And there was a voice above the ﬁrmament that was over their heads; when they stood, they let down their wings. She didn’t want to know what the verse meant, what the creatures were. She knew there were words so terrible you heard them with your whole body. Guilty. And there were voices to say them. She knew there were people you might almost trust who would hear them, too, and be amazed, and still not really hear them because they knew they were not the ones the words were spoken to.
From Lila by Marilynne Robinson.
This woman, however, just will not give up: “Then she came and prostrated before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me!’” (Matthew 15:25). The scene is becoming embarrassing. Can things get worse? Yes, they can—and do: “But he answered and said, ‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the puppies.’” Oh, my! Is Jesus calling this Gentile a dog? No wonder the gospel of Luke does not relate this story! Then, all of a sudden, the story changes, and it is the woman who changes it. Like Jesus’ mother at Cana, she gets pushy with the Savior: “Yes, Lord,” she responds, “yet even the puppies eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” In the end, of course, “her daughter was healed from that very hour” (Matthew 15:28), but the reader may be left with the feeling that the whole transaction was excessively painful and that Jesus, at least for a while, was acting terribly out of character. What should be said about this? Not for a moment do I believe Jesus was insulting this woman. Once again, I take his silence and then his reference to puppies as a rhetorical pretense, very much like his request that the Samaritan woman should summon her husband.
…A friend of mine once compared this lady’s faith to that of Abraham, as he “haggled a price” with God over the fate of Sodom. That is to say, rhetorical considerations provide the key to the conversation between Jesus and this Gentile woman. Perhaps this point is more clearly expressed in Mark’s version of the story, where she is known as “a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth” (Mark 7:26). In Mark’s account, the woman is praised not for her faith but for her “word”—her manner of expression: dia touton ton logon. Jesus admits that this woman has bested him in the conversation! He tells her, in effect, “Ma’am, you certainly have a way with words.” Jesus recognizes the good logic and superior style in which the woman humbly asserts, “Even the puppies under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.” The lady is not only persistent; she is also eloquent. And Jesus is . . . well, impressed!
From The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon.
From Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino:
“To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.”
“…Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” Polo said. “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”
In reading The Classical Trivium by Marshal McLuhan, I’ve appreciate much about it, including his idea that the patterns of grammar are grounded in the patterns of the physical creation and that both the worlds of language and creation provide rich and myriad symbols pointing to “the creative Trinity” (36). See this passage for example (which McLuhan cites from Colson’s Quintilian in a footnote on page 27)
The analogist argues from the unchanging order which prevails in the heavenly bodies, in the tides, in the continuity of species … language is conceived as a world in itself, much as we conceive of the visible world … he [the analogist] is as confident … as the scientific man today … as impatient of the suggestion of disorder … the world of words had a glamour and wonder for them which it cannot have for us.
Or this wonderful passage from Augustine’s De magistro (cited glowingly by McLuhan on pages 34-35):
The natural arts are concerned with the orderly repetitive changes of nature. These are veiled or vestigial signs. The task of the liberal arts is to translate them into simple signs and formulae of such signs, namely into steady and luminous symbols of thought … By means of the liberal arts, things manipulated by the exterior man are formulated by the interior man, with the help of analytic reflection ordered to truth as regulated by the formal modes of language and mathematics.
Two masterpieces, with Auden echoing Frost:
Their Lonely Betters
W.H. Auden (1950)
As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.
A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.
Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.
Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.
Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening
Robert Frost (1922)
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
I ran into the last line of this Auden poem on the dedication page to Educating for Life (collected essays by Nicholas Wolterstorff), and it immediately brought to mind Frost’s classic (which the Auden poem recalls in several ways).