YOU HAVE ALREADY BEEN CLEANSED BY THE WORD I HAVE SPOKEN TO YOU (John 15:3). At the first hearing I believe many will have as their reaction to this saying of our Lord the same question that occurred to me many years ago as I reflected on this text. How can a word be cleansing? In what manner do words affect our person so that they can be said to purify us? If we recall other claims that our Lord made for his words we are confronted with even more questions regarding the ways that words affect us. For on an earlier occasion Jesus had proclaimed ‘the words that I speak to you are spirit and they are life’.  

Let us take seriously the questions raised by these and other saying of the Lord pertaining to his words, so that we attempt to grasp with some increased measure of understanding what goes on within us as we hear or read the words of the Gospel. Do we truly believe that words, even the words of Christ, can be of such a force as to cleanse us from all moral and spiritual defilement, make us pleasing to God in the Spirit and bestow on us the gift of true life? Or, as some exegetes say, remove the obstacles to fruitful preaching and instruction? After all how often have we not heard it said with contempt: mere words are nothing but sound; it is deeds that count.’  At the least this rather common reaction indicates that not all words have the powers Jesus ascribes to his words. Are they of an altogether different order than merely human words? 

The first point to establish in this connection is that quite probably anything we learn about the way Jesus’ words affect us, will tell us a good deal about the other words that we hear and read. For Jesus’ words, while those of a divine person and divinely inspired, remain, as realities in their own right, human words. True they are rightly ascribed to a person who is divine, but they are the product of his human nature. Jesus’ words as spoken, like our own, are formed by certain organs and structures of the body: the larynx, the pharynx, the soft palate and the mouth. They give expression to movements of the affections, to feelings as well as to thoughts and desires. Words, then, have a rather complex character, in that they convey spiritual realities such as ideas and desires, but also sentiments, feelings, moods, and even sensory states such as pain, cold, heat. 

Another, general feature of words is that they affect both the one who formulates and writes or speaks them and those who hear or read them; they have, then, at once an active and passive function, whether for the better or for the worse. Moreover, if words can correctly be said to cleanse, it is evident that they exert an active influence upon others. The one hearing the words, upon taking them into his central nervous system is acted upon. The words we hear alter our interior, penetrating by means of the acoustic pathways into the faculties of the soul and beyond, entering the mind and will, even, potentially, finding their way to the spirit. Were this not so Jesus could not say that his disciples were clean, meaning that as persons they were acceptable to God, and capable of bringing forth fruit in their ministry..  

How does such change take place? By the very formation of words within my mind, whether that is effected actively in view of speaking, or passively as I receive the words I hear and willingly admit them into my soul. I am changed by the very fact of formulating words myself and yielding consent to them as I hear them. The more apt phrased the more effectively words serve to focus in verbal form the perception of some state of body or soul or spirit that, prior to this act, existed in a non-thematic state and so remained only vaguely accessible to my conscious mind. Words used with precision, being more exactly fitted to my actual state of feeling whether mental or physical, result in my being better able to evaluate my condition and so to judge on a more suited basis concerning my true interests. I am thus able to act realistically when action is called for, and consequently, other things being equal, my action will prove more advantageous to my considered interests or those of others with whom I treat. 

Such well chosen, apt words are characterized by a greater vigor of communication; they  possess a larger capacity to convey to others, when brought to expression, a fuller portion of the experience and thought of their author. At the same time, the man who learns by steady practice to fit appropriate words to the various inner states of mind and feeling and to his encounters with outer reality, will find that his use of words alters for the better his manner of being in the world and of his sense of who he is in proportion to his skill.  

A further characteristic of words is their revelatory power. They commonly convey, with a greater precision of detail than gestures or raw events, the qualities of the person speaking or the more precise color of the happening described. This is the case when the subject spoken of is some inner reality. It also remains true when the content of the words and the intent of the speaker treat of matters of the outside world. Such revelatory function applies to written as well as to spoken words.  

If words have a capacity to reveal what is otherwise hidden it is because they are symbols. Like music, words are, as it were, living symbols in that, when vocalized, they transmit affective states as well as thought and perceptions and so remove the veil that covers the interior of a person. Being symbols they refer to realities other than themselves. There is an art that constructs and chooses the specific word, le mot juste, as the French novelist, Flaubert, called the precisely chosen term most suited to make a particular thought live in the present. Very early on it happened that the Gospel message was most effectively set forth both in speech and in writing, by men who were artists with the word. Saints Basil, Gregory of Nazianzan, Jerome and Augustine were professionals trained in the art of using words effectively and convincingly.   

