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Language as an open door



For writers one of the most infuriating features of words is that they grow stale. This is true of images, too. What was yesterday a striking phrase that offered a new perspective will tomorrow be a tired cliché on whose meaning no one reflects. This process is speeded up by advertisers who constantly look for fresh images and words to dispose people kindly to the products that they sell. Think of the image of a sweet elderly couple bathed in golden autumnal light on almost every brochure for nursing homes or insurance. Or of the fair haired, blue eyed boy with a computer under one arm and a tennis racket in the other who decorates promotional material for schools, accompanied by words in the same enticing key.

 A prayer, a plea, a bird cover (MediaCom)

I don’t object to this commodification of words and images. But it does constantly challenge writers and speakers to find fresh words for fresh insights into reality. This is especially true of religious language which attempts to catch a reality whose experience lies beyond words. St Paul stretches words and images to the limit when describing the significance of Christ. The stories and images of the Book of Revelation and the Gospels also take words beyond where they comfortably fit. To describe Jesus’ tortured execution as the source of life is a hard ask. When freshly minted, images like redemption, sacrifice and atonement were vivid and startling. Later, however, the images dulled and the words described a doctrine, not a startling insight.

The images and language of Christmas have grown particularly weary. As it has become a public rather than a religious celebration, the words associated with it have been commodified to sell food and drink, all kinds of trinkets as presents, and a generalised bonhomie as the appropriate mood. Even the cards that put Christ back into Christmas make the manger a nice place, remove the dirt and smells that go with cattle, shepherds, camel travellers and two young people seeking shelter after a long journey. For people who do it hard, the language, the gift-giving and the feasting cannot but remind them of their exclusion.

If we want to renew religious language and images we must begin with attention to the words we currently use, noticing their resonance as well as their meaning. It is then important for the language of prayer and reflection to be grounded in deep contemporary experience.

In the Christmas stories, for example, we need to pay attention to the experience of people who have a similar position in our society — to find equivalents to the young people desperate for a room in which decently to bear a child, to the shepherds regarded as marginal and irreligious by a religious society, to Herod’s soldiers free to intimidate, to rob and to kill, and to a grotty field on the edge of town.

In prayer, too, we need to find words that encompass the desperation, rage, terror and passion that need healing and acceptance. Finally, if our words are to open to us another world beyond that of our daily routine, they must be evocative, finding intimations of immortality in the mortality that they touch.

These thoughts were inspired by two recently published small books of prayers. Michael McGirr’s Doorways into Hope and Joy focuses on the scriptural readings for Advent and Christmas, Julie Perrin’s A prayer, a plea, a bird, addresses the ordinary predicaments of life. Its prayers and blessings are complemented by stories that reveal an extraordinary depth in simple human experience.


'These two books offer splendid examples of the power of the language of faith and of prayer.'


In his work Michael McGirr seeks paths through the ordinary that reveal its depths, and evokes a hope to which our daily experience points, but which lies beyond it. The style of his prayers are conversational, addressing a God who clearly enjoys our company and respects our ordinary lives. The prayers are an informal exchange with a God who clearly enjoys our company and is quite happy to be told what she already knows. This prayer is characteristic in this ease of approach:

'God of great adventures, we know that you do not reside behind closed doors. In Advent we recall that you pitched your tent among us. It was a tent, not a temple. You travel light among the heavy-hearted. And move nimbly among those burdened with inflexible ideas… May we make those tentative steps down the street. Where your heart bleeds for the lost and wounded.'

This prayer has all the traditional virtues of a good prayer and the modern virtues of a good conversation. It focuses on God, but in a conversational rather than formal way. It makes modest, though difficult, requests. It is simple in its language, contrasting God’s behaviour with human inflexibility and timidity. It also carefully brings into the backyard of the ordinary the qualities that we normally reserve for the parlour of the exceptional: the open doors of transcendence, and the tent of intimacy and closeness, the nimbleness opposed to inflexibility and, in contrast to the heroic virtue on which prayers often focus, the tentativeness of compassion. In prayer the opening of the door takes us out of darkness into light, and out of apathy into compassion.

McGirr’s prayers also find words with room for the desperate places of our lives and for hope in spite of all. One prayer, triggered by the story of the children whom Herod had murdered, is unyielding in attending to the horror of the event and to its salience in our day:

'Their parents would surely never forget either their little faces,

nor their own cold distress.

These children stand for every innocent victim of every terror in every age,

The people swept aside by the dark lust for power and control.

You know, O Lord, that grief takes time

And that memory can be its true friend.

May we keep track of our emotions, however, uncomfortable

And know how to look you up

In the place you dwell

Which is called Today. Amen'

The poignancy of ‘little faces’ and the unflinching reference to ‘cold distress’ are given full weight. The prayer then turns to the pain and consolation of memory and the intimacy of a God whom we can ‘look up’ and who lives with us in our time.

