Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 7, 2002
Learn soul language, for our child's sake
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
"We see emerging the language of soul - simple, unpretentious, deeply personal, accessible to all, carrying universal secrets."
Nouwen was effective, among other reasons, because of his language. His words were carefully chosen and he worked hard at them. He re-wrote his books many times over, trying to get just the right wording, searching always for a simpler language of soul. What was his recipe? It was a tricky one, and he didn't always pull it off himself, but in essence this was his formula:
He tried to be simple, without being simplistic; express deep sentiment, without being sentimental; be self-revealing, without being exhibitionistic; be deeply personal, yet profoundly universal; be explicitly Christian, without using the inner table-talk of the worshipping community or the rote repetition of biblical language; be devotional, without being pious; speak from a clearly committed stance, without being judgmental, exclusive, or doctrinaire; be contemporary, without being full of cliche, fad, and "cool"; speak always of God's invitation while respecting freedom and never proselytizing; be iconoclastic when necessary, yet always respecting where people are at; use the language of critical thought and at the same time the language of the artist; use a language deeply sensitive to human weakness, even as it challenges weakness and invites towards what is sublime.
Quite a formula! That's an incredible tightrope to try to walk without falling off either side. Small wonder he re-wrote his books over and over to try to get it right. Small wonder he agonized as much as he did, and small wonder his books were so popular and inspiring when he did pull it off successfully. His is a formula for the language of soul.
It's an interesting study to see how Nouwen's language evolved during the nearly 30 years that he wrote in English. In his early books, his language reflects a lot that he was a psychologist and an academic. Technical terms creep into his writings. As the years go on, we see his words get more simple and we see less and less in the way of technical or clinical terms from psychology or elsewhere. Rather we see emerging the language of soul - simple, unpretentious, deeply personal, accessible to all, carrying universal secrets.
I see others too trying to do this, to speak and write within the language of soul. Inside church circles, I see it in Kathleen Norris, Richard Rohr, John Shea, Robert Barron, Andrew Greeley, Mary Jo Leddy, Anne Lamott, Daniel Berrigan and John O'Donohue, among others. It's a language we need to learn.
The eternal truths God revealed need a proper vocabulary to give them expression. They need the language of soul. That's not a language easy to learn, although it's the most natural language of all. Like Nouwen, we must work at it for the sake of our children who lack a vocabulary for their faith.
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