Words, Words, Words

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Words, Words, Words

When I fly, I read. Don’t try to start a conversation. The pleasure of air travel is uninterrupted time to immerse myself in words. So last Saturday, once the crew gave the okay for “approved electronic devices,” I hit my Nook’s “ON” button for the trip from Denver to Washington Dulles.

Instead of pages of the words of my book, I got a message: “Insufficient battery charge. Cannot turn on,” or words to that effect. Since my books with actual printed words were safely stowed in my checked luggage, I decided to watch the movie A Thousand Words.

It’s not much of a movie and it has a New Age twist to it, but it got me thinking about my wordy, wordy world.

The movie stars Eddie Murphy as Jack McCall, a fast — and incessantly — talking literary agent. He’s impatient with slow talkers, is a terrible listener, and claims he can talk anyone into anything. Oh, and literary agent though he is, he never reads. The only important words are his words.

After successfully signing an internationally known guru to a book contract, a tree suddenly appears full-grown and leafy in his backyard. As it turns out his life and the tree’s life are mystically linked in such a way that for every word McCall speaks, the tree looses one leaf. Once all the leaves are gone, the tree and McCall will die. For the man who can’t shut up, the only salvation is silence.

While A Thousand Words is distinctly Eastern in its outlook, silence has always been seen as a necessary part of Christian spirituality. Jesus, after all, did not go out into the wilderness with a fully charged Nook and an iPhone (Matthew 4:1-11). He walked out empty-handed into silence, solitude and confrontation with evil. St. Paul (Galatians 1:17), St. Anthony, St. Francis, and generations of monks, hermits and ordinary Christians have followed Jesus into the silence.

We, on the other hand, find refuge in words — reading, writing, talking, texting. As Henri Nouwen wrote in The Way of the Heart:

One of our main problems is that in this chatty society, silence has become a fearful thing. For most people, silence creates itchiness and nervousness. Many experience silence not a full and rich, but as empty and hollow. For them silence is like a gaping abyss which can swallow them up. As soon as a minister says during a worship service, “Let us be silent for a few moments,” people tend to become restless and preoccupied with only one thought, “When will this be over?”

Nouwen wrote that in 1981, well before the verbal torrent of electronic media that makes it hard to sit for even five minutes without checking our smartphones.

Our wordy world, wrote Nouwen, feeds the “compulsive self,” the part of us that must be busy and “useful” — or catching our breath in order to resume our busy and useful lives. Silence contradicts this compulsive self and brings us to our senses.

We may think our busy and useful lives change the world, but truth be told, God alone is sovereign. God orders all human affairs. God’s will prevails and trumps all that our wordiness tries to accomplish. We are far less “useful,” far less informed, and far less in control than we would like to think.

It takes silence to settle our compulsive and restless spirits long enough to listen to God’s voice and hear his call. “Words often make us forget that we are pilgrims called to invite others to join us on the journey,” wrote Nouwen. “Peregrinatio est tacere. ‘To be silent keeps us pilgrims.’”

Before I fly back to Denver later this month, I’ll be sure to charge my Nook and pack at least one emergency backup book in my carry-on. But in the meanwhile I’m planning to set aside a few minutes every day for silence. It’s not all about me and what I read and write. In fact, the words I read or write only have value when they are connected to the Word who speaks in the silence if I will only be quiet enough to listen.

Publication date: July 11, 2012