BEYOND WORDS

 

Once upon a time there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, in a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered and everything was possible. A stick could be a sword. A pebble could be a diamond. A tree a castle.

Once upon a time there was a boy who lived in a house across the field from a girl who no longer exists. They made up a thousand games. She was Queen and he was King. In the autumn light, her hair shone like a crown. They collected the world in small handfuls. When the sky grew dark they parted with leaves in their hair.

Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.

When they were ten he asked her to marry him. When they were eleven he kissed her for the first time. When they were thirteen they got into a fight and for three weeks they didn’t talk. When they were fifteen she showed him the scar on her left breast. Their love was a secret they told no one. He promised her he would never love another girl as long as he lived. What if I die? she asked. Even then, he said. For her sixteenth birthday he gave her an English dictionary and together they learned the words. What’s this? he’d ask, tracing his index finger around her ankle, and she’d look it up. And this? he’d ask, kissing her elbow. Elbow! What kind of word is that? and then he’d lick it, making her giggle. What about this? he asked, touching the soft skin behind her ear. I don’t know, she said, turning off the flashlight and rolling over, with a sigh, onto her back. When they were seventeen they made love for the first time, on a bed of straw in a shed. Later—when things happened that they could never have imagined—she wrote him a letter that said: When will you learn that there isn’t a word for everything?

Source: Nicole Krauss, The History of Love
W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (May 17, 2006)

CONSIDER THIS

“Her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.” What question do you want to spend your whole life answering?

“When will you learn that there isn’t a word for everything?”
What or who do you turn to when there are no words left to describe what’s happening?

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LAST WORDS

Alice Kahana, an artist living in Houston, has a painful and vivid memory of her journey to Auschwitz as a fifteen-year-old girl. On the way, she became separated from her parents and found herself in charge of her little eight-year-old brother. When the boxcar arrived, she looked down and saw that the boy was missing a shoe . “Why are you so stupid !” she shouted at him, the way older sisters are inclined to do so. “Can’t you keep track of your things?”

This is nothing out of the ordinary except that those were the last words that passed between them, for they were herded into different cars and she never saw him again.

Nearly half a century later, Alice Kahana is still living by a distinction that was conceived in that maelstrom. She vowed not to say anything that could not stand as the last thing she ever said.

Source: Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander,
The Art of Possibility
(New York: Penguin Books, 2000) page 174

CONSIDER THIS

  • Be sure to taste your words before you spit them out.
  • Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.

PRACTICING WHAT WE PREACH

There lived once a husband and wife both of whom were doctors. He was a doctor of theology and she was a doctor of medicine. They had just moved to a new house and  hired a young and witty new housekeeper who doubled as a cook.

One morning the doorbell rang and the housekeeper promptly answered the door. The visitor asked for “the doctor”.

And without missing a beat the housekeeper said, “Do you want the one who preaches or the one who practices?”

Source | Unknown

CONSIDER THIS

Your actions speak so loud, I cannot hear what you’re saying.

LOST FOR WORDS

A shy young man fell in love, but he was utterly tongue-tied whenever he was with the girl. A friend offered some advice: “Just memorize some great lines, expressing your total admiration. Something like, ‘When I see your face, time stands still.’”

It made sense, so for weeks the young man practiced: “When I see your face, time stands still.” Finally he was ready. He took her to a romantic restaurant. The lights were low. His eyes met hers and he said, “When I see your face, I, time, uh…” He couldn’t remember the words.  Again he tried, “Mary, When I see your face, I, er, I mean …” Now he was totally flustered, so in desperation he blurted out, “Mary, your face could stop a clock.”

Source |  Dennis R. Clark, Sunday Morning Food for the Soul
(The Church of the Nativity, 1999) page 90

CONSIDER THIS

There’s a part of us that’s a little sad when we hear a story like that, because it reminds us of all the things, large and small, that we’re still struggling to get right. “After all this time,” we say to ourselves, “I’m still stumbling at the same old places in the road. Same old places. Same old cuts and bruises!”

Have you ever meant to say something that didn’t come out just the way you wanted it to?

“Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.” | Colossians 4:6

PICKING UP FEATHERS?

A woman once went for confession, accusing herself badmouthing people. The confessor, a wise old man,  listened lovingly, absolved her and gave her a strange penance. He told her to go home, get a hen and come back, plucking the bird’s feathers as she walked along the street.

When she had returned to him he said: “Now go back home and, as you go, pick up each feather that you plucked on the way.” The woman told him that it would be impossible since the wind had almost certainly blown them away in the meantime.

And the confessor told her “You see, just as it is impossible to pick up the feathers once the wind has scattered them, it is likewise impossible to gather gossip and calumnies back up once they have come out of our mouth.” 

Source | based on Raniero Cantalamessa
preaching on Matthew 18:15-20. | September 05, 2008

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HERE IS A VARIATION OF THE SAME STORY

FEATHERS

A woman whose tongue was sharp and unkind was accused of starting a rumor.
She was brought before the village rabbi protesting,

“What I said was in jest … just humor!
My words were carried forth by others.
I am not to blame.”

But the victim cried for justice, saying,
“You’ve soiled my own good name!”

“I can make amends,” said the woman accused,
“I’ll just take back my words and assume I’m excused.”

The rabbi listened to what she said,
and sadly thought as he shook his head,
“This woman does not comprehend her crime,
She shall do it again and again in time.”

And so he said to the woman accused,
“Your careless words cannot be excused until …
You bring my feather pillow to the market square.
Cut it and let the feathers fly through the air.
When this task is done,
bring me back the feathers …
every one.”

The woman reluctantly agreed.
She thought, “The wise old rabbi’s gone mad indeed!”
But to humor him, she took his pillow to the village square.
She cut it and feathers filled the air.

She tried to catch. She tried to snatch.
She tried to collect each one.
But weary with effort she clearly discovered,
the task could not be done.

She returned with very few feathers in hand.
“I couldn’t get them back, they’ve scattered over the land!
I suppose,” she sighed as she lowered her head,
“Like the words I can’t take back,
from the rumor I spread.”

Source |  Heather Forest, Wisdom Tales from Around the World
(August House,  2005) pages 67-69

 CONSIDER THIS

There are many ways to kill a person – shooting, stabbing, drowning, choking – but the easiest and simplest method is to invent a lie about someone.  Whisper a lie about someone in an ear and see how this grows out of proportion, leading to a downward spiral of violence.

THE THREE HERMITS

A bishop was sailing from Archangel to the Solovétsk Monastery; and on the same vessel were a number of pilgrims on their way to visit the shrines at that place. The voyage was a smooth one. The wind favourable, and the weather fair. The pilgrims lay on deck, eating, or sat in groups talking to one another. The Bishop, too, came on deck, and as he was pacing up and down, he noticed a group of men standing near the prow and listening to a fisherman who was pointing to the sea and telling them something. The Bishop stopped, and looked in the direction in which the man was pointing. He could see nothing however, but the sea glistening in the sunshine. He drew nearer to listen, but when the man saw him, he took off his cap and was silent. The rest of the people also took off their caps, and bowed.

“Do not let me disturb you, friends,” said the Bishop. “I came to hear what this good man was saying.”

‘The fisherman was telling us about the hermits, “replied one, a tradesman, rather bolder than the rest.”

“What hermits?” asked the Bishop, going to the side of the vessel and seating himself on a box. “Tell me about them. I should like to hear. What were you pointing at?”

“Why, that little island you can just see over there,” answered the man, pointing to a spot ahead and a little to the right. “That is the island where the hermits live for the salvation of their souls.”

“Where is the island?” asked the Bishop. “I see nothing.”

“There, in the distance, if you will please look along my hand. Do you see that little cloud? Below it and a bit to the left, there is just a faint streak. That is the island.”

The Bishop looked carefully, but his unaccustomed eyes could make out nothing but the water shimmering in the sun.

“I cannot see it,” he said. “But who are the hermits that live there?”

“They are holy men,” answered the fisherman. “I had long heard tell of them, but never chanced to see them myself till the year before last.”