Our Lord himself was an outstanding artist in the use of words. He spoke them with such grace and charm that his audiences were often deeply moved and attracted by his speech. He delivered them with a conviction and engagement of his person that those who heard him struck by the force and authority of his person. Even police sent to arrest him were so impressed by his words as they came from his mouth that they failed to take him captive. “No man ever spoke as this man speaks’, was their observation. 

His disciples preserved his words in memory at first and later in writing; none more than Mary his mother appreciated their significance so that, as St. Luke informs us, ‘she treasured these words in her heart.’ Luke presents Mary, prior to Jesus’ birth, as being inspired to utter words of striking force and impressive beauty, words we sing every day at Vespers. Clearly she gave attention to her thoughts and speech so that when she was inspired by the Spirit words worthy of the event she commemorated were at hand for her to call them forth in harmonious accents. There is sound basis then for holding that Jesus’ special power in the use of with words was stimulated at its origins by his eloquent mother as she taught him to speak. 

One of the most fruitful and profound insights into the revelation brought by our Lord to humanity was that he, as a person, is the Word of God, the Logos. Our redeemer, as person, is, with profound insight, denominated by St. John as the eternal Word spoken by the Father with the breath of the Holy Spirit. This is the theological justification for attending to the significance and use of words on the part of disciples of Christ. Of course, calling the Son of God the Word of the Father is to speak analogously. Like all terms applied to the persons of the Trinity this one too is but a distant symbol of the reality; but it is the one that, in the view of the inspired evangelist, is best suited to convey the truth of God’s nature. God is the creator who speaks and he speaks to our human race in the person of his Son.  

This Son himself is the one Word spoken by the Father from all eternity and possesses such wisdom and power that ‘all things are made by him’. The Words of Jesus are creative because they are the productions of the Word of God. Because we are made in his image our words too have a potential for being creative, for enhancing life in ourselves and in others, for revealing something of our own truth and of divine truth.

 There is nothing surprising, then, in the fact that much attention was given to the use of words by followers of Jesus. Peter in his epistle, Paul in various writings, John in the Apocalypse, all speak of words with reverence and give evidence of their signal role in the plan of redemption. Later on the Fathers of the Church devoted themselves with zeal and energy to studying, explaining and preaching the words of sacred scripture and displayed ingenuity and intelligence in composing words that are still studied today.

They employed themselves in writing words of praise in liturgical texts still used today. St.Augustine’s most widely read book, The Confessions, is at once a work of praise and an acknowledgement of sin and of the need for mercy. His words, throughout this work, consistently serve this dual function. 

The prophetic literature of the Hebrews had already provided the people of God with numerous instances of texts expressing both praise of God’s surpassing holiness and acknowledgement of sin. The best known of these was early taken up by various liturgies and is still used by us today. ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of Hosts’. Isaiah continued this exclamation with a confession of sin that the liturgical passage does not include, but which Augustine knew well: ‘Woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips …and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts’ (Is.6: 5).  For the Bishop of Hippo it was the words of a pagan writer, a philosopher of outstanding endowment in the use of words, who set him on the way that eventually brought him to full surrender to God and dedication to Christ. He tells us of the effect of these words on his spirit when he was but nineteen. 

Meantime, while still in a tender age, I studied book of eloquence in which I desired, for the reprehensible reasons, to excel, puffed up with the joy of human vanity. And, following the customary order, I came upon a certain book of Cicero, whose language all admire, though not his heart. But that book of his contains an exhortation to philosophy. It is called Hortensius. That book changed my affections and altered my prayers to your own self, O Lord; it gave new character to my hopes and desires. All on a sudden every vain hope grew vile to me and I desired the immortality of wisdom with an incredible burning of the heart (Confessions 3.4.7).

An even more dramatic passage describes the critical moment in this process of turning to Christ and proved decisive in his conversion. He describes vividly his inner struggles as he attempted, unavailingly, to make the decision to renounce his life of indulgence. It was a passage from St. Paul that provided the words that resolved his struggle and delivered him from his bad habits.

