Hear fellow Triviumites: Dr. Schmitt, tutors, parents, friends, alumni, students, and seniors, all those gathered by the all-wise Word of God to this place at this time, Greetings!
Many, many years ago, when I was a student here at Trivium, we studied Geometry upstairs in the little room off of the kitchen. I think it was called the End Room, then. There were four of us; just four of us and all those beautiful demonstrations to divide between us. One day, in a moment of rare despair, one of my classmates turned away from the chalkboard and cried: “I know how it goes, but I just can’t say it!” And in that moment, our tutor said something very wise that I have recalled nearly daily, ever since. He said: “If you can’t say it, you don’t know it.” Having put this saying to the test over the many, many years since my Trivium graduation, I am now finally ready to announce my findings: It is ninety-seven percent true, and as such, a trustworthy rule for living. But I want to talk to you today about the other three percent: those few but important things we know that regularly, sometimes tragically, and rightfully escape our attempts to “say them.” I want to try to talk about the inarticulate. (From articulare, to divide according to distinct joints. So the inarticulate is that which cannot be chopped up into parts by language.)
Now before I begin, I don’t want to get into trouble. Seniors, I don’t want to overhear you later saying that your Commencement speaker doesn’t believe in grammar, logic, and rhetoric (she does), or that she despises the duties and delights of articulate speech. As Dr. Schmitt and your other tutors have pressed you, so do I: every day, for the rest of your life on this earth, struggle and keep struggling to say the truth clearly.
But because this is a very difficult task, I want to take time today to encourage you and to remind you that you stand among a cloud of witnesses who find that when they try to speak about the greatest matters, the ones that most deserve to be spoken, they start to stutter. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, a book so good that I’m not afraid of ruining the ending for you, if you look ahead to the very last lines of the last volume, called the Paradiso, you’ll find Dante, after his long pilgrimage through hell and purgatory, caught up into the highest heights of heaven, where he beholds an image of the dual mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. He can’t speak. He can’t even remain conscious for very long. Like a geometer trying to square the circle, he attempts to do divine geometry, at a loss to say how Christ can be both man and God, finite and infinite, with a human face and an eternal, invisible nature. He turns from the figure in wonder: He knows this God-man, but he just can’t say what he’s seeing.
And we don’t need to travel to the heights of Paradise to discover the limits of our speech. In his Confessions, St. Augustine says that we are largely incapable of saying what is in our very own minds. Our souls, he says, are like underground caverns, full of rooms leading through innumerable passageways to other rooms and to still other rooms, all poorly lit, full of memories and treasures, traces and runes. Our own torches aren’t bright enough to discover what lies forgotten in our labyrinthine selves. Left to ourselves, we can’t fully say what we ourselves are.
In my senior year at Trivium, we read Herman Melville’s short novel, Billy Budd, about a noble sailor who tragically can’t say what is in his heart. Melville says this intriguing thing about him: “The bonfire in his heart made luminous the rose-tan in his cheek (Penguin ed., 327).” Something inside Billy Budd makes his whole face shine, but when he goes to speak—he can’t, he blushes, he stutters, he chokes, his fist flies out, and in a moment, he has accidentally killed a man and sealed his fate—to be hanged upon the deck at dawn, as military law requires. Those of you who’ve read the book may have wanted to shout out at the crucial moment: “Speak! Why can’t you speak!?”
You might find occasion to say the same thing to yourselves, after you leave this place: As you go out from Trivium to the wide world—to new work, perhaps new families, new studies, new friends, you will try to explain who you are, where you came from, the school you attended, the visions you have seen. Like Billy Budd or Dante or Augustine, you may flush and stutter.
So here is the bind we’re in: On one hand, we must struggle for articulation, especially in this dishwater age, and especially given our natural intellectual laziness. Therefore, we study Euclid, the most articulate teacher of truth in the whole curriculum. Therefore, we endeavor to follow in St. Thomas’s footsteps and present theses and defend them in articulate paragraphs. Therefore, we define terms, we speak aloud in class, we clarify, we rewrite, we rewrite again. As the poet T.S. Eliot says as he stands at the battle line between the speakable and the ineffable: poetry, too, is a “raid on the inarticulate.” (East Coker). (“Ineffable,” from effabilis, speakable. So that the ineffable is that which cannot be spoken. By the way, how astonishing that poetry can claim to steal something from the land of the unspeakable and drag it into the camp of speech!)
But on the other hand, our best efforts to “just say it” will show us that some things admit of distinct speech while others do not. Aristotle himself, the perfecter of the definition, warns us that different matters admit of different kinds of precision (Nic. Ethics I.iii). Some very unimportant things—like toasters—admit of very precise speech (the red wire attaches to plate A, fixed in place with a 1/2 inch pin…). And some important things are like that, too: the triangle, for example. One can speak very articulately about the triangle. On the other hand, others among the most important things that we know stand at the limit of articulation. Think again of the mystery of the Trinity or the Incarnation. God is one… but God is three. But He’s not three Gods. But He is blessed—happy—in the love between each Person of Him….? And Jesus is one… but Jesus is two. God and man. Eternally begotten and born on earth like
the rest of us. Where are the joints? How do we cut these realities up into speech? We try mightily to speak clearly about these greatest realities—the Athenasian and Nicene creeds are perhaps our best though stuttery attempts—but it would be illogical to think that finite words could do justice to such high mysteries.
So, as I’ve said, we are in a bind: the more we struggle to articulate the truth (as we ought), the tighter the knots. We realize, as we fail to capture the truth how much we want to say it. Or to take Melville’s image, we feel the bonfire in the heart most when we find ourselves tongue- tied. How can this fire be anything but torture? How can the serious lover not despair? The things we most want
to be able to say, and to say to those we love, are the very things that nearly escape language altogether.