And the fisherman related how once, when he was out fishing, he had been stranded at night upon that island, not knowing where he was. In the morning, as he wandered about the island, he came across an earth hut, and met an old man standing near it. Presently two others came out, and after having fed him, and dried his things, they helped him mend his boat.

“And what are they like?” asked the Bishop.

“One is a small man and his back is bent. He wears a priest’s cassock and is very old; he must be more than a hundred, I should say. He is so old that the white of his beard is taking a greenish tinge, but he is always smiling, and his face is as bright as an angel’s from heaven. The second is taller, but he also is very old. He wears tattered, peasant coat. His beard is broad, and of a yellowish grey colour. He is a strong man. Before I had time to help him, he turned my boat over as if it were only a pail. He too, is kindly and cheerful. The third is tall, and has a beard as white as snow and reaching to his knees. He is stern, with over-hanging eyebrows; and he wears nothing but a mat tied round his waist.”

“And did they speak to you?” asked the Bishop.

“For the most part they did everything in silence and spoke but little even to one another. One of them would just give a glance, and the others would understand him. I asked the tallest whether they had lived there long. He frowned, and muttered something as if he were angry; but the oldest one took his hand and smiled, and then the tall one was quiet. The oldest one only said: ‘Have mercy upon us,’ and smiled.”

While the fisherman was talking, the ship had drawn nearer to the island.

“There, now you can see it plainly, if your Grace will please to look,” said the tradesman, pointing with his hand.

The Bishop looked, and now he really saw a dark streak – which was the island. Having looked at it a while, he left the prow of the vessel, and going to the stern, asked the helmsman:

“What island is that?”

“That one,” replied the man, “has no name. There are many such in this sea.”

“Is it true that there are hermits who live there for the salvation of their souls?”

“So it is said, your Grace, but I don’t know if it’s true. Fishermen say they have seen them; but of course they may only be spinning yarns.”

“I should like to land on the island and see these men,” said the Bishop. “How could I manage it?”

“The ship cannot get close to the island,” replied the helmsman, “but you might be rowed there in a boat. You had better speak to the captain.”

The captain was sent for and came.

“I should like to see these hermits,” said the Bishop. “Could I not be rowed ashore?”

The captain tried to dissuade him.

“Of course it could be done,” said he, “but we should lose much time. And if I might venture to say so to your Grace, the old men are not worth your pains. I have heard say that they are foolish old fellows, who understand nothing, and never speak a word, any more than the fish in the sea.”

“I wish to see them,” said the Bishop, “and I will pay you for your trouble and loss of time. Please let me have a boat.”

There was no help for it; so the order was given. The sailors trimmed the sails, the steersman put up the helm, and the ship’s course was set for the island. A chair was placed at the prow for the Bishop, and he sat there, looking ahead. The passengers all collected at the prow, and gazed at the island. Those who had the sharpest eyes could presently make out the rocks on it, and then a mud hut was seen. At last one man saw the hermits themselves. The captain brought a telescope and, after looking through it, handed it to the Bishop.

“It’s right enough. There are three men standing on the shore. There, a little to the right of that big rock.”

The Bishop took the telescope, got it into position, and he saw the three men: a tall one, a shorter one, and one very small and bent, standing on the shore and holding each other by the hand.

The captain turned to the Bishop.

“The vessel can get no nearer in than this, your Grace. If you wish to go ashore, we must ask you to go in the boat, while we anchor here.”

The cable was quickly let out, the anchor cast, and the sails furled. There was a jerk, and the vessel shook. Then a boat having been lowered, the oarsmen jumped in, and the Bishop descended the ladder and took his seat. The men pulled at their oars, and the boat moved rapidly towards the island. When they came within a stone’s throw they saw three old men: a tall one with only a mat tied round his waist: a shorter one in a tattered peasant coat, and a very old one bent with age and wearing an old cassock – all three standing hand in hand.

The oarsmen pulled in to the shore, and held on with the boathook while the Bishop got out.

The old men bowed to him, and he gave them his benediction, at which they bowed still lower. Then the Bishop began to speak to them.