And so I was pulled this way and that, painfully, while I preferred the one in truth, while familiarity did not put aside the other. In this way I was sick and greatly tortured myself more sharply than usual. Going back and forth, turning myself in my bonds until the fragile cords by which I was held should break; yet they held me fast. … And behold! I hear a voice coming from the nearby house, saying in a singing voice as of a boy or perhaps a girl, and often repeated: ‘Take and read; take and read’…  Going back to the place where Alypius was sitting and where I had placed a copy of the ApostIe upon getting up from there. I snatched it up , opened and read in silence the section that my eyes first fell upon: ‘Not in banquets and drinking bouts, not in sexual indulgence and impurities, not in disputes and competitions, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the desires of the flesh’ (Rom. 13;1,14). I read no further; nor was there need to. Since immediately, with the end of the sentence a light of security was shed infused into my heart, and all clouds of doubt were dispersed. (Confessions, 8.10.24- 12.29  Opera Omnia, Paris 1844, 760-762).

 St. Bernard as well was exceptionally attuned to the significance of the choice of words and their manner of articulation and devoted considerable time and energy to revising his talks with a view to rendering them more effective in their purpose. In this concern he was, as in a number of other matters, a worthy successor of the great prophets.

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To pass from the Patristic age to our own times, consider the writings of Father Louis, Thomas Merton. Merton, who was a recognized poet, followed in the footsteps of St. Bernard in his attention to the use of words and gave no little thought to their function. Words, he explained, ‘are meant to bind minds together in the joy of truth’ He well grasped the fact that a word spoken in season, matched to the occasion, suited to the event, harmonized with the feeling is a fountain of life. Words have the power to enhance life through conveying an increment of truth, of beauty and so of love.  In commenting on the function of words he oberved that for life to remain human and healthful, ‘You must discover new words reborn out of an old time/Like new seeds from an old harvest/ If you would bless the world with rest and labor,/ With speech and silence . . .’ [The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton. The Tower of Babylon. (New York: New Directions, 1977) 266].  

He also wrote of the effect they produce when they are employed without due respect for their proper function as conveyors of truth and bonds of spiritual union. This is a point we all need to keep in mind. There is a way of speaking, even when telling the truth, that is destructive. That obviously will be the case in using words to express hate. More insidious is when, under the guise of seeking justice or truth, one speaks inopportunely of matters that should be kept secret. This applies with a particular obligation to religious superiors who have access to privileged information, as it is called. But it applies to all persons who may know of behavior or events the divulging of which would render that person less able to function effectively or even normally in his life. That is why when religious are evaluated in view of their making vows the evaluation should always be made strictly in private and even then divulge only pertinent matters that require to be known by the superior.    

Poets and prophets have long recognized the power for good and evil that is associated with language and the tools of language, word. So did the early monks. They were reluctant to speak as advisors, and when they did they weighed and counted their words. They would refuse to give out their words unless they perceived that the one to whom they spoke was disposed to understand and practice what they had to say. Psychologists came to appreciate the dynamic forces associated with words after Freud’s work in disclosing to his patients by means of words the connection between passionate thoughts and hysterical symptoms.  

We do well always to remember that our words have the power to enhance life through conveying insight into truth, through expressing love, confidence, affirmation and respect for another. But may we not forget that words may also in certain circumstances disappoint, wound, discourage, depress and inhibit confidence in another. The word, once spoken, cannot be revoked. It will do its work for good or bad according to its nature. 

For spiritual companionship to prove fruitful at critical times our words must be fraught with human as well as divine grace; they must not only be understood, but also felt to arise from the living spaces of the human heart as well as tinged with fresh breath of the Spirit. Such communication requires that our words express with force and clarity some experience of our own in the spirit that we have assimilated and named as precisely as they can be named. They must contain something of our own heart-felt encounter with God and with others and be so framed as to convey in the measure they can supply, the character of the original experience. For the significant words of our speech to remain fresh with the warmth and color of life they must be selected and chosen by us with a care that assures they are suited to their purpose. Such precision of use, such fullness of content is possible only when we ourselves have clarified in our consciousness our own inner experience. Such clarification is itself possible only through the medium of words that are carefully framed and fitted together until they match, as far as we can manage, our lived experience. The effort of articulation to our own self is a great labor that is worth all the effort it demands for it contributes greatly to a fuller assimilation of experience and purification from accessory and distracting elements that so often accompany and render confused or vague our inner life. Such naming of our inner perception and states is a major source of our dignity as creatures made in the image of God, and renders our experience more accessible to our memory both for our own profit and that of those with whom we share its benefits. 

Calling forth the effective word at the appropriate point in our dealings with another requires that we be attuned to the capacity and condition of the one we seek to assist. Such sensitivity to another in view of her spiritual advantage and interests proceeds both from nature and from grace; it is the result of a training of the spiritual senses. May God grant that we so live our monastic life as to receive, in his mercy, that gift of the life-giving word of truth that comes from a heart filled with charity. & 

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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