The Self and the Liberation of Language

The professional is a self and remains such even when acting professionally. Language is a crucial ingredient of human inquiry but can, as Wittgenstein said, easily deceive us. Rowan Williams points to the deceptive use of one theological term: “One of the least helpful things in the history of Christianity is the way in which the word ‘Catholic’ has been turned into another tribal badge. The most important definitions of the word in the early Church stress that calling the Church ‘Catholic’ is a matter of grasping that it teaches the whole truth in a way that involves the whole person and is addressed to the whole of humanity” (Williams, 2013, p. vii).

We are made in the image of God and find ourselves when we reflect on our place in a world informed by the gracious presence of a loving God. Our world experience is one that can be truly called “Catholic”: it offers “the whole truth in a way that involves the whole person and is addressed to the whole of humanity” (Williams, 2013, p. vii). When we lose sight of this, we can fall back on self-reliance and will have to work hard to recover the vision as we strive to be virtuous.

But we can be “brought to our senses.” The sharpness of language in shaping an image can cause one to gasp and revive one’s interest in a story that through familiarity has been emptied of meaning. Elijah, threatened with death by Jezebel, fled into the desert to find himself; he prayed that Yahweh would save him. He was unimpressed by fierce wind, earthquake, or fire, the conventional indicators of a theophany. But he was transfixed by what the Authorized (King James) Version calls “a still, small voice.” The New Revised Standard Version is better: “a sound of sheer silence.” Best of all, however, I think is the literal translation—“the sound of crushed silence”—which infuses the silence with vivid power: the sound of crushed silence (1

Kings, 19:11-12). (This translation was suggested to me by the Old Testament scholar Christopher North.) One not only apprehends intellectually what is going on but feels the shock: it expresses a revelatory, personally absorbing experience that at the same time affirmed Elijah to be in the presence of God. He recognized himself as he became aware of God.

C. S. Lewis wrote an account of his conversion from atheism to theism and theism to Christianity. He felt that he wanted something, but what he was looking for, he could not precisely say: he had no words for it. Then all of a sudden, he was surprised by joy. What is more, as soon as he had found it (or was found by it?), he was comfortable with who he was, was opened in a new way to the lives of others, and was gratefully alive to the delights of the world—natural, human, and divine. Lewis’s experience of joy was, he felt, mutual: his joy for being found by God was reciprocated by God’s joy for his return. The parable of the father and his two sons (usually known as the Prodigal Son), makes an analogous point: both father and the elder son share mutual joy as a result of their renewed relationship. The resentment of the compliant younger brother is intelligible: he has no joy, no sense of his forgiven self, and therefore is unaware of the presence of the living, affectionate God.

Gratitude, like beauty, can surprise us: it is not something we express after serious deliberation—“Yes, I see. Now I come to think of it, I am grateful.” An expression of gratitude is more usually a natural, instinctive, spontaneous response to something that often takes us by surprise. Most particularly, when in the face of all our experiences— good and bad—we are “surprised” by the virtue of gratitude, we are transported by the vision of transforming love, beauty, and goodness that we glimpse in the world of God’s creation. The therapist and his or her client (and I would say every professional) may experience a reciprocal virtue of gratitude as each learns wisdom from the other in their relationship. I am who I am and not another person, but I owe who I am to my relationships with others.

 
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