In the Beginning are the Words ...
by Joseph Pearce
One of the most powerful lessons that Tolkien teaches in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is that the things possessed can possess the possessor. This addictive possessiveness, or what might be called crass materialism, is known as the dragon sickness in The Hobbit. It afflicts not only the dragon Smaug but several other characters. In The Lord of the Rings this dragon sickness manifests itself in the power of the Ring, in which those who covet the Ring’s power become subject to the very power they hope to obtain, possessed by their possessiveness so that they become possessed by their possession of it. This lesson is a reiteration of the lesson that Christ teaches that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. It is, therefore, important that we learn to desire those treasures which are truly good for our souls, and not those which will imperil them.
One of the most important treasures to desire is the possession of words, which liberate us from the slavery of ignorance. Words are necessary because they are the very things with which we do our thinking. We can only make sense of the world, and our place within it, if we have the vocabulary to articulate our thoughts. It’s not simply that we need words to communicate with others, we need words, first and foremost, to communicate with ourselves. If we are unable to make sense of the complexity of our situation because we do not have the words in our mind to articulate what’s going on in our lives, we are doomed to the sort of frustration which leads to despondency and despair, and the rage and violence which are their toxic fruits.
Since this is so, one of the primary goals of education should be the enrichment of students through their acquisition of words. The goal should be to encourage them to increase their vocabulary, or, to employ the language of the Anglo-Saxons, to add to their word-horde. The more words they possess, the more they will be able to understand the goodness, truth and beauty of reality. And this means that the acquisition of new words should be an integral part of education at all levels, and not merely at the elementary level. As an illustration of this, one of the pieces of advice that I give to those wishing to improve their writing skills, is that they should read good books. The fact is that we write as well as we read, not least because good books exhibit a rich and grandiloquent vocabulary, enabling us to acquire the wealth which each new word bestows upon us. And what is true of the ability to write well is true of the ability to think well. It is a fact that we think as well as we read. And since the ability to communicate with others is dependent on the ability to communicate with ourselves through the eloquence of our thoughts, we might also say that we speak as well as we read.
The foregoing illustrates that an ongoing part of all education should be the reading of the Great Works in one’s native tongue. For English-speakers, this means reading Shakespeare, whose grandiloquence is unequalled, and also other great masters of the language: Chaucer, Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Dr. Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Austen, Newman, Dickens, Hopkins, Chesterton, Belloc, Eliot and Tolkien, et cetera. It’s not only the wisdom to be found in these works that will enrich us but the gift of new words which we will add to our own personal word hordes.
Unlike the possession of many things, which may prove perilous to the mind and the soul, the possession of more words only makes us richer. In short and in sum, the wealth that words bestow upon us is the power to better understand who we are and where we fit into the wider scheme of things: our purpose and our place in the cosmos.
To conclude on a metaphysical note, we can say that the beauty of words is that they give us access to the goodness of truth. In the beginning was the Word and words are the way that the Word can be better understood and communicated. It is for this reason that the learning of words should be at the heart of all true education.
Food for the Soul -- by Stephen Freeman
Some years back, I sat in on a meeting between my bishop and a young man looking to attend seminary. After getting the bishop’s approval, he asked a wise question: “What should I be reading to prepare?” I was as interested in the answer as he was. “Read good literature,” was the answer. This advice came from a bishop who is both a scholar and a monk. "Read good literature." This is not so much advice for the demands of seminary – it’s advice for the soul.
Our culture tends to have a focus on the mastery of information, the management of the facts. I recall a famous television evangelist who touted himself as having memorized the entire Bible. It made him a television evangelist, not a great soul or a deeply wise man. It can indeed be little more than a carnival trick.
I was once told that this same advice was given to inquirers and catechumens by Fr. Seraphim Rose. It’s one of the best things I’ve heard about him – it shows a preference for the soul over an indoctrination of the mind. So many who inquire into the faith would do well to heed such sage advice.
Growing the soul is not at all an obvious thing. Plato, in his Republic, suggested that musical training be required for all children precisely for the formation of the soul. The soul is ever so much more about who we are, and the character of who we are than what we are and what we know.
As the traditional “canon” of literature continues to come under withering attack in the American academy, more and more people are simply “ignorant” souls. It is not so much that they lack the information gained from such literature (though they do), but that they lack a depth and the ability to reflect that is only made possible through engaging with the greatest ideas, the greatest music, the deepest beauty. Only a great soul can teach another soul to become great.
Several years ago, in a class of inquirers, I mentioned Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Everyone in the class had a college education, or a nearly complete degree. A young man asked me who Solzhenitsyn was. I was staggered. I realized immediately that the notoriety of this spiritual giant had passed some time in the 80’s and 90’s, but this only refers to his notice by the 24/7 news cycle. Sadly, few of those who know his name will have read anything by him. Our knowledge of culture too often extends to trivia, the stuff that comes up on Jeopardy.
I have frequently encouraged readers towards a slower life. As we hurtle along at the speed of our internet service, we tend to nurture the habit of brief encounters. We assimilate information that has been formatted for speedy acquisition. The depth of contradiction, paradox and context tend to be eliminated. It is mostly fodder for delusion.
The brilliance of the internet is its ability to “skim and retrieve.” Its genius fails when it comes to understanding and analysis. True human knowing requires the large (and slow) effort of attention and communion.
Some years back I decided to get serious about Dostoevsky. I had read his novels and pondered them. It was obvious to me that there was much that was being lost, both in translation and in the larger cultural references. I hunted down a commentary on his work and started the long, and often dull exercise of studying. It seemed worth doing. I have done the same with Solzhenitsyn. I have recently been slogging my way through Dionysius the Areopagite. I have thrown Origen onto my list of studies. Not everyone is a scholar, nor able to digest scholarly works. But we need to understand the difference between the slow, patient work of mature, healthy scholarship and the brief summaries and opinions that pass for information on the internet.
Depth requires that we admit how much we do not know.
We will not be saved by information, least of all, the shallow information of our current culture. The work of salvation is slow, patient, and deep. It is filled with paradox and contradiction – things that can only be reconciled in the context of a life that lives them. Good literature, truly good literature, brings us into contact with just such realities.
Writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul said: "You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart" (2 Cor. 3:2-3).
In truth, such an epistle is more than a brief letter – it is the deepest of novels. God give us grace to read the “tablets of flesh.” They have not been digitally formatted…