By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published February 17, 2011
I met a young woman not too long ago. She was at a parish celebration not far from here and we struck up a conversation. During a pause in the flow of words, she suddenly asked me if I knew Father Anthony. I told her that I did, that he is one of our monks and that I often share a meal with him in our retreat house. She smiled. “Could you tell him something for me?” “Sure,” I replied. “Tell him that he once said something to me that changed the course of my life. In just a few words, he said enough to fill a universe. He opened my heart to another world. It was a world that was always there, but I did not realize it until he spoke.”
I listened and then asked her what his words were. She said it was at a class held here at the monastery and the topic was the Eucharist. She said that Anthony told the class that one of the reasons Jesus comes to us in and through the Eucharist is so that he can see and experience the world through us, through our very bodies. Her eyes filled as she told me this. I could picture Anthony telling her about the Eucharist in a way that is intimately human and, in her case, unforgettable. I understood why what he said made a lasting and profoundly good impression.
There is much to religion that is gritty, down to earth, ordinary.
Bread and wine, oil, seeds and water—these are the flesh and blood of religious myth and ritual and have been so for centuries. All the fancy vestments and ornate churches and altars around the world tend to obscure by their richness and magnificence the humble, everyday materials taken by Jesus and transformed into revelatory and living things, things that promised a way to eternal life.
What can be more ordinary than words? Words spoken according to the pattern of ritual take simple things and arrange them in patterns of wonder, raising them to heaven and offering them to God. With a word, the call of a name, Jesus changes the direction of human lives. His disciples leave everything and follow him.
God spoke, and one day cascaded from another. He spoke, and there was light, and air, and animals and in time the whole created order.
A child gradually accesses the world through questions—a process that will last a lifetime, as things seen but unknown become more clearly understood through language. Words are keys to the world.
I later told Anthony about the woman I met, and he listened to me, smiled, and said he could not remember the exact conversation though he did remember the night. He seemed glad that his words helped someone else. I am sure it has happened a lot during his years here.
Our words share in the creative power of God. We utter a word, give it life, and it lives forever. I do not know just how that is, but how can words die? They are heard, and take root in the heart of another, and grow in ways beyond our understanding. They may recede, only to make way for new words, but they continue to live and work their magic.
Maybe we would be more careful with words if we knew we could lose them.
Or if they had to be grown, like in a garden, and handled with great care. Then we would bestow on them a value in accordance with their delicate nature. But as it is, words are enduring, are quite tough, and impossible to kill. They are spoken and the most beautiful of them invite us to see the world from whence they come, a place long ago and yet as near as the next spoken or sung word, a place that gave us rivers and days, evenings and the moon, a place that gave us each other.
A place from whence came the Word that is the Incarnation. It is the way God found a lasting way to see life through us.