-‘Why do Catholics always want Mass with everything?’ Not that he was being disrespectful to the Eucharist but was only offering for consideration an alternative access to prayer.

Our journey through the countryside is very different to the imagined drive through the city with which I began these few words. There, in narrow lanes, lined with hedges, wooden fenced fields and scattered houses, the words are few, yet the experience is stimulating, the rewards are great. Maybe we should seek out the countryside of prayer a little more often and leave the confusion of flashing neon city lights for another day.



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