How We Know What Words Mean

25 January 2009

For some years now, I have grappled with how to communicate certain things for which the proper words have all been co-opted.

By way of example, suppose you are giving foster care to a child from an abusive Christian home, whose father always said,  “Son, I love you, and that’s why I have to do this,” before he delivered the inevitable daily beating.  When you say “I love you” to the child, he cringes and shies away.  What do you do?  The words have been stolen from you; you must reclaim them.  The only way to reclaim them is through experience, carefully.  Over time, the child will learn that when you say those words, they mean something different — they mean what they ought to mean.

I have been grappling with other expressions, things like “Christian worldview,” “interpreting Scripture according to context,” “church,” “fellowship,” and the like.  I had reached the conclusion some time ago that more explanation was not the answer; I had first of all to deliver an experience that was qualitatively different from what people expected. Then when the explanations came out, people would understand what the words meant.

This has always made me uneasy.  I had a hard time making my peace with it, theologically.  It always seemed to me — no doubt because of my bapti-fundamentalist background — that I was making some sort of weird compromise that should not be made.

I have slowly made my peace with it, grappling with how God establishes the meaning of words through creation, how He teaches all theology through history (which is to say, experience), and so on.

About a week ago, I read something that summarizes and extends this trend in my thinking far better than I could have done.  Here it is:

Our words are often flabby and weak.  For the word to be passed on and to give life, it has to be made flesh.  When, along with your word, you give your flesh and blood to others, only then do your words mean something.  Words without flesh, which do not spring from life and do not share out our flesh which is broken and our blood which is shed, mean nothing.  This is why, at the Last Supper, the Lord summarized the mystery of His preaching by saying: “Take, eat my Body,” “Drink My Blood.”

Fortunate is the man who is broken in pieces and offered to others, who is poured out and given to others to drink.  When his time of trial comes, he will not be afraid.  He will have nothing to fear.  He will already have understood that, in the celebration of love, by grace man is broken and not divided, eaten and never consumed.  By grace he has become Christ, and so his life gives food and drink to his brother.  That is to say, he nourishes the other’s very existence and makes it grow.

(from Archimandrite Vasileios of Stavronikita, Hymn of Entry: Liturgy and Life in the Orthodox Church , translated by Elizabeth Briere  (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1984) 36.)