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The Moral Weight of Words



New Oxford Review

February 2007

Man's nobility and greatness are expressed by his capacity to use words that enable him to communicate with his neighbors. One of the problems we all face is that when we discuss deep experiences, we feel that words prove to be pitifully inadequate. We often say, ''Words fail me." Hard as we try, what we "feel" is much deeper than our vocabulary. That is why it is typical of linguists to shift from one language to another, because a foreign word can often better convey certain nuances than one's mother tongue. Those of us who love music feel that it can communicate best what is deepest in us. St. Augustine wrote: “Can tare, amantis est” (“There must be music in Heaven”).


Apart from the discrepancy that can exist between the wealth of our emotions and the vocabulary we command, words have another important quality: the words we use disclose—and sometimes betray—our attitude toward the object we are referring to. Words have synonyms that mean exactly the same thing, and nevertheless the particular "atmosphere" each word conveys can be very different. In choosing words, we should be conscious of the fact that their "quality" is in some way as important as their meaning.


Some examples are called for: how do we talk about death? One can say that, "So-and-So died"; one can say that, "His heart stopped beating"; one can say that, "He went to meet his Maker''; one can say that, "His soul has left his body"; one can say that, "He has gone to his reward"; or one can say that, "He kicked the bucket." All of these expressions point to the exact same phenomenon, but each one also expresses differently one's attitude toward the termination of human life.


One can adopt very different inner attitudes toward death; one can approach it as a purely physical event, “One stops living.” One can express it biologically, “His heart stopped beating.” One can take a religious approach, “He went to meet his Maker.” One can wish to express that a person, whom we believe to be virtuous, went to his reward. One can approach death irreverently and trigger laughter, “He kicked the bucket.” (This is a reference to the French Revolution when those condemned to death were placed on a bucket with a rope around their neck, so then when the executioner kicked the bucket, the victim went dangling on the pole.)


Great writers have a special talent for gauging the quality of words and intuitively choosing those which best express the particular quality they wish to convey. The language used by a well-educated person is widely different from the one used by those whose approach to life is, shall we say, primitive. To put refined and subtle words in the mouth of an uneducated person would sound artificial and ridiculous. On the other hand, we expect people who speak about sacred objects (or deep human experiences) to use words that have a certain perfume, a certain spirituality which is called for in such cases.


One of the most striking phenomena of the society in which we live is that many of us have lost the sense of the propriety—and impropriety—of words. There are priests who, while preaching, use words referring to God that are shockingly inappropriate. Not long ago, I heard a parish priest refer to God in his homily as "the nice guy upstairs." I felt nauseated. I am sure that he meant well, and wished to express his conviction that God is close to us, that we are His children. But this poor priest betrayed a lack of spirituality—a lack of reverence that he was probably not in the least aware of. He had forgotten that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We know that the angels tremble from reverence in the Divine Presence and sing, “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus.” This is powerfully expressed in the Old Testament.


We live in a democratic age. Whatever the benefits and merits of democracy, it often results in a leveling down, a putting of all things on one and the same level. This is deadly in our religious life. Once reverence is eliminated, religious life is threatened at its very core. We should never forget who He is and who we are. The religious decadence, so sadly expressed in our churches, is a result of this lack of reverence. We need only look at the way some people dress when going to Mass on Sundays: a non-Catholic entering a church would rightly assume that it was housing a beach party. 


The words referring to bodily activities such as eating, drinking, and sleeping, and those referring to the intimate sphere, are particularly revelatory. There are many ways of referring to eating; some of them are plainly coarse. But in the Benedictine prayer preceding meals, in which food is referred to as "a gift of God," an analogy is drawn between the food nourishing our bodies and the spiritual food we need to reach our eternal destiny. An explicit reference is made to the eternal meal in which God with all His elect will partake in Heaven.


