Lent, Day 24 (Happy St. Patrick’s Day), and Bernard on Sin

The next selection from Bernard of Clairvaux’ “Grace and Free Choice” looks at sin.  It points out that the first freedom, that of choice, which is innate in us, and which is always ours, no matter the choices we make, is what led us to lose the other two freedoms, at least initially. In this, he is alluding, though he is not explicit, to the Fall, to the choice of Adam and Eve eating of the Tree of Knowledge.  That story, from Genesis, is always a bit troubling.  For, in a sense, the fall of Adam and Eve is the fall into language, the fall into consciousness.  Prior to the fall, Adam and Eve did not have to worry.  Everything was taken care of.  But that story is fantasy — it is looking at life as a child does.  And there is wonder in a child’s eyes, wonder that I hope never fully fades, but children don’t have responsibilities to the extent that adults do.  And, as we grow up, we have to weigh options.  We cannot simply do as we will.  One might say that we must learn how to live right.  Some would say that children know this naturally, but children are often cruel to others, as they don’t take into account other’s feelings.

Language is binary and so the world is divided, black/white male/female good/bad day/night and so on.  The reality of the world is not so easily divided into binary pairs, and we do a disservice to the complexity of the world in seeing things in black and white terms.  Seeing things that way also leads us into favoring one (male) over another (female) or one race over another, and that is wrong and hurtful.  But language also helps us get a handle on the world and to consider ideas.  It is language itself that makes it possible for St. Bernard to talk to us, even today.  And it was language that enabled Bernard to wrestle with theological ideas, to contemplate them, and to communicate them. We may use language to hurt others, but also to help and to heal.  And the beauty of language, its rhythms and sonority, is joyous.  We love Shakespeare not just for his big ideas, but for that wonderful play of language in his works.

I think that Bernard might say that my view of language and poetry has something idolatrous about it, but Bernard himself got the title of “mellifluus doctor” — the “honey-flowing doctor”  — because of his own beautiful language.  I think I may agree that we cannot save ourselves by ourselves, but we can use tools, like language, as a way of creating or invoking joy.  We can use words to create prayer, which can summon reverence and wonder into our lives.  Even if there is no personal god, it is possible to see the divine and describe it (in some limited way) through language.  And so, the language of Genesis, in which the story of the Fall is told, is itself a result of that fall.  In a sense, the fall into language and consciousness are what enable us to think big thoughts and to put them into language and share them, and play with them, and argue them.

I’m well aware of the harm that language can do.  Sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can really hurt you.  The Auditor of Missouri appears to have committed suicide in part because of a vicious smearing campaign against him.  But words can also be used to do battle for the good.  We each have language we can use.  But we have to be careful about language — it’s a powerful tool, but should not be used to hurt others.  Just like anything else we may do, we have a responsibility to use our gifts responsibly.

At any rate, I choose not to bewail the fall into language and the fall into consciousness.  It is part of being human.  With it comes an awareness of mortality, and of sickness, which can be pretty scary.  But it also allows us to dream and to create and cast our own magic spells.  And these are great things, and beautiful, and wonderful, and full of grace.

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