The Word-Soaked World
Troubling the Lexicon of Art and Faith
Since 1989, Image has hosted a conversation at the nexus of art and faith among writers and artists in all forms. As the conversation has evolved, certain words have cropped up again and again: Beauty. Mystery. Presence.
For this issue, we invited a handful of past contributors to examine our common lexicon as a sort of personal inventory on the part of the journal. Were there words we were using too glibly, we asked, words that needed to be reconsidered, revitalized, or tossed out?
The writers’ responses surprised us. Some pieces retain an element of that self-critical spirit we requested, such as the essays on beauty and suffering. But the majority of the essays ended up as a referendum on the power of language, like art itself, to represent and reveal. Words, the writers seemed to say, deserve to be weighed heavily. On consideration, some words that seem simple or obvious are more demanding than we think.
Language is double-edged. On the one hand, the ability to call things by their names can connect us to others, and can anchor an artist in the created world. Perhaps language itself even offers an image of the divine. Some would even go so far as to say that language is what makes religious experience possible.
But at times, even after long wrestling and careful study, language can seem inadequate, more a stumbling stone than a pathway. Sometimes language seems able only to point to things just outside its reach, things we crave but can’t grasp, things we dare not approach, things we draw back from in awe or revulsion.
This collection of short essays demonstrates the push-pull relationship believing artists have with words: We are in pursuit of a God who is revealed through the poetry of the oldest Psalms, but whose true name is impossible to pronounce.
Jeanne Murray Walker
WITHIN TEN MINUTES of receiving Greg Wolfe’s email, I chose “discipline.” “Discipline” is a stern word, a word that is down on its luck. It’s a platoon sergeant without a platoon, a dictator without a country. How many of us were imprinted in our earliest years by the badgering of a disciplinarian?
The voice of discipline is the bark of a mother in a grocery store at seven in the evening who has just picked up her son, Alexander, from day care, who has tried many blandishments to convince him to put down the three Snickers bars he’s now squeezing in his hot fist, a mother who is herself hungry and unraveling. Later she will be horrified at the memory of this. Later she will marvel that when she opened her mouth, what flew out were her own mother’s words, the very words she swore she would never use on her children. From her place in the grocery line she shouts, Bring those candy bars here! Listen! If I have to come over there you’ll be in big trouble.
Not that her mother’s words work. Alexander tears open a wrapper and begins munching one of the Snickers bars with a faraway look in his brown eyes. And now her mother’s words have irrevocably become her words.
This grocery store moment is an example of what Foucault probably meant when he wrote, “Prison continues, on those who are entrusted to it, a work begun elsewhere, which the whole of society pursues on each individual through innumerable mechanisms of discipline.” In Discipline and Punish, Foucault muses about order and control and obedience in highly theoretical terms. “Discipline” is an abstraction which should behave in circumspect and grown-up ways, especially in the company of a word like “spiritual,” as in the phrase “spiritual discipline.” But wherever I see the word “discipline,” I confess that I still feel the ghost of childhood mutinies rise in me. A quick glance at a thesaurus suggests that the English language equates discipline with mental and physical pain. Among the synonyms for discipline: punishment, correction, castigation. Among the synonyms for disciplinarian: tyrant, despot, martinet, stickler.
The point of discipline is to persuade people to behave according to some authority, some rule, some law. Without law, of course, we would have chaos. We need law, most of us would agree. And without enforcement, the law becomes a joke. The problem is, we don’t like enforcers. Threats and punishment and finger wagging are unattractive. When we laugh at the way Lucy bosses around Snoopy and Charlie Brown, we are laughing at our meddling older sister and our officious teachers.
Laugh as we might, we need enforcers. The law itself can rarely prevent what it forbids.
I have been thinking about this stubborn word “discipline” for months, turning it over and over, trying to coax it to catch some light, trying to find its most attractive profile.
If discipline is necessary, why is it so unpopular?
It occurs to me that Jesus was addressing this dilemma when the Pharisee asked him which commandment was the greatest. Jesus answered, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. That’s the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang every other law and all the prophets.
As the second person of the trinity, Christ had been present at the writing of the Ten Commandments; he was there at creation, when the law was inscribed in the genetic coding of the universe. Then, as the incarnate son of Mary, he was the only human who ever perfectly kept the law. His advice to the lawyer was not to focus on action but on intention. He suggested moving enforcement inside.
Once the voice of the disciplinarian moves inside each person’s head, it gets harder to judge people by their actions. Not that the law goes away. If I steal my neighbor’s lawn ornament, I might be arrested, sure. The police still have work to do, and so do the lawyers. But if what makes an action bad is bad motives, the disciplinarian who harps and judges loses power. After all, it’s not easy to tell from the outside why people do what they do. God knows why I stole the lawn ornament, and presumably I know, but the police and the judge don’t.
I’m puzzling out the meaning of discipline when I remember a story about how the disciples started in on dinner without washing their hands. To do that was against the rules, as the Pharisees pointed out to Jesus. But Jesus retorted that what matters is the heart’s motives.
It’s hard for me to remember that. I slip back and forth between being the Pharisee, with his external correctness syndrome, and being a disciple, who forgets all about washing. It occurs to me that there are times when breaking the law might be the most loving thing to do. What is license and what is liberty? Does that depend upon the context?
