The Written Word


My friend posted a comment on Facebook, and from there we moved to Messenger, and then to email, as we reflected back and forth.  I noticed her latest email again this morning: "This reminds me of something Richard Rohr said about Jesus – that there on the cross, he models how to transform pain. He radically accepts the reality of his pain without blaming anyone or trying to dodge it, he forgives reality for what it is, and then he says 'Into your hands, I commit my spirit' which is such an act of trust and surrender." He forgives reality for what it is… I had not seen those words on my first reading, which is perhaps not a surprise, for I am not inclined to forgive reality for what it is.

There are times when I want to unplug a person's keyboard: Just ring them up. Walk down the corridor. Connect! There is a time for speaking face to face, a time when writing may be an exercise in avoidance, there are situations where most of us have neither the time nor the skill to write down what needs to be said. Relationship needs the warmth and imprecision of conversation which may, if we are fortunate, leave us with a remembered phrase or two, but mostly leaves us with the memory of being valued and appreciated, or not. This applies in the office, and it applies with our friends.

But there is also a time to write, a time to hallow the other person with our concentrated attention. A time when we think deeply about what we want to say, when we may wait a day or two, and then come back to our writing. Where we may finish our composition but leave it for a few more days before we post it.

This is the writing to which people return. It is where rereading reveals new treasures. I remember snatches of conversation from 40 years ago, and more, but am never quite sure how accurately I recall them. And as important as they are, they are always fragmentary. But then there is the single page letter from my Uncle Brian, rediscovered by accident, warm, convivial, full of care.  It's a letter about nothing, really. A reply to an invitation to attend my ordination. He could have rung me up and said the same words. But the letter remains, an A4 page when a single line would have been enough, and it still touches my heart.

Such writing tends to the poetic. It flows with reality, cherishes it, hallows it with questions. CS Lewis wrote, in a letter,

In a sense, one can hardly put anything into words:  only the simplest colours have names, and hardly any of the smells.  The simple physical pains and (still more) the pleasures can't be expressed in language.  I labour the point lest the devil should hereafter try to make you believe that what was wordless was therefore vague and nebulous.  But in reality it is just the clearest, the most concrete, and most indubitable realities which escape language:  not because they are vague, but because language is...Poetry I take to be the continual effort to bring language back to the actual. (Letter to Rhona Bodle, 24 June 1949)[1]

Richard Beck (who quotes Lewis) contrasts this understanding with

the "scientific gaze," which reduces reality to raw material "stuff," bleaches the world of value and meaning.[2]

We should understand here that by "scientific" he is referring to the gaze which catalogues the world in order to control it. This is a world away from a person who learns to distinguish between Eucalyptus species and is filled with wonder at the glorious variation they now see, 700 or more species rather than "just gum trees." To look up Black's Flora and work out the name of the tree across the street, where the fruit bats hang out with the lorikeets because it's flowering at the moment, and then give me a name which differs from the cream bark of the Eucalypt further down the street, is to say nothing of the beauty of deep red bark and the pungent crush of over-ripe flowers. For that, there is only poetry.

Poetry, and the written word which tends to poetry, bring language "back to the actual." They allow us to return to a place, to reconsider, to remember, to see the enchantment of the real, even to enter into it. And when I see in this way I am able to forgive reality for it is a far more glorious thing than the bleached stories of consumerism wish me to see.

(Andrew Prior Jan 2023)





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