Hearing and Speaking

Hearing and Speaking

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

September 10, 2006

Scriptures: James 2:1-10; Mark 7:24-37

“And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” –Mark 7:35

Last time our theme was the “Words of Life,” this time it is the link between hearing and speaking, another meditation on the power of words. We return again and again to the theme of communication because we are concerned with the life of the “spirit,” and spirit is the world created by words. Spiritual life takes place in the gap between the word and its referent; it is our wonderful capacity to use words to create worlds of meaning. Think of that continual conversation with yourself that goes on in your mind; think of how that conversation gives structure, and direction, and thus meaning, to your life; think of how the very word “mind” is to be distinguished from “brain” and how this distinction represents the great distinction between spirit and matter; think of how this conversation in the mind links up, via conversation in the outside world, with the inner conversations of others, thus creating a shared world of conversation, a world of shared languages, a set of relationships, a culture, a spiritual world. In so far as our identities are shaped by the worlds we live in, and that is very far indeed, we are individually, nodes in a network of communication. That network is the spiritual world, the world of the spirit that Jesus knows so well, knows perfectly, because he is the first word, the Word who was “in the beginning,” and he will be the last Word, the Omega as well as the Alpha.

This is why it is so important to understand the “communications revolution” of the last twenty years. It is a process of change in the very branch on which our culture-imbedded identities sit. I know this claim seems excessive but it is not. It seems excessive to us because we believe, mistakenly, that we are ultimately, utterly autonomous monadic centers of consciousness, when in fact we are ramifications of relations, whose taproot is the relationship with the divine, and whose other roots ramify into a network of nodes and branches along and through which life flows. The network of life is this root system of communication, the language of the Logos, the Tree of Life.

Bear with me as I unpack this meditation a little more, I assure you it is what the evangelist wants us to know, what he is communicating through the story he tells of a man who was unable to hear and unable to speak, whom people brought to the Lord and whom the Lord enabled to hear and to speak. Note that he could not hear and he could not speak. Does this tell us something? Perhaps he is a wise man in this regard, compared to those who jabber on even though they cannot or will not hear, let alone listen. This man at least inhibited his tongue because he could not listen (We are told that he had a speech impediment; I take this as an instance of what used to be called “hysterical” afflictions; he knows he is cut off from one side of the dialogue and so he inhibits the other. He is “tongue-tied,” and the text tells us that his tongue was “set free” when his hearing was restored). In any case Jesus gives him back both powers, and he does it in the most physical way.

Let us meditate on this physicality. Jesus takes him aside privately, puts his fingers in his ears, and rubs his spittle on his tongue and looking up to heaven commands, “Be opened.” Whatever actually happened, the evangelist wants us to know that there was intimate physical contact between Jesus and the man. Jesus’ saliva on the man’s tongue reminds us of the “eating” and “drinking” of his body and blood in last time’s Gospel reading (“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me…” John 6:56). That imagery caused many to leave Jesus; in this narrative such public effect is avoided by the act’s taking place in private. Nevertheless, we the readers know what happened and we could be disgusted – this is a risky thing to narrate. What is so important for us to know that the evangelist will take this risk of alienating us?

Let us reflect. We are interested in the world of the spirit, whose essence is hearing and speaking, not in the realm of the body. We wish to escape into a world beyond empirical verification or falsification, from the place of action to the place of ideas, from events to words, and to make the narrative a symbolic presentation of states of mind; but the physicality of the contact with Jesus, the event nature of the restoration of hearing and speaking, means that we cannot. We cannot avoid the “event” nature of this restoration of spirit. We do not work our way out of spiritual deafness and dumbness by strenuous thought and rigorous argument, but rather we come to Jesus and ask for him to heal us. He puts his hand in our ears and his spittle on our tongues, his bodily substance and his bodily fluid on us, and we speak and hear again. That means that we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we take the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and in that event he opens our ears and frees tongue-tied speech.