The way a person eats is also deeply meaningful: a person can elevate food to his mouth or he can bend toward his plate and eat like a pig. He can gulp it down in a swinish fashion or he can practice what St. Benedict called "habitare secum"—meaning that while performing bodily activities, one remains at all times conscious of one's spiritual vocation. Those of us who have spent time in a Benedictine monastery must have been impressed by the "body language" of the monks: at no time is there any "letting oneself go," any forgetfulness that there must be harmony between our bodies and our souls, that our bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost.


I would defend the thesis that the abyss separating man from animals is made manifest in the domains they share: eating, drinking, and especially the intimate sphere. It is precisely in this sphere that the words we use reveal whether or not we approach it with reverence. Whereas the puritanical atmosphere rampant in the 19th century considered any reference to it as "shocking" (a word dear to Queen Victoria), today most of us do not even realize that what is intimate is not to be shouted about from the rooftops. Yet, this is part and parcel of today's "anything goes" attitude.


Some time ago I had a talk with the head of a college in Switzerland. Although the students there came from "good families," he told me that he could not get used to the fact that the girls use a language of such coarseness that, years ago, their words would have made soldiers blush. They no longer "felt" that these words betray an inner attitude totally devoid of the most elementary feeling of "shame." How right Jeremiah was when he lamented the fact that people "are not at all ashamed, they knew not how to blush" (Jer. 6:15).


It is worth noting that one can "blush" for very different reasons. There are cases in which a person is ashamed because he is afflicted with a humiliating physical disease that, when visible, is repulsive. He does everything possible to hide this humiliating plight. One can also blush because one is caught red-handed while performing a shameful deed like stealing. One can blush when one is caught lying. In all such cases, shame is the proper response to something ugly, mean, or despicable. 


One can also blush for another reason: when referring to things which by their very nature are personal and intimate. If accidentally a person opens the door of our bedroom, mistaking it for another room, while we are dressing or bathing, we should blush. If we perform a charitable deed and wish to keep it secret (as recommended in the Gospel), but someone "catches" us, we will blush and try to "cover it up."


The intimate sphere is one's secret, and this secret should be respected. The shamelessness that has prevailed in our society for the past forty years has totally destroyed the feeling of what we might call "holy bashfulness." Shamelessness has become acceptable among us and is creating such moral devastation that a concerted effort is being made to try to stem a tide of obscenity. This is why many "chastity programs" have been initiated in the course of the past twenty-five years. The most prominent can be watched on television. They do a great work and certainly deserve to be promoted for they help very many erring sheep whose "wool" has been damaged. Nevertheless, several of those who dedicate themselves to this work assume (erroneously, to my mind) that in order to win young people to their views, they should "meet them where they are." This is why one witnesses well-intentioned and dedicated "chastity program" stars using a vocabulary that might undermine the success of their mission.


This leads me to a question which I shall raise, leaving the reader to decide what the better answer is. As mentioned above, some are convinced that in order to reach young people, one must meet them where they are — that is, use their vocabulary, assume their tastes in music, ape their way of dressing and their mannerisms. They are convinced that this is the way to win over the youth, that this approach does not "scare" them, but makes them "feel at home" and builds bridges. Young people will feel "understood" and will trust the person who does not come to them to preach, to teach, to criticize. This approach is viewed as psychologically wise, and is supposed to open doors that will guarantee the success of their apostolate.


But there is another approach strongly recommended by Dom Chautard in his priceless book The Soul of the Apostolate, which, although written long ago, has (like all great things) kept its freshness and value. In this work, he relates how a priest — far from handsome — worked "miracles of grace" among the youth in Marseilles. He did not hesitate to appeal to what was best and deepest in them: their longing for God. With very mediocre means, working in very poor conditions, he had none of the modem "tools" that many people believe to be crucial to reach the youth. But he made them aware of their dignity as children of God — a dignity, alas, covered up by sin and a faulty religious education. He awakened in them the sense of the supernatural implanted in them at Baptism. What he disposed of was simple and little, but his love for the souls of the young was so ardent that he touched their hearts and addressed himself to their true self — to the image of God in their souls. He led them back to God and the sacraments, and several of his young subjects became disciples themselves.


