(In The Life Of The Church)
Better That Some Words Be Lost
This is Malcolm Guite:
In the short bio on the back of his books, he’s described as “a poet, a priest, and a songwriter.” I came across his work earlier this year, and it has been life-changing for me.
There is one poem in particular that dug its way into my mind and made a home there, and now it sort of haunts me. It’s called “What If…” Here is a video of Guite reading this piece (he sets it up first, so hang in there). I’ve pasted the words to the poem below the video if you want to go back and look it over after you’ve watched it. [Note: This whole video is excellent, and you should definitely start back at the beginning and watch the whole thing]
“But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” – Mathew 12:36-37
What if every word we say
Never ends or fades away,
Gathers volume, gathers way,
Drums and dins us with dismay,
Surges on some dreadful day
When we cannot get away
Whelms us till we drown?
What if not a word is lost,
What if every word we cast;
Cruel, cunning, cold, accurst,
Every word we cut and paste,
Echoes to us from the past,
Fares and finds us first and last,
Haunts and hunts us down?
What if every murmuration,
Every otiose oration,
Every blogger’s obfuscation,
Every tweeted titivation,
Every oath and imprecation,
Every verbal aberration,
Every facile explanation,
Drags us to the ground?
What if each polite evasion
Every word of defamation,
Insults made by implication,
Compromise in convocation,
Propaganda for the nation
False or flattering persuasion,
Blackmail and manipulation
Grows to such reverberation
That it shakes our own foundation,
Shakes and brings us down?
Better that some words be lost,
Better that they should not last,
Tongues of fire and violence.
Word through whom the world is blessed,
Word in whom all words are graced,
Do not bring us to the test,
Give our clamant voices rest,
And the rest is silence.
I think the text in Matthew that inspired this poem is often neglected because we simply don’t know what to do with it. It’s so harsh, so final, and presents a sort of scorekeeping that is at odds with the kind of grace Jesus usually talks about. And yet, it’s there. And we need it.
The collection of our words and actions is more or less the representation of who we truly are to the world around us (we’re good at skewing that image, but that’s beside the point). Ideally, we would make the two of those paint similar pictures. Here in the future, we have the opportunity to allow our words to have much greater reach than our actions, so the things we say (or type) account for a large portion of the mosaic that makes up the version of ourselves that the rest of humanity experiences. Or perhaps, we might say our words impact the life experience of those we encounter. That means our words matter.
Our words outlive the vibrations they make in the air or the illumination of the pixels they inhabit on a screen. This is easy to lose sight of in a world where we talk through the internet. We can simply rattle off, close our browser and go do anything else in the world. But our words remain, doing what they do. Guite presents the image of a sea or a storm cloud for the mass of our words—specifically those used for harm. They follow us, chase us down, overwhelm us.
Guite highlights several kinds of speech in his poem, and there is not space to talk about each one here. I think most of the categories he presents are difficult for us to weed out in our own speech (and I don’t think he wrote this poem to eradicate useless or harmful speech). But I do think this poem should give us pause. As a culture, we drum up so much noise. I’ll go out on a limb and say that most of it is useless. This poem is (slowly) changing the way I talk. “Better that some words be lost,” flashes into my head on a daily basis, and I’m thankful for it, though it has made writing this post excruciating. I wanted to highlight it here in the event it might be significant to any of you.
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