Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The flow of words

By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published June 11, 2015

During a retreat here a couple of years ago, Eugene Hansell spoke of the passing life of words. Most of what is spoken or read during life has a very short shelf life in our waking moments. It is rare when a phrase is strong enough to burn in any kind of a lasting way in our lives. The vast amount of words goes with the winds of life. And when those winds recede, more words blow in to take their place. I do not know why that is. In a culture that places such a premium on that which can be grasped and understood with the exacting tools of language, we do not seem to do very well with holding onto whatever is spoken, read, or given us through the media. It all just seems to roll over.

Yet something important, even life giving, survives and gradually sinks into our minds and hearts.

Beneath the seemingly ceaseless flow of words, or perhaps through them, we learn to deal with the rising and lowering tides of life. From all that we hear every day of our lives, something sticks. It is not so much that we remember words from the past to get us through the challenges and difficulties of the present. It is more to the point to suggest that a blend of words, human character and the need to cope with life move us to hear and then respond. I like to think that something of God lives within us and that life makes up for the gaps in our memories and feeble attempts to understand what is going on all around us and within us. We are tossed into this sea of life and through language and the goodness of other people, we are taught to swim and as we tread the waters, are better able to help others from going under.

The acquisition of language is nothing short of a miracle. Babies want the world that is around them. They want to know it, name it, love it and in time they want more and more of it. The capacity of language soon kicks in and in no time a child is placing all the components of grammar in their proper order. Verbs, nouns, adverbs, prepositions and adjectives line up perfectly in the mind of a child. And, like little trains leaving the station of the mind, one train after another is on its way to meaning, knowing, and, hopefully, loving. Gradually, language offers access to an entire world. And God is in the speaking and coming-to-know of that world.

God speaks to us “in-between-the lines.” Through the welter of words that we hear in a lifetime, God weaves his way into our lives through words that bespeak goodness, truth and beauty. When we try and describe God via the use of language, our attempts fall short. Mystery cannot be grasped or dispelled though what is spoken. But looking back in life, it is hard to deny that something wondrous came through all along in and through all the buzz of life. The best and most beautiful life is unspeakable. Perhaps that is why we resort to art and music to compose what the mind knows but cannot say.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.”

And then God spoke—and gave the world form and beauty.

Maybe that is why libraries and mass media must always take a second place to a breathtaking sunset or the birth of a baby.

More than words can ever say.

Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery web store at