We cannot know if the events of our narrative unfolded literally as they are told; the deed was done in private so who saw it? Must we assume that the man himself told others in defiance of a direct command of Jesus not to do so? The text tells us that people in general did not honor his request for privacy, but the man himself? Perhaps. Nevertheless we do know what Mark wants us to learn, namely, that the healing and restoration of our spirit happens when we meet Jesus and he allows us to draw near enough for him to touch us, and give himself to us, bodily. We need not be too literal about this bodily contact for obvious reasons; he is not here for such contact and hasn’t been for a long time; but we do have sacraments to attest how in our faith the physical and the spiritual are mutually entailed. In this order of life, the possibility of word, deed, and consciousness rests on and arises from the carbon-based matter of our bodies, and our faith knows that in this world flesh and spirit cannot be separated.

So our faith is not a pattern of ideas, or a chain of proofs, but rather a series of historical events. Events in the flesh entail events in the spirit, and for this reason the Word became flesh (John 1:14) and not simply more words. It was to put an end to speculation and calculation, and ends to idle words that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth; we beheld his glory, glory as of the only son from the father.” Notice how strikingly John says that we beheld the glory in the flesh, not in the mind or in a vision or pattern of words. So our miracle story is part of the great narrative of the incarnation of God, telling us that God is not ashamed of our flesh, and we shall find him there when we allow him to unstop our ears are untie our tongues.

Let’s take care of an historical parallel in case the people who think that because you do not mention everything you know you do not know it. There are accounts in contemporaneous literature of wonderworkers who spat, stuck their fingers here and there, and looked up to heaven groaning and sighing, and that our narrative might be based on a cultural cliché; but the point is clear whatever the historical bedrock might be, namely that Jesus must open your ears before you can open your mouth.

You remember how in Isaiah 6:9 God commands the prophet to say to the people, “Hear and hear, but do not understand, see and see, but do not perceive (cf Mark 4:12 and parallels);” and how often Jesus said after telling a parable, “He who has ears to hear let him hear (Mark 4:9)”. The prophet links hearing with seeing, the evangelist links it with speaking. To be sure all of the five senses can be awake or asleep to the presence of Jesus the source of life. Smell, taste, touch- each of these lovely gifts of sense can be sensuous or dulled, unable to praise God in the creation; sight can be blind and hearing dull; but Jesus wants them to function fully and so brings them to life again in us. Jesus wants us to listen not merely hear, perceive not merely see, and speak not merely talk.

So one important lesson of our story is clear: Do not speak before you listen. The man at least had the decency to tie his tongue since he could not hear. On a sabbatical leave in Munster Germany some years ago I heard that one of the Professors of Philosophy at the University where I was visiting occasionally sent his chauffeur (he had a rich wife) to class to announce the Herr Professor Dr Dr von…would not be lecturing today because he had nothing to say. Recently I read that WH Auden turned down an invitation to give a named lecture series at Harvard and a $25000 fee for the same reason, and he needed the money. Our man had the integrity to tie his tongue when he had nothing to say. And then Jesus met him and opened his ears and untied his tongue, and he went off speaking.

What do you think he said? “And he charged them to tell no one; but the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the dumb speak.’ ” This is the second and even more important message of our Gospel.

Once, long ago I met him too, and he opened my ears and set free my tongue, and ever since I have been speaking, writing, arguing, exhorting, beseeching, preaching, proclaiming and now singing, that Jesus is the one, Jesus is the one who makes sense out of things, and life out of living. It’s as simple and profound as that. We all know what meaningless means, and how impossible it is to make sense out of life by studying, puzzling, traveling, searching; how we always either postpone the big question to another time or give it up altogether and live a divertissement. Mark tells us that Jesus opens our ears and our mouths, gives us the answer and enables us to tell it to others.

What a marvelous gift, here in this world where so many of our leaders, no less, say nothing because they hear nothing, and they hear nothing because they do not want to hear, – especially not the cries of the burning children, – and what they say is worse than nothing, it is lies, lies, lies, that kill, maim, and distort. How long O Lord? Let us for our part listen and then tell the world who Jesus is and what he has to say.