Gospel Jn 8: 1-11. Jesus bent down and started writing on the ground with his finger
Jesus, the Buddha and Socrates have influenced the human family more vastly than
any other individual teachers, yet none of them left any writings of their own. They walked, ate with people, talked and conversed. Their direct transmission was oral; it was their privileged first listeners who misunderstood, remembered, repeated and finally wrote down what they said.
In an age of continuous written messages, emails, tweets, reports and summaries, excessive legislation (from ‘legere’, to read) and official documents it is hard to imagine how the spoken word could be so transforming through time and space. Our compulsion to write down the ephemeral, not to trust the spoken word and to control the future by what we write, is exhausting. In the end, it erodes simple trust and intuition and so summons the spectre of anarchy. I am told that if you say in a court of law that you trusted their word when making an agreement with your opponent, you will lose the case because you lacked proper diligence. You were at fault for trusting. As I returned to France recently, I was armed with eight signed official documents, none of which were called for as I passed through immigration. I don’t think this was because I looked trustworthy but because the official just couldn’t be bothered. He had seen and checked enough papers already that day. The lack of trust leads to not caring.
Trust is more deeply given to someone you are listening to than by reading their written words. A speaker unconsciously employs more ways of communicating trustworthiness than a writer, like tone of voice, body language and eye contact. Many prophets and teachers have reputedly not been at all eloquent, so even being a ‘poor speaker’ is not a barrier to awakening this trust. Professional, motivational speakers on the other hand can be so smooth-talkingly persuasive that you instinctively don’t trust them.
Of course, writing can also create an intimate bond of trust and, over time, with a much larger number of readers. Speaking too can be deceptive. But when the heart is pure, a speaker transmits more, directly and deeply. When the message is not about marketing or policies but the deeper spiritual truths, a unique event occurs. A dimension of communion is triggered that does not end when the speaker finishes or dies. The spoken word has found a place in the heart and mind of the first listeners. It continues to in-form them in the way a seed grows until the point that when they speak about what they heard and eventually write it down, something of the original transmission is communicated in the written words.
This first-hand presence is the meaning of the expressions ‘Word of God’ or ‘sacred scripture’. It is also partially reflected in the greatest literature. Nor is the essence of the original communication ‘lost in translation’ because the meaning is not literal. It is the ever-ripening fruit. It grows not through a literal reading but through personal interpretation and sharing with others. It somehow bounces off the experience of the reader-listener and creates the resonance of understanding that is fresh in each moment. It feels like ‘I wrote that myself’ or ‘how did he know that was what I felt?’
The Word was not spoken originally in order to inform, instruct or speculate but to initiate.
Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2021