Amos answered Amaziah, “I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets. I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores. The Lord took me from following the flock, and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ Now hear the word of the Lord!”
“Why do you harbor evil thoughts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?”
Today we read both from Amos and Matthew about the significance and the challenge of human speech. Amos is no self-anointed prophet; he speaks only what he must and only what he has been given to speak. Similarly with Jesus. He is formed by the deepest appeal of the paralytic that is brought before him, an appeal that those around him cannot hear. As a result, Jesus offers what the paralytic is most asking of him: forgiveness. He then speaks the words of physical healing that the crowd around him is demanding, but only as a ratification of the veracity of his deeper call.
Everyday life is, in large part, a repressing of the mystery of life. Lest we spend our lives awestruck at the miraculousness of all creation, we come to take life, in large part, for granted. Among the greatest of life’s daily miracles is the gift of speech and of language. It was as a senior in high school that I first read for class John Keats’ poem, “When I have fears that I may cease to be.” Keats speaks of his existential fear of dying “Before my pen has gleaned my teaming brain . . . .” Even at that young age, I could understand that fear. Unlike Keats, I did not die young, and also unlike Keats, I lack poetic genius. But what I still, at my advanced age, do understand is the fear of dying before I have offered the world what is mine to give.
For all the words we speak in life, it is more than likely that many, if not most, of us might die with what we have been given to speak left unspoken. Here, obviously, we mean speaking in its widest possible sense. We speak in words, but we also speak in action, in the quality of our presence to others, in the very quality of our daily lives. As Jesus tells his disciples as he sends them out: “Freely you have received; freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) Who we are is a free gift, and it is a gift that is intended to be given away through the expression of our own unique call.
Of course, part of what makes this so difficult is that we don’t immediately and spontaneously know what it is that we have to say. By temperament and nature, I am not a person who lives with many regrets of the past. Part of this is that I have been extraordinarily fortunate and blessed in life. Another is that I have come slowly to learn patience with my limits and failings and try to learn from them (not always successfully). As our Fundamental Principles say, “Be patient, therefore, with yourself and with God.” Yet, I do harbor a profound regret that despite “performing” well in school and getting good grades, I came late to the realization of the inseparable connection between education and life. It was not until graduate school when I was fortunate enough to study human and spiritual formation in an extraordinary learning environment that I experienced my own deep desire for learning and the great joy in discovery and growing understanding.
So, in good part, it is so difficult to express the “word” that we are because we can never totally grasp it. In speaking of the Word that is Jesus, the prologue of John’s gospel says, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not comprehend it.” (John 1:5) We never fully grasp the Mystery, including the mystery of ourselves. We are, as Jesus was, “in the world,’ and so we cannot come to recognize and realize our call apart from our growing understanding of the world, our developing grasp of reality. As a boy of 17, a single line from Keats’ poem resounded in me far beyond my capacity to comprehend its full significance. Yet, despite such moments, formal education for me remained yet another demand for conformity to outside demands. I engaged in it in such a way that it became not a source of life and inspiration, the way by which I could increasingly come to know the gift I was to give. Rather, it served as yet another form of dissociation from myself, the taking on of a false self that could make its way successfully in the world of my cultures, large and small. It gave me the material by which to build a carapace that was intended not to say what was mine to say, but rather to project a knowingness that was but a parroting of the culture’s values.
We do not exist as human persons until we “stand out” in the world, until we express what no one else can. The difficulty with this, however, is that we never have a full comprehension of the word we are being asked to speak. For most of my young life, including into young adulthood, I was painfully shy and quiet. As witness my response to the Keats poem, it was not that I was unaware that I carried something worth expressing or offering; it was rather a deep-seated fear that to do so would sound foolish to others. I remember that after having engaged for several months in therapy as a graduate student, I one day told the therapist that I feared that in my relationships I was talking too much. His response to me was that when it felt to me that I was speaking too much, it was probably just beginning to approach the appropriate.
Now by not speaking much, I am not suggesting that I was mute. We all utter plenty of words in the course of our days. But how often do we really speak? We are currently in our community attempting to create a structure for more significant speaking among each other. Many brothers, in response, have spoken of what a different experience this is. Our lack of intimacy with the world comes, at least in part, from our failure to express ourselves in the world, to “stand out” as unique in the world, to offer to the world the gift we have received freely.
We are reminded constantly enough that the word educate comes from the Latin educare, that is “to lead out.” It came to mean to raise up and to mold, yet a deep truth resides in its origins. What we call “liberal eduction” is little valued in our contemporary culture. More and more the emphasis is on “stem” training. The arts, for example, are usually among the first things to be defunded. The very hope and possibility of the world, at least from the perspective of a believer, lies in the gift of the unique life and call that is each human person. Training persons to conformity “to the present age” can kill the spirit and imagination that can “renew the face of the earth.”
It is said that while the executioners were preparing the hemlock to kill him, Socrates was learning a new melody on his flute. They asked him what good it would do him to learn a new melody at this point. His unspoken answer was that to be human is to be always a learner, and, for us who believe, to be a learner is to be above all a listener. If we are to speak, in the limited human way, the word we have to utter, we must first hear it within. Over time, I have slowly come to reflect on the phenomenon of feeling and thinking I have nothing to say when encountering another person. What I am slowly learning is that there is always something to say, I just have not heard it yet. In those rare relationships I would call intimate, I experience that the quality of our expression to each other is directly related to the quality of our self-presence. If I am living, and so thinking and feeling deeply, there is always more to express, to offer of myself. When I am living a routinized and conforming existence, I often feel as if I have nothing to say.
Speech can express, reveal, and communicate but it can also repress, conceal and manipulate. We talk far more than we speak. Our capacity for speech reaches fulfillment when it offers the gift we have to give in response to the appeal of the other, and the world, to us at each moment. At times we wisely refrain from speaking, but, I suspect, far more often we need to touch the insight, the courage and the faith to speak as we are called. Human integrity is realized as the inner and the outer become more at one. This does not come spontaneously or easily to us but is rather the result of being a lifelong disciple, that is, a learner.
I will not speculate on the consequences of this paradox but will emphasize instead its brighter side, namely that human happiness in the future—or so I believe—will be more and more tied to institutions of adult education, which will take institutional forms that we can scarcely imagine at present. With a little luck, adulthood, especially in its later stages, will become the new arena for humanistic education, that is to say, for self-knowledge.
But what purpose will be served by educating these older “resurgent learners,” as I would call them? It will serve no purpose at all, except the enhancement of life. In the human sphere learning is life, and life is learning. That is why there was a tremendous life-affirming spirit in Socrates’s last pedagogical act. According to Emil Cioran’s version of what transpired in the prison cell, where Socrates was surrounded by his most devoted disciples, Socrates was learning to play a new melody on the flute while his executioners were preparing the hemlock. “‘What good will it do you,’ he was asked, ‘to know this tune before you die?’” That is exactly the wrong question to ask Socrates, whose final gesture showed his disciples that their teacher was first and foremost a learner, that learning is its own end, that there is no end to its project, because to be fully human means to prolong the process of learning until death itself brings its course to an end.
Robert Pogue Harrison, Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age, pp. 143-4