“In the beginning there was the Word . . . and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 1:14). One of the most curious aspects of Christian doctrine is the description of God the Son as Word. We usually think of a word as something we sense, by reading or hearing, or communicate by speaking or writing, and we associate the “Word of God” with the Bible more often than with the Second Person of the Trinity. But before we analyze these theological matters, we must first consider: what is a word, exactly?
Aristotle provides a description of the function and purpose of words at the beginning of his treatise on language, On Interpretation: “Spoken words are signs of affections in the soul, and written words are signs of spoken words.” This observation, often quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas, indicates that words are the means of communication between souls. The words produced through the voice take precedence, as they more directly show the interior of the soul, as Scripture attests: “May the spoken words of my mouth, the thoughts of my heart, win favor in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer!” (Ps. 19:15). But how does one communicate the thoughts and affections of one’s soul without the spoken word?
I found some insight into this matter in an encounter I had one day in my ministry in hospice care this summer. A certain patient had suffered from throat cancer, and required a laryngectomy. Without a voice box, she had lost the ability to speak. Disfigured and silent, and confined to an isolation room, she had few people who would come and converse with her. I myself was nervous when the nurse asked me to visit her for the first time. But I put on a blue gown over my habit, gloves on my hands, and a mask over my face, said a quick prayer, and went in.
Once there, I introduced myself and saw that she communicated by writing on a dry-erase board. She could see and hear me clearly, and her speed of writing drove the conversation. If one marker ran dry, she would quickly switch to another one. Despite this restriction, she turned out to be one of the most talkative patients I had met! Through her writing, she told me about her family and parishes she had attended, and shared both funny stories and spiritual concerns. Although she was limited to the indirect means of the written word, I could perceive what she was feeling and thinking.
Yet, the most striking window into her soul occurred when, albeit without sound, I could tell by the expression on her face that she was laughing. This laughter—which Aristotle calls an intrinsic part of human nature—showed a joyful affection in the soul that cannot be expressed in words, whether spoken or written. After I said some prayers for her and she thanked me for the visit, I left knowing that we had both profoundly affected each other’s lives, whether through the written or spoken word.
Just as the Person of Jesus Christ is a more direct revelation of God than the words of the prophets were (cf. Heb. 1:1), the spoken word reaches more directly from one human soul to another than the written word. But even without the ordinary means of the spoken word, one person can still speak to another and share the words of the soul.
Image: William Congdon, Winter 5