The Word Dwelt Among Us

My little grandson, ten months old, crawls energetically across the floor in his Oshkosh overalls. When he reaches the sofa, he pulls himself up and steps confidently along the cushions, aiming to grab a purse and a book that lie at the far end.

He ought to be taking a nap, or so the grown-ups think, but he has better things to do. He is exploring the frontier, moving, touching, tasting, listening, and all the while talking. He is not speaking in words yet; nonetheless, he is practicing the universal “Da-da-dad” and “Ma-ma-mom.” Like all babies, he has been practicing his vowels virtually since birth, and one day in the next few months he will match “Da-dad” to his father and “Ma-mom” to his mother. Those nice “ah” sounds that he cherishes will become something like “apple”; the “bah” sounds will become “baby” or “ball” or “book.”

The attraction of the mind to words is astonishingly and uniquely the province of man alone among God’s creatures. Built into his very nature, his attraction to language begins in the womb, taking root as soon as the pre-born baby hears and recognizes his mother’s voice. Like John the Baptist, who leaped in Elizabeth’s womb when he heard the voice of the blessed Mother, every baby leaps for joy when he hears the voice of his own mother.

By the time he is born a baby has had months of exposure to the voice of his mother speaking in her native language. This little creature made for words begins his life primed to learn to talk—and, amazingly, to read. Every day is a new practice session until he learns to attach a word to an object and not only he but also others recognize that word. In a few years after learning to talk he will master the even more mysterious phenomenon of matching an image in his mind with a word on the printed page. He also will learn another form of language, numbers, and perhaps also the languages of music and art. The basis of language, however, is the spoken word. The inclination to speak words to others, especially to those we love, and to hear others speak to us is embedded in our nature. A desire to communicate in speech is central to our being. To communicate in speech is likewise the means to friendship. Without words that we all understand we would have little basis for the friendship that binds the community. Without spoken and written language through which we make ourselves known to each other, without communication in words, we would scarcely be human.

Much has been made lately of the contrasting ways in which men and women use words to communicate in speech. And indeed they in general do use the word in ways different from each other, sometimes in ways so different that they completely misunderstand each other. A wise retreat master, building on the actual difference, now commonly acknowledged, between left-and right-brain function in men and women, pointed out that men, on the one hand, use the left and right sides of their brain one at a time. Thus logic and passion in a man are divided. A woman, on the other hand, sends signals rapidly back and forth between left and right brain, so that logic and passion are connected. A woman can solve problems sometimes even more quickly than a man, but she may not be able to explain how she did it.

As a result of these natural differences in the way men and women think, there are two contrasting, but also complementary, ways of being. Men, said the retreat master, are made to take care of the Lord’s garden; they are made to conquer nature. They are made, in short, for projects, which they can construct logically and carry out passionately.

Women, by contrast, are what the retreat master called whole beings. They are made for relationships, thus made to be helpmates and mothers. They are as personal as men are often impersonal.

Living their complementary natures on the highest level, men and women mesh together like a hand in a glove. Yet in their sinful state, men can use their impersonal inclination to turn people into objects, and women can use their personal inclination to become cruel and manipulative.

Crossed Wires

It is not surprising that communication between men and women often goes awry. Generally speaking, for every man who complains that a woman demands too much attention and does not understand the importance of his work, there is a woman who complains that a man spends time on everything but her. A man secretly thinks a woman wastes her time concentrating on people’s welfare and wishes she would be interested in the projects that mean so much to him. A woman secretly thinks a man’s projects are sometimes not worth the time he spends on them and wishes he would prefer her to his projects. One rivets attention to doing; the other to being. Doing and being are essential components of a healthy life, but flawed men and women drag those elements off course, causing distress to each other. In their imperfection men think doing is the highest thing and look down their noses at women, who are so wrapped up in being. Meanwhile, women cherish being above all and look down their noses at men, who are so wrapped up in their various enterprises. The root of these irritations is lack of respect on both sides—lack of respect for the true nature of the other.

Doing and being are complementary, however, just as men and women are complementary and need each other to be fully human. God so created them to be complete only with each other. Because they are created to complete one another, even though men and women may irritate and misunderstand each other, it is still possible for them to communicate. Because they are both made in the image of God, it is their nature to communicate. As God is the Word, so they are made for words.

God spoke a Word and became Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity. In the same way, when he pronounced the names of each of us, we came to be. Each of us, like Christ himself, is God’s word made flesh. Each of us, then, is both an intelligent and intelligible being—made both to know God, other people, and the world around us, and also to be known by God and by others. With our capacity to know and to be known, we are beings who are meant for friendship. God made possible our friendship simply by revealing himself to us. If friends tell each other about themselves, then God told us everything about himself. In Christ he revealed himself in his entirety so that we might understand who God really is. As God in the flesh, Christ came to us when we could not go to him. The relationship between God and man, therefore, is not one of master to slave but of friend to friend. It is a friendship based on revelation of God to man, revelation of the Word.

“I call you friends,” said Jesus at the Last Supper, “because I have made known to you everything I have learned from my Father.”

Made for Friendship

It is a priceless honor to have been created as intelligent and intelligible beings, people of the word, with a capacity, as a result, for friendship. How essential it is, then, to drink in the Word of God through the two great channels he has given us to know him: first, through the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and, second, through Scripture. Unless we partake of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and penance, and unless we reflect on Scripture, God’s love letters to us, we are missing the untold graces of the Lord’s friendship.