But I want to remind you today that we are not alone in this struggle. St. John tells us that God, the Son, is a Word, the Word; the word is Logos in Greek, the same source of our word “Logic.” He is the meaning, the saying, the explanation, the expression, the speech of God. (How can a person be a speech? More on that to come.) In any case, God is fully in favor of articulation, his being is expression. The Father wants to be known, the Son want to tells us about him, and the Holy Spirit wants to remind us of what Jesus has said: “I will pray to the Father,” says Jesus in John 14, “and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. […] “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. […] [T]he Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. […] Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” We are not alone as we struggle to speak. God himself, Speech himself, lives in us. He is beyond human knowledge, but he makes us know him and even teaches us a language to speak about him.
The ancients called on the Muses to help them to speak; in this, they were half-right. But we who know the Logos and confess that we are stutterers pray: “O most blessed Trinity, guide me listening and speaking.” Look at the order of the petitions. Listening means receiving. First, receive words; then you’ll have something to say. And we will receive what we need to speak about God. So, do not worry about what you will say, as Jesus says elsewhere: The God who gives us loaves instead of stones and eggs instead of scorpions also gives words to stutterers.
And here, I’m going to lay out my cards as a Lutheran: read the Scriptures, read them every day; God’s words are in there, the answer to your prayer. And not just the answers to certain questions: We ought, of course, to go the Bible to discover what God thinks about love, family, work, heaven, hell, the soul, and so on, but beyond these practical excursions, can I suggest that we all try
to be more like St. Augustine? He “spoke Bible,” as one of my teachers used to say. St. Augustine swam in the Scriptures, he breathed them in, so that by the time he wrote the Confessions, nearly every other line was a direct or indirect quotation of the Bible. He couldn’t help it. It wasn’t plagiarism. The Bible was his language.
And it’s a language we speak, too; we recognize it as a baby recognizes the intonations of his mother tongue.
Rmember the disciples on the road to Emmaus: They should have studied the Scriptures more—they didn’t even understand that the Christ had been resurrected— nevertheless, they said: “Weren’t our hearts burning within us as he explained the Scriptures?”
The Bible is the Great Book among Great Books. It manages to say through images and arguments and stories and poems what would otherwise be simply ineffable. Through the Scriptures and with the help of the Holy Spirit who caused them to be written, God allows us to make raids upon the inarticulate. Thus Scripture is not only a guide for living; it is also a guide for speaking. When we use those words, we are speaking more than we realize. Incidentally, the study of Scripture is a leisurely pursuit when we think of it this way. We are simply learning the language now so that later, we can use it. All of the images and stories and arguments and poems in it, like the words children learn, don’t become clear until later. For many
of us, the experiences of life that match these words—the real desires and sufferings and joys, about which the Bible speaks—haven’t yet happened to us. But when the time comes, we’ll have the words to talk about them. Until then, store up those words.
Blaise Pascal, the 17th century writer and scientist (perhaps you know his famous line “the heart has reasons that reason cannot grasp”?) is another figure who, like Melville’s Billy Budd, lived with a fire in his breast. Unlike Billy Budd, he listened for the voice of God; like Augustine, he lived in the Bible. And in 1654, he had an encounter with the Word that changed him forever. After his encounter,
he got out a piece of paper and wrote down the following, nearly inarticulate account, which he then had sewed into
a hidden breast pocket in his coat, transferring it from coat to coat as he wore them out. I’m going to read an excerpt, because it is so beautiful, so inarticulate but striking:
It starts out distinctly, speaking clearly of things that admit of distinct speech, namely, the time and the date. Pascal begins:
The year of grace 1654
Monday, 23 November, feast of Saint Clement, Pope and Martyr, and of others in the Martyrology.
Eve of Saint Chrysogonus, Martyr and others.
From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight.
And then, Pascal suddenly broaches the ineffable: Fire
‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ not
of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, feeling, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
God of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
’Thy God shall be my God.’
The world forgotten, and everything except God. He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.
Greatness of the human soul.
’O righteous Father, the world had not known thee, but I have known thee.’
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have cut myself off from him.
They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters. ’My God wilt thou forsake me?’
Let me not be cut off from him forever!
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’
I will not forget thy word.
Like Augustine, Pascal lapses into Bible. Many of these lines are nothing but Biblical quotation, nothing but the names that God taught us to call him through Holy Scriptures. Now, neither Pascal’s whole heart nor the whole being of God could be contained in this little snippet that he sewed into his coat, but such powerful speech is not nothing.
So, seniors, when you shortly leave this place,
what will you say about Trivium? About the trivium? About your faith, about your upbringing, your future,
your past, your soul, your God? If the prospect makes you tremble, then I hope that you realize that you are in good company, the company of saints and poets who have tried and often failed to speak of the most ineffable things, and the company of the Blessed Trinity. Pray, read, and trust the God who gave us speech, who still gives words and memory and a torch to light our inner cavernous selves and images to show us the blessed, incomprehensible Trinity and the incomprehensible Incarnate One, that we may know him.
And finally, when, in the infinite wisdom of God, he allows our speech to fail, whether because of our sin, or inexperience, or ignorance, or illness, or old age and mere mortal finitude, still all is not lost. I want to remind you of the final scenes of Billy Budd (or ruin it for those of you who have not yet read it): in the final scenes, Billy Budd is hanged. Melville says that with calm courage, Billy blessed his executioner and as “in a mystical vision [….] watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.” Bathed in new sunlight, his suffering and his failure, his face and his body say something to the men below. Like the Son of God, Melville suggests, his person is a logos. I like this story of the stutterer turned into a speech because it tenderly comforts us: struggle to say what you know, and when you fail—and this is another very great mystery—God will use your silent being to speak to the world.