We live in an age of verbosity! Put in street language, this means we live in a wordy world. Maybe other people live in situations where there are not so many words. But my world is a wordy world. Just think about how the typical person goes through a day.
It would not be unusual for a person to get out of bed and turn on the tv or the radio---words. If you have family around, there would be more words. If we are still working, it would be normal to be somewhere surrounded by words. Of course, in my college world, there are a million words. People who stare at computer screens are typically dealing in words. Often there is some kind of music in the background and the music comes with words. Meals, social occasions and more tv or computer work at night means a mountain of more words.
As my students would attest, I love words. Words are an incredible human invention. We can literally “talk” to each other. I can tell you how I feel and what I think. That is marvelous. In fact, I can learn a foreign language and begin to communicate with people who are unlike me. They can tell me about life from a perspective I never imagined. I have appreciated my chances to go to China, India, Brazil and countless other places. In many instances I need them to speak my language so I can learn their ways.
There is a downside, however, to words. Words can be very revealing. But words can also be concealing. I can tell you how I feel and what I think. But I can also mislead you. I have the capacity to lie. I can create a world for you that simply is an illusion---it does not exist.
Controlling people do this kind of thing. Manipulating is a subtle form of control. I might be able to manipulate the way you think about me or dictate how you should behave. If I am really good at misleading words, you might not even know you are being misled! So words are wonderful, but they also can be wounding.
Spirituality is no different. I have read millions of spiritual words during my time as a student and teacher. Words have tried to capture the majesty of Divine splendor, the miracle of human transformation and the malevolence of humans to humans in the spilled blood of religious conflict. Here again words can be wonders or wounders.
I am fascinated with the power of words. Surely Hitler was one who used words to bring cataclysmic wounds to our world. And Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream that was articulated in words that resound even in our own day. However, it is also true that too many words deal in superficialities. Too many words are surface words. There are words, but no substance.
I endeavor to pay attention to the deeper levels of life. I am convinced this is where much of life’s truth and meaning come to us. I am convinced the various spiritual traditions of our world point to a spiritual depth that is too deep for words. In fact, I have watched people go deeper into spiritual experience where it became clear to them there were no adequate words to describe the deeper reality.
I have learned some things simply cannot be talked about. That does not make them any less real. I personally have been taken so deeply into the Divine Presence that I literally was speechless. I knew it, but could never name it. I am willing to talk about a non-verbal spirituality. That is about the best I can do.
I realize the silliness of talking about a non-verbal spirituality! So let me use a few words simply to point to the reality of the experience of non-verbal spirituality. A couple words that point in the direction of this kind of spirituality are deep and bright. I am sure I have experienced both.
Deep points to the spiritual experience that takes us radically away from the surface and the superficial. To be taken deeply into God’s Presence is to shut the mouth to words. But it simultaneously tends to turn the lips into a smile. Often I have emerged from a deep spiritual experience with someone only to find them with a knowing smile. The smile is confirmation that “we know.” We’ve been there and we know. There is no laugh; that is too frivolous. A smile is suggestive. If you know, the smile says everything.
Light is the other way I have experienced the Divine deeply; there are no words. Light suggests breadth rather than depth. A few times I have been taken so far into the light that it seems like I have become luminous. I have no idea how to express it, but I am confident I become radiant. Skin color does not change. But there is an unmistakable brightness that leaves no doubt.
I am happy we have words so that we can communicate. But I am delighted that some experiences take us so deep and far, that we become content with being inexpressible. On second thought, maybe smiles and radiance say it all.