Words, Words, Words

Depending on your interests, today is remarkable for being Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary, the feast of St George (only it isn’t, because the Easter Octave takes precedence), or the day we read Luke 24.13–35 and our hearts burn within us as Jesus opens the scriptures to us. The connection between all three is words.

Words tumble from our lips, ooze out on the page, trip through our tweets and generally identify us as human — we are not so much homo sapiens as homo loquens. The trouble is, as Swinburne remarked, ‘words divide and rend’ as much as they unite. Misunderstandings, deliberate falsehoods, churlish or rude remarks, they all contribute to the world’s pain. Just as a word can illuminate, enchant, build up or otherwise contribute to another’s well-being, so a word can break down, destroy. The monastic practice of silence, the cultivation of ‘few and sensible words’, stems from a realisation that in Christ God has uttered the only word that is utterly loving, forgiving and redemptive. That is the Word we must embrace and allow to speak through us today.

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Slaying Dragons

St George’s Day is a good day for slaying dragons. The Greek word drakon means serpent, and I have often wondered whether all the dragon-slaying and serpent-exiling saints of late antiquity and the early medieval period were, in fact, hagiographical manifestations of or identifications with our fear of evil.

It’s interesting that I lost many follows on Twitter yesterday when I wrote about the distinction between evil deeds and someone who is  intrinsically evil. It may be that some people prefer not to follow someone whose opinions they find eccentric or unpalatable, but I wouldn’t mind wagering that a few were disconcerted by what I said, even afraid of it — perhaps thinking I was playing down the seriousness of evil (though if you read what I wrote you will have seen that the opposite is true). Perhaps I sent a shiver down a few spines.

Why are we afraid of evil, even when we know that Christ has won the victory? I think myself that our fear, which is a salutary one provided we don’t allow it to overpower us, has much to do with our perception of evil as very clever — much cleverer than we are. The serpent in the Garden of Evil was very beautiful but also ‘the most subtle of all the beasts’. We are unsettled by the subtelty of others. We prefer (or say we prefer) plain speaking. The glamour of evil, the empty promises, the specious speech, wraps its obsidian coils around us; and we protest. Unfortunately, we forget the labyrinthine ways in which we excuse ourselves to ourselves. We may not cry out, ‘Evil, be thou my good,’ but we can be dangerously fond of the half-truth, the white lie and the shabby accommodations which seem to make life pleasanter for everyone — only they don’t.

Today, as we pray for England and all the other countries and people claiming St George as patron, let us also pray for ourselves: that we may be ready to put to death anything in us which is not straight or true. The dragons we need to slay may be much closer to home than Palmyra.

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