Letter and Spirit: Thoughts and Silence?

Letter and Spirit: Thoughts and Silence? June 17, 2015

SilentVoiceIn his sermon On Conversion, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux quotes Acts 26:24, only he paraphrases it like this: “Too much thinking has made you mad!”

Whenever I see a verse like this rendered in an unusual or thought-provoking way, I like to check out the original Greek or Hebrew, even though I’m strictly an amateur when it comes to Biblical languages.

These words were spoken by Festus, who is criticizing Paul when the saint is addressing Agrippa. Festus says, in Greek, πολλα σε γραμματα εις μανιαν περιτρεπει, or “Much learning turns you to madness.” The word for learning, γραμματα (grammata), is the word from which we get “grammar,” while the word for madness, μανιαν (manian) comes into English as, well, mania.

So I decided to get to know γραμματα a little bit better. Here are some other verses where it appears in the writings of Paul himself:

  • “God has qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit, for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.” (II Corinthians 3:6)
  • “Circumcision (for Christians) is of the heart, in the spirit, not the letter.” (Romans 2:29)
  • “Now we are released from the law, dead to what held us captive, so that we may serve in the newness of the spirit and not under the obsolete letter.” (Romans 7:6)

In each of these verses Paul is suggesting that life as a follower of Christ means turning away from the letter (gramma) and toward the Spirit (pneuma, which means not only “spirit” but also “breath”). In the freedom of the Spirit, we turn away from the letter which is dead, obsolete, unfree. In the freedom of our breath, we are liberated from the shackles of grammar, of language, of thought.

Do you see where I’m going?

Paul understood that the written word — the letter — is anchored in grammar, in thought, in that which by its very nature limits and divides. As great a gift as the Jewish law was, it also could be oppressive (we could say the same thing about any legal code or thought-system, including much of our contemporary religious language). Language is not evil, per se, but neither does it give life the way the Spirit does. Language is limiting. Thought is limiting. Propositional argument, as powerful as it can be, ultimately is limiting, when compared to the vast, open, free movement of the Spirit — the giver of life, of breath — in our lives.

Clearly, Paul is not arguing that Christians should do away with all language. After all, he is using grammar to convey his critique of grammar. I think his point is very simple: there comes a point when words fail us, when they cannot contain the fullness of the Spirit, the freedom of the breath, the possibilities of love and life. When we reach that point, we are called out of the prison of grammar and into the freedom of the Spirit.

And that is the point when contemplation begins.

Contemplation, at least speaking as a Christian, is a form of prayer: of making ourselves available to the Spirit. We do this by attending to our spirit, our pneuma, our breath. We do this by setting grammar aside, letting go of the letter, being present to the silence. Breath is silent. Thought is grammar. In silence we make ourselves available to the Spirit. In silence, we turn from the letter of our thoughts to the breath of the Spirit.

I don’t know if that’s how Paul would have understood all this or not. But I suspect that we moderns/postmoderns have a tendency to think of “letter” and “Spirit” as abstract principles, which is to say, as something outside of ourselves. Paul, being a first century Jew, may have had a much more embodied and interior understanding of letter and Spirit. And if he did, his understanding may not have been that far off from how contemplatives distinguish between thought and silence.

Because too much thought, after all, can lead to mania. Whereas the breath — the wordless Spirit — simply leads to life.

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