All Greek to me

Those long Presbyterian prayers,” a Catholic friend used to sigh, during the days we worked together as hospital chaplains. “So many words.”

What else is there?” I used to wonder, fresh from seminary, my head full of impressive words. Greek words and Hebrew words and theological words. Soteriology and ecclesiology and hermeneutics, each with another set of words. The Bible itself, full of words that could be interpreted several ways, and the delight of unraveling the threads to see the mystery inside the words.

I came to seminary loving words to start with — an English major in college, a passionate reader who believed that all things could be found in books. High school and college Latin brought more words, and a deeper sense of revelation about the meaning and depth of words, all waiting to be uncovered.

Church work is full of words, too. Choosing the right words for a sermon that we hope will be remembered. The words that might help a struggling teenager or a doubting new parent. The words that will allow someone’s faith to catch up to their life. Words for the bulletin and the newsletter, the blog and Twitter. “Didn’t we say that last year? How can we say it differently this year?”

Blessedly, some of the words aren’t ours. We root ourselves in the timeless words of Scripture and the liturgical words of those who have wrestled with meaning and nuance for us.

And yet, as a pastor and now again as a chaplain, words wear thin. I keep meeting up with places where there are no words good enough, powerful enough, holy enough to touch someone’s pain. The death of anyone beloved. The illness of a child, face barely visible in a hospital room behind the oxygen mask and the tubes. The soul-scouring loss of hair to chemotherapy. The disintegration of our physical selves, and the realization that this path only goes one way.

Of course, there are words to say later on, when the panic fades and the pain lifts, and all the words of our faith live in the wordless silence, stored up like nuts for the winter. But blessedly, there are spaces beyond words where the Word comes among us.

For my patient Helen (a different name to protect her privacy), dementia meant the loss of words. As she withdrew further and further into her illness, her speech grew more and more garbled. Every now and again a single word would pop out, understandable and intriguing. Was it a clue to her thoughts? A sign of the things on her mind? A random turning of the mind’s turntable?

As time went on, we on her hospice team began to wonder to each other if her speech was garbled, or if she had reverted to her native Greek. The syllables didn’t sound like Greek, but, as a pastor, my training was not in anything that could get me a baklava or an espresso in today’s Greece. Was it Greek or garbled English? It didn’t really matter, since they were equally mysterious to all of us who visited her.

Some days she was agitated, others withdrawn. Some days she was angry with the staff, combative about the daily routines.

One day, I found her sleeping in her wheelchair. When I put my hand on her shoulder, she woke up and took my hands in hers, and made a face at my cold hands. She brought my hands to her mouth and kissed them over and over again, all over each hand, covering each hand with kisses and smiling. More kisses and more smiles. Then Helen held my hands in hers, and smiled at me, content to sit that way until lunch.

She had given me a wordless blessing — a reminder of that place between two people where words aren’t necessary. The Word beyond all other words glimpsed in love. The Word made flesh, present in our midst.

Words fail us sometimes. The deeper Word with us and within us never does, if we can stop talking long enough to glimpse it.

MARY AUSTIN is the pastor of Westminster Church, a church for all people located in the city of Detroit, and a former hospice chaplain.