Because we are created in our very nature to be friends and to communicate in word, it is obvious that we are not individual atoms united in a common pool but instead we are a community of friends. Our spiritual journey is not a rat race of individuals who are in a competition to the finish line, but rather a pilgrimage of friends united in common purpose, as Chaucer’s pilgrims wending their way to Canterbury, who, because they come from and go to the same Father, have much to converse about during the journey.

The conversation of friendship can become so harmonious that it exceeds community to become communion. It is such in marriage, in which the word spoken between two people is not only verbal but also is so complete as to become union of hearts, minds, and bodies. Marriage, as the Catechism says, is a communion of persons, a sign of God’s grace by which he makes holy the very act by which we come into existence as incarnate human beings. Sacramental marriage is so profoundly a communion of the word between man and wife that it is the basis of the domestic church. With the husband reflecting Christ as head of the Church, and his wife reflecting Christ’s beloved spouse, the Church, the married couple is a mirror of the Church, a little church on the scale of the family, a domestic church. In their love for each other they mirror the spousal love that Christ has for us, his Church. We see that spousal love of Christ each time we participate in the Eucharist, which is both a sacrifice and a wedding feast. Likewise, the married couple demonstrates in their union both their sacrifice for each other and their total spousal giving of themselves to each other. Their spousal giving is meant to be total—which is why contraception is such a misunderstanding of the order of things, such a violation of the word between husband and wife.

Christ is the Word made flesh—the complete, entire Word, the truth, God himself—come into the world as a man. The human person, too, bearing a resemblance to our Creator, is a word made flesh. We are made for God’s Word; made to hear; to ponder; to understand; and, finally, to live the word that God speaks to us. Communication, therefore, between God and the human person is sacred. It is communion. Because it is a reflection of the communication between God and man, so the communication between people is meant to be sacred. In its highest form it is communion. The human person is meant to communicate and to communicate in love. He is meant to communicate in words, words spoken truly.

Empty Utterance

The word today is under attack. We know that, and yet we hardly know how to combat it. We sense, however, that the truth of the word, whether it be written and spoken language, the language of art and music, or of science and mathematics, is so vital to our humanity that attack upon word is attack upon our very souls. As a result, assaults upon the truth of words undermine community. If words do not mean what they signify, and if everyone speaking these words does not have the same understanding of them, then the social order begins to unravel. Language is orderly; it has structure and authority, as will attest any fifth-grader who is struggling to master subjects and predicates. In a healthy society language is strong, vibrant, and rich, and words are used confidently because everyone attributes to them the same meaning and authority. When, however, a society becomes disordered, words lose their correspondence to reality. They become, as a consequence, untruthful. They become lies, and so we hear lots of euphemisms and other expressions by which evil can masquerade as good. A pre-born baby, for example, is the “product of pregnancy,” or sinful behavior is a variation in “lifestyle.”

When language becomes unhinged from truth, then it becomes increasingly vulgar and coarse. If word is no longer sacred, after all, then anyone can say anything, because no one means what he says. A man and woman might mean it when they say, “I love you,” but then again they might mean, “I love you as an object.” “Life” might mean life, but then again it might mean “productiveness.” It all depends upon who uses the words and in what circumstances. Words cannot be certain.

What parents must do, then, for their children, as Mar-ion Montgomery advises in his splendid book, Liberal Arts and Community, is to point out the truth of words, to insist on the truth of words. Words—words about God and man, about the world, about any aspect of the world—must be spoken truly. In sum, they must represent truly the things they signify. Our recovery of civilization requires that words must once again correspond to truth.

Bed Time Stories

If we are to educate our children in the truth, we must turn off the television, open the good books, and start reading to these young people in our charge. In so reading to them and reading with them and trying to educate them in the truth, we show them what words really mean, that words in fact have meaning that corresponds to objective reality. We show them, consequently, what things really are, how the world really is. We help our children understand the right order of creation, how this thing relates to that thing (for example, a subject to a predicate), how they have to get this thing right before they get the next thing right, how this thing is more important than that thing, and this thing is the most important thing of all. Through words truthfully used our children can know the right order of both the natural world and the moral world; they can understand both the order of atoms and molecules and the order of the human soul.

At home, in the family, a child learns to trust the truth of words. His parents mean what they say and will not abandon him. Thus he himself gathers courage to speak and act truthfully. He begins to recognize, as a result, the intellectual and moral virtues, the virtues of thinking and acting correctly. He begins to understand that he is a creature made for Word, that word is sacred, and that consequently he must speak the word truthfully and keep his word faithfully. He begins to understand that fidelity to the word is the basis for all relationships human and divine. Faithfulness to the word forms the bedrock both of the social order and of the Body of Christ, which is the Church, for if God keeps his word, then so must we.

The most amazing phenomenon in God’s creation, in my view, is the unfolding, the education, of the human person as he advances from first noticing his mother’s face to talking, to memorizing, to reading, to reflecting on what he reads, to understanding and articulating what the good life is, and, finally, to doing his best to live the good life. At that point a mother and father rejoice that somewhere, somehow, in the mysterious reaches of the human mind a light bulb of truth has gone on and, in a small way, their child, a child made for word, has answered God’s grace with the same response that Mary uttered: “Be it done to me according to thy word.”


  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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