The choice of words in such work is crucial. When referring to her previous life—before she was converted to the beauty of chastity—a young woman appearing on television and addressing millions of viewers, kept saying, "When I was sexually active..." The question that I raise is: Will not her choice of very graphic words inevitably bring to the minds of the viewers images that the phrase "sexually active" triggers? Some words and phrases are unpleasantly suggestive — "sexually active" is definitely among them. How inappropriate to use the same words for animal activities, for sinful behavior, and for the holy sacrament of matrimony. "Sexually active" carries no moral connotation whatsoever. We can suppose that she wished to communicate that she was "off track," but she failed to do so for the plain reason that the words she chose are morally neutral. How much more powerful her message would have been had she said to the millions of listeners, "I was living in sin"; "I was offending God"; "I was threatening my eternal welfare"; or "I was desecrating a sphere that clearly belongs to God." All of these clearly indicate a condemnation of an impure act and the understanding that the intimate sphere has a special relationship to God.


Alas, she missed this unique opportunity to express her repentance for her sinful past, her deep regret that she had sold her birthright for a mess of pottage, that she had lost the precious jewel of her virginity. 


She meant well, and in spite of what l consider to be a serious flaw, I am sure that she helped many of her listeners. But the fact that someone who is now living in the holy sacrament of matrimony can be so insensitive to these distinctions sheds light on the confusion that is darkening our moral perception.


Let me repeat: the phrase "sexually active" can be applied to the whole gamut of sexual experiences. It can refer to the coupling of animals, to legitimate marriage, and to sinful deeds. I personally would avoid using this phrase to refer to a Catholic marriage. The phrase "marital embrace" is so much more adequate, and has a note of tenderness and reverence noticeably absent in the other.


The words we use when referring to the intimate sphere are particularly revealing: they can express vulgar coarseness or tender respect. There is a four letter word that is used only by those whose coarseness must make the angels weep; there are "scientific" words which, by the very nature of science, are neutral. (This is why we can go to a physician and speak about very intimate things in a fashion which is in no way offensive to purity.) For Christians—blessed by their belief in the dogma of the Incarnation—the body has acquired a nobility that calls for an adequate expression. When the angel Gabriel, sent by God, asked the sweet holy Virgin to become the mother of His Son, she did not reply, "How is this to be, I have never been sexually active?" Rather, she said, "I know not man." One could give a whole university course on purity by meditating on these words.


The difference between man and animals—far from being reduced to the fact that the former has intelligence and free will, can love, has the power of speech, etc.—is particularly evident in the sphere we are referring to. It is a domain in which precisely the abyss separating man from animals is particularly apparent. 


For animals, this sphere is exclusively dictated by the powerful reproductive instinct (and for this reason the attraction of the male to the female is strictly limited to the days when she is in heat); whereas, for human beings the marital embrace should also be an expression of love, of tenderness, of mutual self-giving in the presence of God who grants the spouses the unfathomable priviIege of collaborating with Him in creating a new life — for the unitive and the procreative dimension essentially belong together. It seems to me that one of the most powerful arguments against artificial birth control is precisely the fact that human beings—and not animals—can procreate. As soon as the word "create" is used, there is a clear reference to God. To "take the pill"—that is, to artificially prevent a possible conception of a new human being made in God's image and likeness—is to choose to exclude God whose role is crucial in procreation, for He alone can create the soul. In such cases, man can no longer view the marital embrace as procreation. He copulates—like animals.


What I am advocating is not a return to prudery, Jansenism, or Puritanism. What I am advocating is the recognition that there are things that should make us blush. Woe to those who no longer know how to blush. Let us learn to chastise our vocabulary, so that it produces heavenly music.

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