“I have heard,” he said, “that you, godly men, live here saving your own souls, and praying to our Lord Christ for your fellow men. I, an unworthy servant of Christ, am called, by God’s mercy, to keep and teach His flock. I wished to see you, servants of God, and to do what I can to teach you, also.”

The old men looked at each other smiling, but remained silent.

“Tell me,” said the Bishop, “what you are doing to save your souls, and how you serve God on this island.”

The second hermit sighed, and looked at the oldest, the very ancient one. The latter smiled, and said:

“We do not know how to serve God. We only serve and support ourselves, servant of God.”

“But how do you pray to God?” asked the Bishop.

“We pray in this way,” replied the hermit. “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.”

And when the old man said this, all three raised their eyes to heaven, and repeated:

“Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us!”

The Bishop smiled.

“You have evidently heard something about the Holy Trinity,” said he. “But you do not pray aright. You have won my affection, godly men. I see you wish to please the Lord, but you do not know how to serve Him. That is not the way to pray; but listen to me, and I will teach you. I will teach you, not a way of my own, but the way in which God in the Holy Scriptures has commanded all men to pray to Him.”

And the Bishop began explaining to the hermits how God had revealed Himself to men; telling them of God the Father, and God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.

“God the Son came down on earth,” said he, “to save men, and this is how He taught us all to pray. Listen and repeat after me: ‘Our Father.'”

And the first old man repeated after him, “Our Father,” and the second said, “Our Father,” and the third said, “Our Father.”

“Which art in heaven,” continued the Bishop.

The first hermit repeated, “Which art in heaven,” but the second blundered over the words, and the tall hermit could not say them properly. His hair had grown over his mouth so that he could not speak plainly. The very old hermit, having no teeth, also mumbled indistinctly.

The Bishop repeated the words again, and the old men repeated them after him. The Bishop sat down on a stone, and the old men stood before him, watching his mouth, and repeating the words as he uttered them. And all day long the Bishop laboured, saying a word twenty, thirty, a hundred times over, and the old men repeated it after him. They blundered, and he corrected them, and made them begin again.

The Bishop did not leave off till he had taught them the whole of the Lord’s prayer so that they could not only repeat it after him, but could say it by themselves. The middle one was the first to know it, and to repeat the whole of it alone. The Bishop made him say it again and again, and at last the others could say it too.

It was getting dark, and the moon was appearing over the water, before the Bishop rose to return to the vessel. When he took leave of the old men, they all bowed down to the ground before him. He raised them, and kissed each of them, telling them to pray as he had taught them. Then he got into the boat and returned to the ship.

And as he sat in the boat and was rowed to the ship he could hear the three voices of the hermits loudly repeating the Lord’s prayer. As the boat drew near the vessel their voices could no longer be heard, but they could still be seen in the moonlight, standing as he had left them on the shore, the shortest in the middle, the tallest on the right, the middle one on the left. As soon as the Bishop had reached the vessel and got on board, the anchor was weighed and the sails unfurled. The wind filled them, and the ship sailed away, and the Bishop took a seat in the stern and watched the island they had left. For a time he could still see the hermits, but presently they disappeared from sight, though the island was still visible. At last it too vanished, and only the sea was to be seen, rippling in the moonlight.

The pilgrims lay down to sleep, and all was quiet on deck. The Bishop did not wish to sleep, but sat alone at the stern, gazing at the sea where the island was no longer visible, and thinking of the good old men. He thought how pleased they had been to learn the Lord’s prayer; and he thanked God for having sent him to teach and help such godly men.

So the Bishop sat, thinking, and gazing at the sea where the island had disappeared. And the moonlight flickered before his eyes, sparkling, now here, now there, upon the waves. Suddenly he saw something white and shining, on the bright path which the moon cast across the sea. Was it a seagull, or the little gleaming sail of some small boat? The Bishop fixed his eyes on it, wondering.

“It must be a boat sailing after us,” thought he “but it is overtaking us very rapidly. It was far, far away a minute ago, but now it is much nearer. It cannot be a boat, for I can see no sail; but whatever it may be, it is following us, and catching us up.”