Days pass. The deadline for this piece looms. I jot ideas on napkins and on the backs of envelopes. The discipline of silence. The mystery of the human will. Habit is the opposite of discipline. I toss these scraps into a wicker basket. They seem to mean something when I write them down, but when I gather them together at my desk and try to make them cohere, whatever meaning they had flees. They seem enormous concepts, theological concepts. I am tempted to abandon prose and launch into poetry. But I agreed to this assignment. Writing it requires more discipline than I expected, ironically. Maybe that’s a reason not to abandon it.
Once the voice of the disciplinarian moves inside a person, it loses its nagging edge and becomes a colloquy. It sounds less like a scolding mother and more like a couple of lovers engaged in a heated discussion. I imagine a little person in the dome of my skull saying, Hold on. Was that a loving thing to do? Sometimes, I believe, one of the voices is not me, but God thinking through me. This kind of self-examination requires time and silence, at least for me, and it depends upon compassion. I think of compassion as the ability to experience the feelings of another person, to be with that person. The examiner’s question: how would I like it if someone did that to me?
There was a time when well-meaning authorities believed they could force lawbreakers to examine themselves in this way. In 1829, in Philadelphia, where I live, the Quakers opened Eastern State Penitentiary. It was the first prison designed to stimulate penitence and establish true regret in the hearts of convicts. Criminals were tortured and they spent all their days in solitary confinement. They had plenty of time and silence to meditate on what they had done wrong. Presumably they would repent (therefore the name, penitentiary) and when they got out, if they ever did, they would not need an enforcer standing over them.
Not surprisingly, this experiment didn’t work. Instead, inmates tended to go crazy from all the silence and loneliness. What the Quakers forgot when they were designing their penitentiary (which inspired over a hundred copies all over the country) was that the criminals had not chosen voluntarily to reflect on their crimes. And they couldn’t be compelled to do that, either by torture or by isolation. All kinds of external controls, no matter how clever they are, fail to create a human being who is not just law abiding, but lovely.
Finally, I am beginning to understand why I chose the word. When I think of discipline that is not imposed from the outside but willed from the inside, improbable beauty comes to mind. I remember young ballerinas who spend thousands of hours repeating positions at the bar, not for pay but because they love dancing. For a couple of fleeting hours in the concert hall, when I watch their arched necks and fluttering hands, I see swans. I think of the explosive leaps of the Russian dancers in The Nutcracker—naked energy disciplining itself into form. And when I hear the Beethoven violin concerto and watch Hilary Hahn’s antic left hand traveling the fingerboard, I can guess, because I played the violin, how many thousands of hours she has practiced the runs, has driven home the trills. I don’t even know how to talk about the grace of a shortstop who ambles toward third, showing up just in time to thrust his glove across his body and catch the ball—thwack!—ending the inning.
When I think of how a person learns this kind of discipline, I remember a Tuesday morning many years ago when I sat down with a legal pad and began scratching out a few phrases that I thought were in iambic pentameter. I hoped they would someday become a sonnet. I was very young. I was infected with a passion for form by my teacher Beatrice Batson, who had explained how to unpack John Donne’s “Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God.” Dr. Batson didn’t teach people how to write. She just showed us Herbert and Donne and other poets so lucidly that we fell in love. Reading the Donne sonnet felt to me like flying. I thought, I want to do that. I want to write a sonnet.
It took me a couple of years to finish that first sonnet. I didn’t know how to start. I scribbled pages and pages of rhyme. I drafted line after line, trying to make my Midwestern American English work in iambic pentameter. I tried to bend my raw ideas to the grace of rhythm and melody that is the English language. I had a vision of what I might write. Whatever discipline that required, I embraced.
The sonnet that finally emerged was terrible. But I didn’t know it then. And it was a beginning.
I have recently been writing sonnets again. Anyone who writes seriously knows that pouring an idea into the narrow channel of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter requires commitment and work. It requires a whole new way of life. (Though oddly, such an intensely strict structure brings with it freedom. I am released, suddenly, from choosing among the millions of alternatives available to a writer of free verse.) All that work to craft a sonnet. But in the end, it comes to nothing, unless it is touched by the je ne sais quoi that I call grace.
The spiritual disciplines require practice, too. Hospitality, prayer, meditation, reading and writing, worship, celebration, solitude and silence, celebration—disciplines like these are intensely countercultural. They are driven not by the threat of punishment, but by love. And like practicing scales on the violin, they are transformational. They can change a person into something beautiful.
Work is necessary to live a spiritually disciplined life. But it’s not the work, in the end, that transforms a person. It’s the alchemy of grace. Try to meditate, for example. Try to quiet your mind. Attempting to meditate, I am sometimes driven to despair. My mind has a way of slipping out from under the sternest willpower to chatter on like a monkey. Sometimes I give up, and then, occasionally, I experience peace so deep that it feels holy. It comes as a gift. It changes the meaning of the word “discipline” to something luminous. Spiritual discipline, in the end, is a beautiful and mysterious partnership with God.
Jeanne Murray Walker’s latest book of poetry is New Tracks, Night Falling. Her memoir Geography of Memory: A Journey through Alzheimer’s will be published in the fall of 2013.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.