Magazine article The Christian Century

Words and the Word: Poet on Pilgrimage

Magazine article The Christian Century

Words and the Word: Poet on Pilgrimage

Article excerpt

In a prophetic little book titled The Spring of Contemplation, first published in 1968 and recently reissued, Thomas Merton wrote: "People don't want to hear any more words. In our mechanical age, all words have become alike.... To say `God is Love' is like saying, `Eat Wheaties.'"

Merton was writing from the nearsilent interior of Gethsemani Abbey, long before the advent of the television talk show and shops selling T-shirts bearing images of Christ on the cross framed by words from the weight-training room: "No pain, no gain." But like George Orwell, another prophet of the 20th century who grasped the significance of language--its use and abuse--he could sense that as people were flooded with words from the world of advertising, the con job and the fast sell, their capacity for appreciating religious language would take a beating. Like any true prophet, Merton saw the connections that most people missed.

Contrary to popular belief, most poets are not dreamy, vague romantics. When it comes to language, we're as down-to-earth, specific and hardheaded as any prophet. In the mid-1980s, when I began my journey back to my Christian roots, I had spent nearly 20 years in apprenticeship as a poet. What struck me most forcibly about the Presbyterian worship services I began attending in my small town was the sheer quantity of verbiage. It felt like a word bombardment, and I often needed a three-hour nap to recover. I began to wonder why people in a religion of the Word were so often careless with their words, particularly the words used in worship and biblical translations.

Recently, in reviewing a new translation of the Psalms for liturgical use, I enlisted the aid of Denise Levertov and Richard Wilbur, acknowledged masters of verse whose ears are finely attuned to the music of the English language. …

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