In Genesis, God spoke the world into being. In the New Testament, we have “In the beginning was the Word.” We are given these imaginative truths that speech or sound has formative power, bringing substance into being and that, “The Word,” or “Logos” has always been. We also find in Shelley’s epic play, Prometheus Unbound, that Prometheus, a demigod who stole fire from the gods also “gave man speech, and speech created thought, which is the measure of the universe” (II.iv.72-73). What these two sources suggest is that language is a mediator between humanity and divinity.
Language is what separates us from the other sentient beings, not only in its ability to simply communicate information or feelings, but also through its many subtle and nuanced layers (rhythms, sounds, evoked images, and associations), language creates meaning and, thus, thought. In this way, language can build and expand our consciousness and conscience.
Although I am not a member of an organized religion, I was brought up in Catholicism until the age of 10. I am grateful for those early experiences which helped create a foundation for my inner life—experiences of seeing, hearing and feeling beauty. The interior of the church inspired awe and reverence: the soft, matte whiteness of the marble alter; the gleaming red votives; the forms and fragrance of flowers; light streaming through the warm colors of the jeweled stained-glass.
I loved Saturday confessions, not for the act of confession itself, but before and after sitting quietly in the darkened church. Each sound echoed through the gaunt space. In the presence of the figure on the cross, the somber saints on the side alters and silent angels in paintings on walls and ceiling, there was something strangely familiar. I felt at home in wonder, which the Greeks tell us is the beginning of wisdom.
I listened on Sundays, Holy Days and at funerals to the liturgies, prayers and hymns. I recall my first apprehension of the spiritual—being lifted above the ordinary, although I couldn't not have put that feeling into words back then, but it did come through words in one of the Latin prayers that was about the power of the word. Once heard, it reverberated through and in me (and still does): Dómine, non sum dignus, ut inters sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo et sanábitur anima mea. We also recited it in English:
Oh, Lord I am not worthy that thou should come under my roof. Only say the word and my soul will be healed.
“Only say the word and my soul will be healed’” was a revelation to me as a child, as it is now: that words can and do heal, that they both express and shape wisdom-filled thoughts and have a life which I could breathe in! Such word-thoughts impart a sense of hope and renewal, are felt as light, and can be called upon again and again as a source of comfort, strength, and even of actions I might not otherwise take, had I not been inspired by them.
As an adult, I found a life inseparable from layers of language as an English teacher and writer, grounded in the “trinity” of language: power, beauty, and meaning, which long ago planted a seed within me. I imagine that, if such a thing could be observed, the palest shade of green would have been seen through the thin shell of my young soul—ever so pale, but green, green and growing.