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Remembering restraint where words still have power


They said to do it, but I felt like shit, so I -- ” my father-in-law caught my husband’s narrowed eye, saw the flush slowly rising. “Well I did, I felt like shit,” Mal exclaimed, louder in his indignation. Andrew winced and fixed his eyes on the little girl up at the microphone, about to extract the winning card for the fundraising raffle.

We were attending the annual chili supper at the provincial house where Andrew works. And we were embarrassing him. I’d popped a beer can; Mal had used profanity; my stepdad was about to describe an intimate medical condition in graphic detail. Our moms were being their usual sweet, calm selves, but it just wasn’t enough counterweight. And Andrew, whose own mother calls him “square” but who is normally not a prig, was tensing at every new utterance.

I raised an amused eyebrow at him; I’ve heard him say far worse himself. “It’s a matter of respect,” he muttered.

And somewhere deep in my discourteous brain, a puzzle piece fell into place.

Just that Thursday, I’d gone to a workshop on health care for immigrants, refugees and migrants. One of the speakers had addressed problems of language and frames of reference, explaining the unwitting harm American-born doctors can do to patients of a different culture.

“English has lost its power to impact,” she remarked, reminding us that in other languages, simply to say something is to give that reality power. So a U.S. doctor goes to great lengths to warn a patient that taking the new medicine too often or at the wrong time can kill her -- then expects her to take it dutifully?

In our hyperverbal, chatty, litigious, information-soaked culture, individual words make no more impact than a corn flake dropping to the linoleum. Numbers, now that’s another story. I go to my desk, type in my computer code; get my voice mail with my telephone code; order supplies with my charge number; get money with my PIN number; fill out forms with my Social Security number. My words don’t much matter.

Maybe that’s why I, too, resort easily to profanity, hoping to spice sentences that have gone bland, clumsy, fragmentary, inarticulate. And then I’m thrown into one of those rare environments -- a Roman Catholic institution, for example -- where words still have power. And I find I’ve forgotten restraint.

Within Catholic tradition, the Word is omniscient. Just look at the sacraments: Bless me Father, for I have sinned. Go in peace, your sins are forgiven. Body of Christ. I believe. I do. I will.

Theologians fight against the sense of magical efficacy that colors so much devotional practice. But abstract and deliberate all you like: A novena remains a wish and a promise captured in words, just as a litany serves as an invocation of spirit, and a blessing lends pure hope.

We cannot recite a numeric code to receive Communion. And we’re not flooded with distracting new information every Sunday, either. The words of the liturgy bear sweet repetition, taking on a resonance that transcends literal definition. The words of deliberate assent gather centuries of meaning into their short, familiar syllables. Even the gibberish of rote recitation hums with energy.

In the modern world, profanity’s inevitable.

In the presence of the sacred, it’s unnecessary.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer at The Riverfront Times an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1999