Words of Hope
"In the beginning was the Word." It's significant that when the author or authors of the Gospel of John began that opus, the image they chose was of a word, spoken by the Creator, that ultimately took the form of a person. They knew that when we speak words into the world, those words have the power to become living entities that change everything.
We know this in both light and darkness. How many of us harbour the hurt of words thoughtlessly or cruelly spoken to us? Those words conjure up a power that can hurt us still, surviving the moment the sounds were formed and the words were shot, like arrows, to find their mark. The day my older brother hissed beneath his breath, "Suck!"--such a harmless and stupid word--this somehow entered my psyche as the epithet I feared most, to be thought worthless, cowardly, and somehow unmanly. It was one of countless put-downs I bore as I followed my brother into our teens. But that day that word somehow compressed them all into a single poisoned dart.
On the other hand, a few well-chosen words spoken in love can reassure a trembling heart and offer hints of hope. Like the time my bishop took me aside, a new priest trying to make my mark, but also a young father of preschoolers, stressed by the competing demands of the roles I'd taken on. He said to me, "These are not the days of your greatest creativity." I heard those words as both affirmation and prophecy. The affirmation was that he thought I was creative; the prophecy was that I'd only just begun and I didn't need to burn out trying to do it all, at once. It was a timely message meant to encourage me, and it did. Since then, I've witnessed the fulfilment of those words, as I've lived into them.
The thing about healing and hopeful words, and their power to turn things around, is that they needn't be the pie-in-the-sky variety. "Everything will turn out just fine," is more an idle wish than a promise and therefore not very reassuring. But, "You have within you the strength and wisdom to figure it out," is a life-giving truth. The words that change a situation are those rooted in the present reality, not those that point outside of it. That's where we find our hope, here, not there.
No one knows more about the power of words than a poet. In poetry every word is a distilled reference to a human thought, feeling, or experience. Follow a poet's trail of well-chosen words, and they serve as breadcrumbs leading us back to ourselves, where we can see ourselves for who we are, and the world for what it is, where we can make choices that favour the best versions of ourselves, for the sake of the world.
Juleta Severson-Baker is a prize-winning Canadian poet and my guest on this week’s podcast. Her poems are not cerebral musings, cold and analytical. Nor are they snappy jingles meant to cheer us up. They are invitations to live fully here and now, in our bodies, awake and present, and therefore to know who we are as creatures of God's wild earth. You cannot read her poetry without drawing your gaze both inward, to our innate soulfulness, and outward, to the natural world of which we are a part. Her words take us back to where we come from; but also forward, to where we're needed now. That is their hopefulness.
It is miraculous, the power of words to make a difference. Like the Word God spoke into the world, whose dying and rising we mark this weekend, words can point beyond the grave, to the new life we are being called to embrace. They can remind us of who we are, and raise us up to become who we’re meant to be.
Listen to this week's episode of The Mystic Cave, "Raising Hope: Poet Juleta Severson-Baker on the Power of Words." Just press the Play button.