Ash Wednesday, a time to be sensitive to words

Reflecting on Ash Wednesday, Fr. Cassidy writes the following:

Today marks the start of the great season of Lent as Christians throughout the world seek to purify their hearts in preparation for the drama of Holy Week culminating in the celebration of the Resurrection. Lent is traditionally a time of prayer, fasting and penance. Vatican Council II changed our sense of fasting and penance. Wisely, I think, the emphasis has been placed on our personal responsibility to practice prayer, fasting and penance as suits our personal circumstances, rather than on a mandated set of practices. It has not eliminated them, and I would argue that today, more then ever, there is a great need for Christians to practice even more fervently prayer, fasting and penance during this Lenten season.

I would like to spend a moment with you meditating on the first aspect of these pillars of Christian Lenten spiritually. A few days ago Inward/Outward, an e-mail service providing brief meditations from the Church of the Saviour, sent this meditation by Abraham Joshua Heschel out to its subscribers:

“One of the major symptoms of the general crisis existent in our world today is our lack of sensitivity to words. We use words as tools. We forget that words are a repository of the spirit. The tragedy of our times is that the vessels of the spirit are broken. We cannot approach the spirit unless we repair the vessels.

“Reverence for words — an awareness of the wonder of words, of the mystery of words —  is an essential prerequisite for prayer. By the word of God the world was created.”

Wordsmiths we are well aware of the power of words. Frequently at our council meetings I am reminded that “words do matter.” Words can heal as well as hurt. Words can forgive or condemn. Words can uplift or tear down. Words can be tender or harsh. Words are at the very heart of human communication.

I was struck with Herschel’s phrase “words are a repository of the spirit.” Words, of course, come in as many languages as human beings speak. I have no idea how many there are, but I do recall reading a number of years ago that on any given day over 600 languages and dialects are spoken in California.  The Bible’s story of the tower of Babel blames man’s hubris as the source of the multiplicity of languages. I like to think that if words are indeed a repository of the spirit then perhaps we need all of humanity’s languages and dialects to come to a fuller understanding and reverence of the WORD. For John tell’s us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Spiritual writers tell us that as we progress up the ladder of prayer our need for words lessens and our ability to abide in the presence of the WORD increases. Most of us never reach that level of prayer where words are unnecessary. But if we are ever to achieve that level of contemplation then we better take to heart what Herschel has to say that words are wonder, words are mystery and if we can reverence words then we can begin to reverence the WORD.

Maybe this Lent, when around us we see so many examples in our society of men and women using words to preach hate, prejudice, selfishness and countless other attitudes that tear down individuals and our society, we can, as our president has called us to be, more civil in our personal, political and societal discourse. Perhaps our use of words can be for us an act of penance as we take the time to think before we speak and reverence our neighbors by reverencing the words we use when we speak to them or about them.

Perhaps our use of words can be for us acts of prayer, penance and fasting. I suppose it’s a stretch to say our use of words can be an act of fasting. But doesn’t fasting mean to refrain from something, most often food? Refraining from ill speech that hurts another seems to me to be a great way to honor the season of Lent.

This Lenten season I hope we all will find ways to prepare ourselves for the great drama of Holy Week and the joy of Easter. Using those tried and true pillars of spiritual growth, prayer, fasting and penance, certainly bear the test of history as a worthwhile means of moving forward in our spiritual life. Recognizing the power of words come Easter morning may we all have on our lips these words: Christ has risen.

Fr. Tom Cassidy, SCJ
Provincial Superior, U.S. Province

One response to “Ash Wednesday, a time to be sensitive to words

  1. Bro. Sean McLaughlin, SDS

    Many thanks!

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