Dead Languages and the Holy Spirit

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 12, July 27, 2014

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. (Romans 8:26)

I’ve always been fascinated by languages and the use of words. On our bookshelves at home, there are several guides to graceful grammar. My favorite is titled Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. Another one is called Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. This one even comes with an endorsement on the dust jacket by Garrison Keillor, the host of NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion. He writes,

You forget so much about English as you go along being profound in it, like who a gerund is and where adverbs go, until one day you stand up to receive your honorary LL.D. and children snicker at your grammatical errors. Woe is I can save you from that. I mean, this is, like, a cool book.[1]

Well, unfortunately, most of us will never have to worry about our grammar on the day we receive our honorary degrees! But guides such as these are certainly helpful from time to time. Maybe you’ve been a guide too. Hasn’t one of your children or grandchildren ever asked for help in figuring out what to say? Perhaps they were making a birthday card or putting a colorful message on a special crayon drawing.

All of us, at one time or another, have tried to “search for the right word” in response to some kind of experience. Sometimes moments of surprise and joy leave us speechless. Even an encounter of forgiveness and relief can have that effect on us. However, when we come face to face with profound sorrow or disappointment, searching for the right word might seem endless, almost useless, perhaps hopeless.

What language shall I borrow . . .

Those familiar words set to Bach’s Passion Chorale come to mind.

I have to confess that when it comes to the spoken word in other languages, I’m of no use whatsoever. In the eighth grade, I took a course in exploratory French – and I explored no further. From that point on, it was only dead languages for me.

But I’ve always been awed by the fact that ancient words still come alive. They can speak to us and move us. In the same way, a random note or a letter from a loved one who has died can touch us and speak to us too.

And yet there are times when all the languages of the world throughout history, and all the words of everyone we have known, leave us with nothing to say. They offer nothing that makes any sense, nothing that translates what we’re going through at that particular moment. Sooner or later all of us will experience a time when words fail us. At times such as these, God’s Spirit, who “helps us in our weakness,” is present in our cry from the depths.

God’s salvation is very near to those who experience this kind of emptiness. Recall the cry of Israel’s tormented people in slavery. In the Book of Exodus, the Lord said:

I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians . . . The cry of the Israelites has now come to me.[2]

After generations of bondage, they were brought into freedom by the hand of God. Even today this hope for liberation is kept alive by God’s Spirit.

Terry Waite is a layman in the Church of England. He served as an envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Middle East during the 1980’s. This man of peace who negotiated with kidnappers in Iran and Libya was himself taken hostage in Lebanon in 1987. He was released in 1991 after 1,763 days in captivity.

Prayer kept him going in the midst of all that, and the words he prayed came from The Book of Common Prayer. The very words that once seemed boring and irrelevant as a child later streamed from his memory as a prisoner like living water. These words prayed by others throughout the world also allowed him to remain in community “even during his more than three years of strict isolation.”[3] In an article about this, the Anglican Communion News Service noted that:

One favourite prayer . . . meant a great deal during those times he was chained to the floor, blindfolded and held in a dark room with no windows or artificial light: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.”[4]

I find it interesting that Terry Waite made a conscious decision not to engage in extemporaneous prayer during his solitary imprisonment. He feared that doing so would, in his words, “give voice to depression and despair.”[5] But even if he had allowed that to happen, even if he had been reduced to prayer without words or no prayer at all, his life before God would not have faded away in the silence.

Remember the cry of Jesus on the Roman cross. According to the Gospel of Mark,

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice . . . “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

. . . Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.[6]

Jesus experienced the desolation of God’s absence. And every human experience of God-forsakenness finds a voice in his final cry from the depths. Yet God’s Spirit is present, even in these moments, interceding for us “with sighs too deep for words.”

Our own cry from the depths joins a dissonant chorus of oppressed people throughout time and space. It includes Christians martyred in the Roman Coliseum and Jews murdered at Auschwitz. It includes the hidden poor in our own country and in this city. It includes children, most of them nameless to us, who are suffering because of violence in the Holy Land and in other war-scarred landscapes around the world. It includes the peculiar burdens of your own heart. It also includes the creation itself. As the Apostle Paul wrote earlier in his letter to the Romans:

. . . the whole earth has been groaning in labor pains until now.[7]

So nature herself joins our crying out to God, while we wait together for God’s new creation. And the wonder of it all is the fact that our crying out to God is the Spirit’s own cry. Our very groaning from the depths is enabled by God’s Spirit. And the sighs of the Spirit bring before God the sighs of the whole creation. This unspoken language, breathing with the Spirit of Life, is far from dead.

The deadest language that I’ve ever studied is Akkadian. And I’m not talking about some strange French dialect among Cajuns in southern Louisiana! That’s Acadian (spelled with a “c”). This is Akkadian (spelled with a “k”). It’s the language of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires in the Old Testament.

Imagine official letters to their ancient kings written in cuneiform on clay tablets. The sentences look like nothing more than hundreds of little dashes that convey reports and requests of all kinds.

During my years in Williamsburg, Virginia, there was a headstone just outside the doors of Bruton Parish Church that sparked my imagination in this way every Sunday. It was so weathered that the words had been quite literally washed away. The pockmarks that were left resembled an eroded cuneiform inscription.

Have you ever felt that way? Has life ever worn you down to the point that words have simply given way to silence? The Good News is that your life is “a text studied by the Holy Spirit.”[8] God can still read the text of your life even when the words have eroded into an unspoken language.

So in your prayers this hour, please don’t think you have to be profound. You can borrow the rich language of the Prayer Book. You can learn the grammar of faith by listening to the words of others. You can use your own words. Or you can choose to use no words at all. The sighs of the Spirit will bring before God the sighs of your heart. As the Apostle Paul has already reminded us this morning, it is God who “searches the heart.”[9] And for that, we can only say, “Thanks be to God!”


BACK TO POST Patricia T. O’Conner, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, revised edition (New York: Riverhead, 2003) dust jacket.

BACK TO POST Exodus 3:7-9.

BACK TO POST Dan Webster, “Terry Waite urges church to be ‘a voice for peace’,” Anglican Communion News Service, May 8, 2003.

BACK TO POST Dan Webster, “Terry Waite urges church to be ‘a voice for peace’,” Anglican Communion News Service, May 8, 2003.

BACK TO POST Dan Webster, “Terry Waite urges church to be ‘a voice for peace’,” Anglican Communion News Service, May 8, 2003.

BACK TO POST Mark 15:34, 37.

BACK TO POST Romans 8:22.

BACK TO POST Eugene H. Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) 259.

BACK TO POST Romans 8:27.

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