The Hand of Our Speech

I am right now obsessed with completion.  Projects.  Papers.  Submissions.  Grade reports.  You, too?  So, it’s good to stop and ask what else this time of year might be for.  For such a happy time, it’s also strangely alienating.  I think maybe it’s so because we’re letting go of so much.  We’re letting go of our work.  We’re turning in papers and grades and evaluations and projects and saying, with a little chagrin, “So much for that.”  We’re letting go of people, too.  Chris Bohle commented this morning after chapel that he feels as if he’s draining his capacity to simply be sad.  Jennifer Hill said the other day at Tea that although we have a First Year Forum, we don’t offer much for people leaving the rich, full life of this community.  So, exciting as it is to be finishing a semester, as hopeful a prospect as summertime is, we can’t help feeling a little hollow, too.  It is a time of the year when we feel full and empty at once—full of things to do, maybe, and emptied of more than we can say.

What we can say.  Now, that’s very much to the point.  Because I’m teach and think and write and read about rhetoric, I’m inclined to say that one way to better indwell this season of the year is to reflect on our speech. A good master and companion to turn to is St. Augustine. The Bishop of Hippo was a word man.  As a teacher of rhetoric, a preacher, and an astonishingly quick communicator. he lived in language easily, deftly.  But he begins Bk V of his Confessions by complicating his understanding of his own words. saying,

 Accept the sacrifice of my confessions from the hand that is my tongue… 

The metaphor of a hand for talking about the tongue reminds us that speech is not simply a way to make spiritual information transparent to God or to others.  Even though I’m always telling students to make their communication clear, speech is more like a hand than a lens. As Augustine says,

No man makes confession to you teaches you what takes place within him, for a closed heart does not close out your eye….

The metaphor of the hand suggests that speech is a way of acting in the world.  What is the hand of your speech doing today? What should the gesture of our communication look like in this final week? 

It looks like Augustine is contrasting two kinds of speech-actions here, the kind that is exhausting and the kind that is self-giving.  During this particular week in May, much is required of the hand of our speech.  But our speech’s gesturing grows tired.  We are assessing, completing, negotiating, seeking, probing, stretching, bearing, pulling, intruding, poking.  We’re saying goodbye and God bless you and make sure to FB me and text me this June and see you at that wedding and a hundred other sad, hopeful things.  Our speech is pulling others along, scraping out a space to be with others in the world.  And sometimes, our speech—and this is a strange one—pushes our true and best selves aside. 

Where was I, when I sought you?  You were before me, but I had departed even from myself, and I did not find myself, and how much less you!

Augustine’s speech offers confession, which is an offering of himself, a gift from God and to God and, maybe we could say, from others and to others, as well.   Accept, he says, the sacrifice of my confessions from the hand that is my tongue…  And later, he expresses the hope that our soul may arouse itself to you out of its weariness, resting first on the things that you have made, and passing on to you who made those things in so wonderful a way.  For with you is refreshment and true strength.

So as we empty the hand of our speech—extending this hand to each other and with each other towards the Ever Living God—we let our fingers and palms lie open, empty, resting, awaiting renewal, refreshment, replenishment. 



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