When words fail: the spiritual degeneration of language

A writer’s job is to make words work. That’s not so hard when you’re writing about things, because our English words are mostly symbols for things, with a few intellectual concepts thrown in for good measure. The waters get murkier when you try to elicit or express emotions. When you try to enter the world of the spiritual with words, you’re treading on dangerous ground.

When Words Work

What is a word? Way back when aboriginal Australians started scratching messages on cave walls, their “words” were stylised images. Everyone could understand them because everyone could recognise the images and follow the story on the cave wall.

One day, some genius decided to make letters that represented sounds and we ended up with our alphabet. That was fine when the batches of letters represented the sounds we made to describe things and even, to a degree, actions and feelings. While “horse” always brought to mind a horse, adjectives, adverbs and verbs were needed to instil emotion. Take rain, for example. If you liked rain, you might write:

The rain fell softly, nourishing the parched soil

If you didn’t like rain, you might write:

The rain pounded like a jack hammer on the roof, making sleep impossible.

“Rain” becomes more than a thing when it elicits emotions. It becomes a symbol of the emotions themselves. Note how I wrote the “waters get murkier” above. You probably didn’t need to figure out what I meant by that because it is such a commonly used expression.

Poets and songwriters know how to use words to their best emotional effect. When Bob Dylan sang, “It’s a hard rain’s a gonna fall”, he wasn’t singing about rain at all and everyone knew it.

When Words Fail

God“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” is the first sentence in the Old Testament. If the Word was with God and was God, knowing the meaning of “Word” is pretty important. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. In the original Greek, the word used for the Word was logos. In Aramaic, it was memra.  To the Greeks, logos meant reason, but to Greek speaking Jews, it was viewed as a living force. Aramaic readers saw memra as the manifestation of God.

Scholars and theologians have been arguing about the meaning of the “Word” for centuries. Maybe the problem is that it can have no meaning because it was just the best word they could come up with for a conscious energy that is beyond words.

Brainwave Entrainment Software
It got even more messed up after Jesus died and the apostle John told us “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Ever since then, Christians have been waiting for the Word to return and take believers up to heaven where the Word sits on a throne next to the Word’s father, who also goes by the name of the Word.

The point is: that all important Word has degenerated over the centuries to represent an anthropomorphic God — and he’s not a very pleasant guy. He’s so insecure, he puts those who do believe in him through horrific tests of faith and just throws those who don’t believe in him into a bottomless pit when they die.

aum symbol
“Aum”, the Word in Sanskrit?

Meanwhile, in the southern hemisphere, a language that pre-dates our Western languages developed that had a ton of words to describe what we lump together as “spiritual experiences,” “love” and other more exalted states of consciousness. Sanskrit has 90 words for love and states of spiritual consciousness run through four, eight or nine stages of samadhi depending on which tradition you’re following. We don’t even have an adequate synonym for samadhi and the word we use as a substitute for dhyana (Zen, in Japanese), meditation, suggests mental activity, while dhyana is the gradual cessation of mental activity in order for the truth beyond words to be revealed.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about the spiritual degeneration of language, but will close with this translation of the Lord’s Prayer from Aramaic. I got it from a friend in my writing group who had a near death experience (NDE) at the age of six. She wrote a short book about the experience and what it taught her. I hope I can share it with you soon.

The Prayer To Our Father
(translated from 1st century Aramaic)
by The Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies

Oh Thou, from whom the breath of life comes,
(Our Father,)

who fills all realms of sound, light and vibration.
(who art in heaven)

May Your light be experienced in my utmost holiest
(Hallowed be thy Name)

Your Heavenly Domain approaches.
(Thy Kingdom come)

Let Your will come true – in the universe (all that vibrates)
just as on earth (that is material and dense).
(Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.)

Give us wisdom (understanding, assistance) for our daily need,
(Give us this day our daily bread)

detach the fetters of faults that bind us, (karma)
like we let go the guilt of others.
(and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.)

Let us not be lost in superficial things (materialism, common temptations),
(And lead us not into temptation,)

elapatzân min bischa.
but let us be freed from that which keeps us off from our true purpose.
(but deliver us from evil,)

From You comes the all-working will, the lively strength to act,
the song that beautifies all and renews itself from age to age. (Reincarnation)
(For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever.)

Sealed in trust, faith and truth.
(I confirm with my entire being)