Saturday, August 1st, 2020

The Simplicity of the Word

Familiarity—it must be admitted—does make it difficult to appreciate the Gospels for the precious and remarkable things they are. And things is certainly not the right word to use. True enough that we may be familiar with certain passages; we have favorites; we more or less remember them when they come around each year. In this case, familiarity may not breed contempt, but something worse: complacence. 

And yet, we ought to allow ourselves to be the struck by the directness and austerity of the Gospels. When it comes to narrative, clinical or movie-like detail may be more to our tastes. But these the Gospels do not give us. (Perhaps Strunk and White might have approved.) We find a dramatic example in the fourteenth chapter of St Matthew:

[A]nd looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitudes. And they did all eat, and were filled.[1]

We receive no details about how the miracle looked, no description of the mechanics, as it were: did additional loves simply appear in baskets or in Our Lord’s hands? Did more bread appear in the place where the loaves were broken? And what about the fishes? Moreover, we hear nothing about the reaction of the disciples or the bystanders. Unlike during other miracles, no words of astonishment are recorded; no protestations or incredulity; no declarations about the identity of Christ. We are told precious little.  

To be sure, none of this is to point out a flaw in the way the Gospels were written. In fact, it is just the opposite.—The austerity, directness, and simplicity of the style of the Gospels have something to tell us about the nature of the interior life.  

Simplicity is always a destination toward which the soul ought to be tending: for the divine action is not complicated.—It may be profound, subtle, hidden; but it is never complicated. Man, with his doubts and hesitations and stubbornness, is complicated; God is not. Little wonder, then, that the Evangelists should be inspired to compose in a style that mirrors the simplicity of God. 

Thus, man ought to hear with simplicity—without hedging and qualifying. ‘Unless you be converted, and become as little children . . .’      

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.[2]

This is not to say that the Holy Ghost is concerned with using verbal economy; but when He speaks, every word does tell. Ours, then, to have a spiritual life that is correspondingly vigorous and simple.


[1] Matthew 14, 19-20.

[2] The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E B White, 4th ed, Macmillan Publishing Co, 2000; p 12-13.

{Art Credit: The Feeding of the Five Thousand, attributed to Ambrosius Franken the Elder (1544–1618)}.

Lightening Meditations