"Language is the house of being and in its home man dwells" - A Mothering Sunday meditation

Madonna di San Sisto - Raphael
Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page): Language is the house of being and in its home man dwells - A Mothering Sunday meditation - 18 March 2012

One of the most powerful aspects of good mothering (and remember good mothering can be offered just as much by fathers, siblings, friends and strangers as it can by mothers) is the ability to speak just the right and supportive word in an almost infinite range of specific and ever-developing situations which, even as it supports, guides, teaches and, to some extent, imposes upon a child certain rules about how to negotiate the world well, it is a word which must remain open enough so that the child can leave behind those same supports and rules (the right words spoken to this or that situation), stop doing what is merely generally done, and slowly begin to push out into their own, authentic experience of the world.

This thought clearly relates closely to the matter I was speaking about last week when I pointed out that our being is tied to the Word and not to the number and that it this primordial fact which allows us to address our fate. This ability allows us, where and when necessary, to make our protest against all forms of closed, absolutist dogmatisms that would seek to deny us this freedom.

To recap, I reminded us that in our own liberal Christian tradition we can still say along with the writer of the Gospel of John that "in the beginning was the Word" (John 1:1) because, we know, if only we can hear it, that there is always the right word to speak, the one properly required for this sentence or this situation (I include here the felt, silent word to oneself which simply says "be still"). But, and this is the vital point to realise, this same Word has also revealed to us that it "is the word properly required *only* for this sentence, not for the next or the next. It is the right word, the only right word; but it is not the Word of the Lord, nor of any of the Philosophical Fathers (James C. Edwards, The Plain Sense of Things, p. 234)."

The Word gifts us a recognition of our own being which allows us to see that we are always already within language - it is the medium of our lives and through it we are given an intelligible and meaningful world in which it is possible to contribute to the accomplishment of the most abundant life both for ourselves and others. Our liberal tradition has come to feel that we accomplish this life best, not by forced coercion, but through the Word, by persuading each other in various ways, with arguments, programmes and petitions and also, at the right times, with commands, prohibitions, resolutions and decrees. The aim always being to embody the right Word, to incarnate it, in all our actions - the Word made flesh. (It's important to realise throughout this address that I'm only talking about what it is to be the kind of beings we are).

I hope you can see that this is an understanding of the Word and, therefore, God, that is radically different from the transcendent God or Lord of both traditional monotheism and the philosophers. It is to understand God as unfolding event and not as a supreme being.

My opening words about one important aspect of mothering will have revealed that I find this insight about the Word has a particular bearing upon an underlying meaning of Mothering Sunday.

But Mothering Sunday is not just about individual good mothers as we have experienced them either first- or second-hand (that's what the 'Mother's Day' bit of the day is about) but also about a kind of corporate mother and mothering. Mothering Sunday is the day upon which, traditionally, we either visited or sent gifts to our mother church and its associated community wherever and whatever we thought it was. This earthly mother church was a symbol of, or even portal through which we could glimpse the heavenly Jerusalem above which, as you heard in our reading (Galatians 4:21-31), Paul thought was symbolised by Sarah - and she, he thought, was our mother. This idea later came to rest for our culture more securely in the image of the Madonna beloved of Christians and Humanists alike (I chose the particular image of Raphael's Madonna di San Sisto not only because of its obvious religious resonances but because it was also a key symbol in Auguste Comte's "Religion of Humanity").

Anyway, Paul is speaking here of a common and understandable hope most of us will have felt at some point in our lives that behind our transient world, a world in which all actual mothers and all actual individual instances of mothering die, there lies a permanent, foundational mother and mothering to which we can turn in our moments of greatest need.

However, in our own time, such a hope is for many people, to be blunt about it, impossible to hold. That this is so should come as no surprise because, as a culture which has passed through a world-view shaped by the Enlightenment and the various scientific revolutions, the way the world shows up to us today means the whole idea of there being an actual, distinct, perfect heavenly realm or city separate from our own - let alone a supreme divine being occupying the throne of such a heavenly city - vanishingly unlikely.

So it would seem that many of us today cannot share Paul's hope in the reality of a heavenly mother or city. But I think there is a way of touching something that is for us meaningfully *like* Paul's heavenly mother or city but we can only touch it insofar as we keep from thinking metaphysically or theologically.

