Commentary

'Your Words are spirit and life'

Originally Appeared in : 9812-6/7/18

I spent yesterday with my mother even though she has been dead for over six years. Yesterday, I found the courage and time to do something I had put off for those six years. I read dozens of pages of journal entries my mother wrote after she was widowed and moved to an assisted living facility. 

 

Having spent this day with my dead mother, reading her recollections, thoughts, and struggles, I understand more than ever that her writing was an expression of her grief and loneliness. Even though well-attended to by her six children, my mother missed my father terribly. Theirs was a timeless love story that, paradoxically, seems particular to the 1940s, the greatest generation, who, in the face of the horrors of World War II, chose love and self-sacrifice as the path to forging new life. 

 

Some of my mother’s words were intended for an audience. In her 80s, she was inspired to write about her childhood in Perry, Florida, her college years in Tallahassee, and her romance with my father. She writes about her parents: her father, a country doctor, and her mother, a milliner and homemaker. She tells the fairy tale story of when on a blind date she first met my father, and when he told her that first night he wanted her to be the mother of his children. They corresponded when he was an Army Air Corps pilot in the European theater, and they joyfully reunited when the war ended. They were married soon after his return. 

 

 A few of the stories she shares I had heard before; others were new to me. I am in the process of organizing and scanning these stories to share with my siblings and extended family when we gather for a family reunion this summer. Other journal entries were intensely personal, describing the debilitating pain she endured from compression fractures and, later, cancer. Or they described the daily ache for her companion of almost 0 years, my father. 

 

The effect of reading my mother’s handwritten journals continuously over a period of many hours was profound, far beyond the experience of learning more about her life. I felt her presence saturate me. I was immersed in her, and she in me. The experience was something like my life must have been in her womb. The place where I am now and the place where she is now merged. Her written words were like heartbeats, sustaining life beyond the boundary of death. 

 

A priest I work with, in attempting to offer a metaphor for the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, uses the example of reading a letter written by someone who’s physically removed, as one way to understand that presence is more than literal physicality. Transubstantiation is a mystery difficult for the average person to grasp, but the power of more than physical presence is something we have all experienced. 

 

Our faith also teaches that Christ is present in God’s Word. Power emanates profoundly from words. When truly heard, God’s Word is power for good, effecting change. Properly understood, God’s Word unites, saturating us in compassion.

 

Other times, especially in these times, words have power to divide and demonize. 

 

Saturated by words coming at us from all sides, we may be tempted to dismiss this dangerous power. But we take grave risks if we underestimate the power of words to dehumanize others. Sometimes, the words seem to be thrown about carelessly, spoken in the heat of anger with lack of forethought. Other times they seem calculated to defend a stereotype.

 

Regardless of how they enter the discourse, these words target human beings to make them seem less like the rest of us. Whenever the word “animal” is used to describe a human being, that word insults the inherent dignity of the human person. Whenever the words “illegal alien” or “criminal alien” are used to describe immigrants (yes, even those who entered the country illegally) the human beings targeted by those inhuman words are diminished. 

 

When we accept these powerful, dehumanizing words and use them in our discourse, we become desensitized. We allow the words to form barriers between us. 

 

The opposite of what happens when we hear God’s Word, hearing these words reduces our compassion and understanding. We begin to justify unjustifiable, inhumane practices. 

 

In response to the dehumanization of other people, we don’t have to raise the volume on the public discourse, but we do have to speak out. In the guise of being against “political correctness,” some have argued that degrading words are speaking truth. 

 

We Catholics know better. Truth resides in the core belief that every human person is imbued with dignity, regardless of status. We must use our words to affirm that truth. 

 

Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at maryhoodhart@gmail.com.

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