And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles. And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.
Genesis 3: 7-8
And the people brought to him a person who was deaf and could barely speak, and they begged him to lay his hand upon him.
Mark 7: 32
In their commentary on the episode from today’s gospel, John Donohue and Daniel Harrington remark: “The Greek “deaf” (kophos) means completely unable to hear, while mogilalos (lit. “speaking with difficulty”), which is recognized as tragic in the Bible (Ps 38:13), depicts accurately the suffering of those born deaf even today.” (The Gospel of Mark, p. 239) The majority of us speak without much difficulty, or so we think. But, in truth, this is only the case at the physical level. At the deeper personal or spiritual level, it is almost always “with difficulty” that we truly speak.
The account of the fall in Genesis affords us insight into what makes “right speech” so difficult for us. It is, as with the deaf person whom Jesus encounters, due to our deafness and blindness to the truth, to the reality of things. Having pridefully abandoned their true place in an attempt to “be as gods,” Adam and Eve begin to see in a different way: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” Shame has entered their experience, a shame which requires that they cover over what is “private” to them and then hide themselves from the God with whom they once walked in the garden. Our pride leads us to create an alternative self based on an alternative reality. That alternative self is one who is unknown to God and who is also a false form that we present to the world. Our speech becomes an element of that false form, and so, what is meant to communicate who we are becomes more often a way of hiding ourselves, of offering a false presentation in order to hide the one of whom we are ashamed.
In the Fundamental Principles we hear that Brother Ryken, although he experienced a life changing conversion at a young age, “came to the understanding that a continual conversion is needed.” This continual conversion is no less than what we call the spiritual path. It is a continual turning and returning to the truth of our own originality, the one we were originally created to be. It is a movement toward the ability to see and to hear what is, rather than what I want to see and hear. Speech is expression but it is also our mode of communication, connection, encounter, and inter-formation. It is meant to be a medium by which we both receive and give form to the world through a process of honest and open dialogue. Yet, in our prideful and sinful state, it becomes rather a form of attempted control and manipulation. It often is our attempt to impose our distorted view of reality on the other and on the world.
In Matthew 5:37 Jesus, in his instruction on an authentic speaking that need not swear by anything or anyone because it stands on the truthfulness of its own words, says: “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” There should be no need to swear to the truthfulness of our assertions, as they should be but our humble attempts to offer our sense of the truth while realizing that our view is partial and will always require the “correction” of the other.
We learn to speak by hearing. This is true not only in our initial stages of development but throughout our lives. It is the arrogance born of the desire to be who they are not that leads Adam and Eve to hide from the truth. So too with ourselves. It is a somewhat frightening prospect to realize that we can in our pride and arrogance become so dissociated from the truth of things, including ourselves, that we come to believe the veracity of our alternative reality. It is in prayer and in deep, honest, intimate encounter with another that we come to experience how difficult truly honest and right speech is for us. To find words to express to God the truth of our lives in the present moment and what it is that we most truly need and want from God is a painful struggle. It requires of us to abandon our familiar and repetitive “story” or “stories” in favor of a vulnerable openness to truths that we might rather not hear. We find ourselves very much like the person in the gospel who “could barely speak.”
How often do we stand before God or before another or others and admit into our consciousness an unanswerable question? The strongest cultural value in our personal, social and political lives is not unknowing but the illusion of knowing. We use our gift of speech most often to vehemently assert to each other our own truth — too often relatively indifferent to the truth. When, like Adam and Eve, we hear in some dim way “the voice of the Lord,” we will probably find ourselves speechless, and so attempt to hide ourselves. If we dare to allow God to ask us where we are, we well might experience how truly difficult real speech is. We may realize that we have no answer at hand, because we ourselves do not know where we really are. The one whom God searches out may well be at a distance from the one we have been glibly and unreflectively expressing to the world.
The continual conversion of which Ryken spoke was God’s call in the persons, situations, and events of life (including the humiliation of his last years in his own brotherhood) to be put in his place. Every evil we inflict on the world comes from our forgetting our true place in the world. From the perch of our self-illusion and exaltation, we fail to see and hear reality. We only see the world of our own imagination. We see everything and everyone in terms of its or their service of our own false project. There is something in all of us of the person who sees him or herself as the biggest, the smartest, the most successful of all. The bigger we get, the more deaf and blind we become. And so, our words tend more and more to lose contact with the truth of things as they are. From that place, we always have plenty to say, although it really doesn’t mean anything. On the other hand, we always speak the truth with difficulty, because the truth is never readily accessible to us. It can only come to us through hearing and through seeing, not just from our own perspective but with the humility, openness, and receptivity that comes from knowing our true place.
. . . the contemplative traditions are primarily interested in the development of our experience of reality. But their interest does not involve so much the transformation of our childish experience of reality into a more mature form as the fact that our experience of reality can develop in a direction that makes us wilt mentally—a direction that makes us callous and defensive, increases our shortsightedness and fear of life, thereby causing endless suffering for us and our fellow human beings—or in the opposite direction—the direction of an internal flourishing—within which the visible fruits in our speech and actions are those that the contemplative traditions seek to ripen. When we go in this direction—either within or outside of the context of a religious tradition—we find ourselves on the Path of the contemplative life.
Han F. DeWit, The Spiritual Path, p. 69