Verbum Spirans Amorem
A Meditation in Four Movements
Piwnica Artystyczna Kurylewiczów, Warsaw, 5 July 2010
Imagine a father speaking to his infant daughter and saying to her, over and over again, the word ‘love’. The infant cannot understand this word – or can she? The infant babbles something back to the father, giving him great joy and happiness. He cannot understand the sounds she is making, her balbutiendo – or can he? Although she cannot understand what he says, and he cannot understand what she says, the reality of which he speaks – love – is being established between them through this communication that neither understands. Or do they?
Some years ago the literary critic and philosopher George Steiner published a book called Real Presences: Is There Anything In What We Say? He says that there are millions of words processed every day: bureaucratic words, political words, technical words, the words of PhD dissertations, and so on. But is there any properly human depth to any of these words? His argument is that it is only in relation to a transcendent that words gain properly human depth. Works of art, music and literature only have such depth when they belong to the search for a transcendent, or are rejecting a transcendent, or are reacting to a transcendent. In Marco Bruno’s poem about Ireland he speaks of a search for something ‘infinite’ in his journey around something finite. Steiner believes all art, music and literature needs this orientation to the transcendent, the infinite, if it is to be worthy of human beings.
I worked this year with a philosopher for whom it was very important that as well as our words there is what he called ‘the word’ and that it is only when our words are attended by what he called ‘the word’ that they gain meaning. If there is to be meaning we must wait for ‘the word’ that comes to open up the space of meaning. He saw this teaching, for example, in Socrates’ way of conversing. I can only understand this theologically, as a reference to the Divine Word that was in the beginning, the original and originating Word of creation, the original and originating speaking of God, of which all our words are echoes, and to which all our words are responses.
The phrase verbum spirans amorem is from a theologian, Thomas Aquinas (Summa theologiae I 43, 5 ad 2). The ‘word that breathes love’ refers in the first place to the Divine Son and the Holy Spirit. The phrase also reminds us that the Divine Word is always a word of poetry because it is a word that breathes love. This means it is a word addressed not only to intellect but also to feeling and imagination and sensation. It is a creative and musical word that is felt and experienced. It is a tasted word, sapiential in the literal sense, sapida scientia, tasted knowledge. The father addressing his infant daughter utters a word that breathes love, establishing love between them as he speaks to her and she babbles back. For early Christian teachers the human being is an infant babbling as he tries to speak about God, not knowing what he is saying and yet saying something essential. Art, poetry and music are conversations like this, ways of seeking to share beauty and truth, establishing those things between us and among us as we engage in such conversations. And we cannot really understand these conversations – or can we?