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Remembering the WordsBy Barkley Thompson
If you’ve read Ursula Le Guin’s classic “Earthsea” trilogy, you will know this story. If you’ve not read the Earthsea trilogy, why not? Put down Moltmann and the New Interpreter’s Bible, quit worrying about GOEs—they’re still three months away—and pick up Le Guin! She’s the best thing you’ll read this year (unless you read Schleiermacher; nothing is better than Schleiermacher).
In book three of the trilogy, The Farthest Shore, something has gone terribly wrong in the island-dotted, mythical world of Earthsea. An alternating malaise and terror encroaches across the globe. As his home island succumbs to the illness, but before his own wits are stolen from him, a young nobleman named Arren travels to the island of Roke, home of wizards, to seek the help of the Archmage Ged. With Ged, the world’s most powerful wizard, Arren travels on a swift boat across the sea, in search of the source of the world’s madness.
The bulk of The Farthest Shore recounts the stops along the way for Ged and Arren. On one island they find a wizard, who, due to the illness, has forgotten his magic, but still practices parlor tricks and sells snake oil, in a perverse imitation of his former, authentic power. They come across entire communities of people who are either struck dumb and dazed as if drugged or else propelled by a panicked fear that has no grounding but permeates everything. And everywhere they go, Ged and Arren discover that, either as a result or cause of the world’s mysterious illness, people have forgotten all the words that matter: words of magic, the true names of things, words of connection, words of love.
Near the end of the book, Ged and Arren discover the Raft People, a tribe of seafaring nomads who come together in the open ocean once per year to tether their rafts and commune with one another. The malaise has not yet reached them; they are joyous and whole. Ged and Arren stay with the Raft People to regain their strength. At night, the Raft People sing the ancient epics that tell of the origins of the world, until one night, in an instant, all the singers are struck dumb. They are no longer able to remember the songs. And even among them, the fear sets in.
Ursula Le Guin writes about a mythical place and time, but she also writes to us. There is an alternating fear and malaise encroaching upon our world. We see it all the time, all around us, in expressions of exasperation, anger, violence, apathy, and disregard. We see it globally, in war, religious conflict, yawning economic disparity, and environmental devastation. We experience it personally, both directed at us, and, when we are unguarded, sometimes directed from us.
Why is this? How is this? Well friends, Ursula Le Guin was prescient. As in Earthsea, our world has all but forgotten all the words that matter: words of magic, the true and deep names of things, words of connection, words of love. Whether it is the result or cause of our malady, our language has coarsened, including, despairingly, the language of religion. Religious rhetoric—including and perhaps especially Christian rhetoric—is characterized by hard edges, lines in the sand, worldly judgment (and this occurs on both ends of the theological spectrum). Or, as in the case of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” crass materialism is spoken and named as blessing. So often, religious leaders either speak words of division and exclusion or else peddle parlor tricks and snake oil.
I will name our illness: the Church Catholic has forgotten to proclaim, always and only, the Word: Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as slaves for Jesus’ sake. And in the vacuum of our amnesia, panicked fear and malaise fills the space provided.
Where, then, is hope to be found? We find our hope in Jesus Christ, whose Gospel will pierce any darkness with light so long as there is but one to proclaim it. John Hines was such a one. In his long, storied, and faithful ministry, Bishop Hines, in whose one-time chair at Christ Church I am now humbled and privileged to sit, refused to forget the Word, or the words of the Gospel that communicate that Word. He refused to succumb to malaise, or panic, or fear. He spoke words of transforming grace, for our souls and for our world.
Bishop Hines founded this seminary to be a place that would form men and women to learn such holy and sacred words, and to instill in those same men and women the courage to preach them to a desperate world. It is what the Seminary of the Southwest has done for more than sixty years. And with hope, I say it is what we will do for sixty more.
We have completed successfully our capital Campaign for Leadership that a fearful and cynical world would have said was foolhardy, if not impossible. We have exceeded every precedent in our Annual Fund to provide scholarships for the next generation of ordained disciples. We have launched the Wessendorff Center in order to provide innovative Christian leadership in myriad settings beyond the walls of the Church. We have elected a leader in our still-new dean who shares Bishop Hines’ vision of transforming grace. At the Seminary of the Southwest we have said; we still say; we will always say; that while we live, it is so that the Word—the life and light of Jesus—may be made visible in our mortal flesh and in the world.
In The Farthest Shore, in order to reclaim the ancient and sacred words that the world had forgotten, the Archmage Ged must travel to the world of the dead. He walks through that shadow and perseveres, and when he returns to the light the words he bears begin to restore the world of the living. But Ged himself changes in the process. He is not immune from all effect. He must sacrifice his worldly power—his magic—in order to be the agent of redemption. When he reemerges in the light, his is no longer a wizard. He is only a man: a human being flawed, weak, and vulnerable. But he is also profoundly stronger than he was as archmage, because he has gone down unto death and risen to life on its other side. He is now the bearer not of worldly power but of grace in full measure.
The sacred words live in our hearts and on the tips of our tongues: words of grace, connection, reconciliation, and love. Here, in this place, we tether our fragile rafts one to another to commune and sing the sacred songs. And then we go out in to the world as nomads—graduates and friends of this place both—to share those words and songs so that they can restore the world.
We will not allow malaise and fear to overtake us. We will not be struck dumb. We will not forget the sacred words, nor the sacred songs. As St. Paul reminds us today, we may be afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair, struck down, but not destroyed. Because, though we are made of clay and give up all pretension to worldly power, we wield power that is not of this world and is not our own. It is the extraordinary power of God, whose light shines through all darkness and dispels all fear. That death that has encroached upon the world will retreat before it. Because we bear the grace of Jesus Christ in full measure, and while we live, grace has the final word.
The Very Rev. Barkley Thompson is Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, an alumnus of Seminary of the Southwest, and serves as a member of the Board of Trustees.
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