And he could not make out what it was. Not a boat, nor a bird, nor a fish! It was too large for a man, and besides a man could not be out there in the midst of the sea. The Bishop rose, and said to the helmsman:

“Look there, what is that, my friend? What is it?” the Bishop repeated, though he could now see plainly what it was  – the three hermits running upon the water, all gleaming white, their grey beards shining, and approaching the ship as quickly as though it were not morning.

The steersman looked and let go the helm in terror.

“Oh Lord! The hermits are running after us on the water as though it were dry land!”

The passengers hearing him, jumped up, and crowded to the stern. They saw the hermits coming along hand in hand, and the two outer ones beckoning the ship to stop. All three were gliding along upon the water without moving their feet. Before the ship could be stopped, the hermits had reached it, and raising their heads, all three as with one voice, began to say:

“We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.”

The Bishop crossed himself, and leaning over the ship’s side, said:

“Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.”

And the Bishop bowed low before the old men; and they turned and went back across the sea. And a light shone until daybreak on the spot where they were lost to sight.

Source | Leo Tolstoy, Three Hermits

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Below are two other versions based on the above original by Leo Tolstoy

On an island there lived three old hermits. They were very simple people, and didn’t know complicated prayers. In fact they knew only one: “We are three, Thou art Thee, have mercy on us.” In spite of this one and only prayer, the hermits were said to have created many great miracles.

One day the local bishop heard about the three hermits and their prayer, and he decided to visit them to give them prayers which were “more correct” to him and the church. He arrived on the island and endeavored to teach them several prayers from the church.

Afterwards, as his boat was sailing away from the island, the bishop turned and saw a radiant light quickly gaining on the ship. As the light approached he discerned the three hermits, who were holding hands and running on the waves in an effort to catch the boat.

“Bishop, we have forgotten the prayers you taught us”, they said, and asked him if he would please repeat them.

The bishop shook his head in awe at the miracle he was witnessing. “Dear ones”, he replied humbly, “Please forgive me, and continue to live with your old prayer!”

Source | Abridged version from Paramahansa YoganandaAutobiography of a YogiPage 297

 

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Three Russian monks lived on a faraway island. Nobody ever went there, but one day their bishop decided to make a pastoral visit. When he arrived, he discovered that the monks didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer.

So he spent all his time and energy teaching them the “Our Father” and then left, satisfied with his pastoral work. But when his ship had left the island and was back in the open sea, he suddenly noticed the three hermits walking on the water – in fact, they were running after the ship! When they reached it, they cried, “Dear Father, we have forgotten the prayer you taught us.” The bishop overwhelmed by what he was seeing and hearing, said, “But, dear brothers, how then do you pray?” They answered, “Well, we just say, ‘Dear God, there are three of us and there are three of you, have mercy on us!'”  The bishop, awestruck by their sanctity and simplicity, said, “Go back to your land and be at peace.”

Source | Henri Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey. Page 50
Also published in Henri Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing

PONDER AND CONSIDER

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Matthew 6:7-8

 

ARE YOU A MONUMENTAL BORE?

A pious old man prayed five times a day while his business partner never set foot in church. And now, on his eightieth birthday he prayed thus:

“Oh Lord our God! Since I was a youth not a day have I allowed to pass without coming to church in the morning and saying my prayers at the five specified times. Not a single move, not one decision, important or trifling did I make without first invoking your Name. And now, in my old age, I have doubled my exercises of piety and pray to you ceaselessly, night and day. Yet here I am, poor as a church mouse. But look at my business partner. He drinks and gambles and, even at his advanced age, consorts with women of ques­tionable character yet he’s rolling in wealth. I wonder if a single prayer has ever crossed his lips. Now, Lord, I do not ask that he be punished, for that would be un­christian. But please tell me: Why, why, why… have you let him prosper and why do you treat me thus?”

“Because,” said God in reply, “you are such a monumental bore!”

Source | Anthony de Mello, Prayer of the Frog I published in the USA as Taking Flight page 27

 

PONDER AND CONSIDER

The Rule in a monastery was not, “Do not speak,” but, “Do not speak unless you can improve on the silence.”

Might not the same be said of prayer?