One way to start seeing *this* world differently is to consider the well-known announcement that "Language is the house of Being", that "in its home man dwells" and "those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home" (Martin Heidegger, Letter on Humanism 1947).

How does the world begin to show up to us if we start to live deeply with the thought that our secure 'heavenly' mother church is language itself, the very house of Being?

As I said, we know that language is always already there for us. "Out" of it shows up our being, in the sense that language helps us see that we *are* the kinds of beings we are, helps us to see that there are other kinds of being (entities) around us, that helps us articulate what, out of all of this incredible complexity and diversity, shines and shows up for us as having meaning and worth. In this sense language, as itself and before it turns into actual words, sentences, poems and novels, seems like it is "above" us and has, therefore, the feel of something we might still, at least poetically and metaphorically, want to call "heavenly" or "transcendent."

And what happens if we start to consider the thought that we come to know we belong to this mother church whenever we become conscious that we are creatures called and supported by language to seek the right word for this or that situation just as is required for good mothering?  When we think and create with words like this do we not become the guardians of this house of Being?

On this day we need, as far as we can, give straightforward thanks to our mothers and for all the acts of mothering we have received in our lives and, of course, to give thanks that she was our open portal into the world.

But, as I have been intimating, there is also a need to give thanks for a mothering that is more corporate and on Mothering Sunday it seems to me that we can continue to visit something *like* Paul's corporate, heavenly mother church by making a conscious attempt to "go" to those mysterious "places" where we can see that language is, like a heavenly mother, always-already at home and there for us and she is always-already appearing on the cusp of a word's formation, on the cusp of a poem's writing and on the cusp of our own and our world's being.

At those strange, eternally creative mothering "places" - "the open aperture[s] that makes possible the very appearance of existent things" (cited in Vattimo, Gianni, The Responsibility of the Philosopher p. 11) - it seems entirely appropriate for us to give deep and grateful thanks, firstly, for the mysterious and extraordinary fact that we are, in fact that anything at all is and, secondly, that we are gifted with the possibility of talking with each other about it. This open aperture, this cusp, this understanding of a heavenly mother or city is notoriously hard to talk about - as hard as it would be for a fish to talk about water - but, as I wrote these words, it suddenly seemed obvious to me that it is precisely about this "place" that e. e. cummings is trying speak and so, with his words, words which seem to me to be right for this moment now, I conclude:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any - lifted from the no
of all nothing - human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)


Dana said…
I am to have missed Sunday's address in person, but grateful for it here.

More parenting books should argue for speaking the right words at the right time (and these are often empathetic words, encouraging words, inspiring words, words that show one's listening), rather than all the physical acts of parenting (how to deal with a rash, what consumer products make parenting easier).

Mass media has undermined the sense of the choosing words for a situation, a certain interlocutor. The digitalization (or just the recording) of sound and image suggests that it's the words/sounds that matter, not the setting and specific needs. This assumption--not stated aloud but asserted by the technology itself--is one of the bad theories behind the idea of online education as a good substitute for classrooms, or having a child learn language from tv and cds, rather than interpersonal communication.

The very fact that our habitat is verbal and image-inundated (advertising and newspapers surround us, and that's what we are encouraged to notice, instead of hills and birds and trees) also lets us hear and see the same things over and over again, imposing on us all sorts of ideas and expectations and phrases that fill our heads and lead us toward less thoughtful uses of language.

All that was not meant to discourage, but to emphasize the importance of your message in the certain kind of world we find ourselves living in now.

And a phrase you might find useful is from conversation analysis, a field of sociology started at UCLA and UC Irvine. Harvey Sacks started thinking about conversational rules (and more than that), but he died quite young and only notes from his lectures survived him. Luckily, others have carried on from there. One of these is John Heritage (a British man, I'd guess, from his accent, but a UCLA professor), who says that all utterances are "context-shaped" and "context-renewing." Emanuel A. Schegloff (also at UCLA, but perhaps retired) writes something similar, but perhaps goes a bit further, which may or may not be useful or thought-provoking to you: "participants [in a conversation] analyze and understand, from moment to moment, the contexted character of their lives, their current and prospective circumstances, the present moment" and that "the very terms of that understanding can be transformed by a next bit of conduct by one of the participants (for example, a next action can recast what has preceded as 'having been leading up to this')."

I think these are both good arguments for the right word at the right time AND for the power of one's words to change the situation itself.