There’re no words for it

An old bit of peasant wisdom has it that if March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb. At Georgetown, where the campus was shut down in the first days of the month by yet another heavy coating of ice and snow, things looked pretty leonine around here. Does that mean winter is now finally behind us? If we’ve seen the lion, is it all about the lamb from here on?  Maybe. I must confess, though, that I can never remember whether the original saying is actually “in like a lion and out like a lamb,” or the other way round. The second reading seems just as appropriate to me. After all, this is the season of transition and variability: if winter still seems to hold sway at the beginning, it won’t for long, but if you let yourself be lulled into thinking that spring is already here in early March – watch out.  It all depends. So use the saying either way, according to the circumstances.

Aphorisms and pithy sayings have a way like this of sounding wise and appropriate – indeed of appearing unassailably true – until, that is, you read an aphorism making the exactly opposite point.

I once came across an arresting sentence attributed to the French Fauvist and Cubist painter Georges Braque: “I love the rule that corrects the emotion.”  For an artist who was once called (along with Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse) one of the “wild men of Paris,” here was an unexpectedly measured endorsement of restraint and discipline. It was only much later, when I obtained a copy of Braque’s notebook of observations and reflections (Le jour et la nuit, Gallimard, 1988) that I discovered what he had really said: J’aime la règle qui corrige l’émotion. J’aime l’émotion qui corrige la règle – “I love the rule that corrects the emotion. I love the emotion that corrects the rule.” It can go either way, in other words. Both are true. It depends. So Braque – a wild man after all – wouldn’t let himself be pinned down.

Even Scripture contains some seemingly contradictory phrases, including a few that come straight from the mouth of Jesus. In Matthew 12:30, for example, we read that “whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”  This rejoinder to caviling Pharisees has a distinctly “get-with-the-program” sound to it. However, in Luke 9:50 (and in Mark 9:40 in almost identical language) we find Jesus apparently saying just the opposite: “whoever is not against us, is for us.”  In this second instance he’s calming his disciples who are a bit put out by someone doing good works in his name without being part of their circle. “This is copyrighted material,” the disciples seem to be saying, “and that guy hasn’t paid the licensing fee!”

Language itself embodies this ambiguity in its very building blocks. English has a remarkably long list of contranyms – words which mean both one thing and the opposite. Words like cleave, which means both to cling gently or grasp closely but also to pull or break apart, often violently or roughly; temper, which means to soften but also to harden; and peruse – either to read carefully and deeply or, on the contrary, to skim quickly and superficially. It depends.

It’s no wonder that all traditions that have given careful attention to the paradox of duality have eventually concluded that it’s not through words that we will come to the fullest level of wisdom and understanding. Words are wonderful vehicles of thought. But there is a stretch of road beyond the part we have traveled over with the vehicles that have brought us this far. After a certain point, we have to get out and walk, as it were, if we are to ascend to the summit.

In the Christian tradition, this final ascent, this experience of the truth of the cosmos accessible beyond words and thought, is called contemplation or mysticism. It is “the knowledge of God gained not by human rational effort but by the soul’s direct reception of a divine gift.” (Bernard McGinn, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, 2006)

Cultivating the contemplative life, preparing for the reception of this divine knowledge, is exactly what we are doing by meditating regularly, morning and evening. Meditation embraces and establishes the interior silence that is the precondition for mystical experience.  Outside, the weather may be all lions and lambs; inside, there is stillness and peace.