Julie Perrin’s work displays the same scrupulous attention to the world around us, and readiness to enter into its darkness and pain as well as into its consolations. It covers a broader range of topics and forms of writing than does McGirr’s, including prayers, blessings, stories and reflections, many of them responding to the coronavirus. Whereas Doorways into Hope and Joy is addressed mainly to Catholic readers as an encouragement to prayer, the audience for which A prayer, a plea, a bird is written includes readers of many faiths or none. It invites them to find depth and presence in the midst of ordinary experience.

Perrin’s greatest gift as a writer lies in her ability to attend closely to the detail of apparently ordinary experience and to catch its depth and wonder in precise but evocative words. This description of cattle in a paddock, for example:

'I blinked awake. Not twenty feet away there were six Black Angus cattle lined up along the wire fence. Their attention did not stir or flicker. They were assembled, exact and equidistant, utterly unmoving. They stared at me with a level gaze. Birds landed on the backs of two of them and at length another two licked the outside of their mouths with fat fleshy tongues. Eventually their long, slow, silent looking broke away and they began cricking their necks and inclining their heads.'

In this most everyday and bovine of scenes is a precise, concrete and detailed description of the cattle. It arises out of a close attention. The words are not chosen in order to elevate the scene into the sublime but to represent with scrupulous accuracy its everyday reality. Yet in doing so they lend to the cattle a solemnity and evoke a respect for the depth that underlies the scene. The modesty and scrupulous accuracy of the language disclose a world beyond what can be represented.

An adequate language of prayer and of spirituality requires that desperate situations must be entered as well as spoken about. Perrin is a teller of stories. Those chosen for inclusion in this book give flesh to the prayers, blessings and reflections gathered around them. The stories within this collection explore realities that are both everyday and difficult. They embrace, for example, the care taken to support a child with autism, the experience both of elderly people dying unaccompanied by relatives during the lockdown and of the relatives excluded from their presence, the onset of depression. Such experience helps shape the prayers with a modesty and evoke a hope that is grounded in experience but takes wing beyond it. 

'One of the most daring prayers is for people who are bereft of hope, possibly after the bushfires.

God of the-ones-who-have-no-hope,

you know the despair of erasure.

Underneath the ashes that remain from all the burnings,

prod coals that once held flame.

Provoke the cry of a remembered self

calling to the One who said the great I AM.'

The prayer contemplates a total erasure from life through the image of unrelieved ash. Then it turns to the possibility of flame and its warmth to spark the memory of a self who could pray to a God who might still be there. Though the movement towards hope is delicate and conditional, it hangs there at the end of the prayer.

These two books offer splendid examples of the power of the language of faith and of prayer. They also invite us to reflect on how this gift might be respected and developed.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: A prayer, a plea, a bird cover (MediaCom)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Michael McGirr, Julie Perrin, review



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Existing comments

Thank you Father Andrew... these words touch my soul and makes me wish for more, especially in liturgy.

Josephine | 10 December 2020  

Both Michael McGirr and Julie Perrin are wordsmiths of quality who are able to convey complexity in beautiful language. I have a copy of McGirr's "Books that Saved My Life" and can recommend his insightful work. The experience that lies beyond words is profoundly articulated by St Paul in his letters, particularly his letter to the Romans. I hesitate to describe him as unique, however his writing has a theological depth which, with each reading, opens up more complexity. One of the great joys of life is the joy of being stretched in reading. The best writing takes us out of ourselves and into the words. On my Christmas crave list: Hilary Mantel's "Mantel Pieces".

Pam | 10 December 2020  

I suspect that God has rarely if ever been moved by prayers that praise him or assume that he will act as we desire. I reckon he would always prefer a person-to-person unembellished conversation, particularly one that recognises the beauty and goodness of his work as illustrated by Julie Perrin's description of cattle surveying human intrusion in their world. People who do good works and, I suspect, even Gods like to be told every now and then that they have done a good job and in response are likely to listen more carefully to any associated request.

john frawley | 10 December 2020  

"Our apparatchiks will continue making the usual squalid mess called History: all we can pray for is that artists, chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it . . ." - WH Auden

John Kelly | 10 December 2020  

I agree that prayer words need modifying, but so too, perhaps do our ideas and understanding of what prayer is and how it works. Let's not forget that Jesus taught us (Matthew 6) to use few words when we pray. This is because prayer does not function to change God's mind, but rather to change us. It is a psychologo-spiritual process. The early Christian contemplatives developed 'prayer of the heart', using a minimum of words which function to remove the preoccupation with verbal meaning, and to act as a focus on, and dwelling in, the presence of Christ in us whose prayer we join in silence and stillness, letting go of our egotistic concerns. A contemplative mind allows God to work changes in us - metanoia takes place not by our efforts, but through grace. It is the 'mind of Christ' which grows in us. This kind of prayer can enlighten our heart's understanding of deeper meanings in our faith and can truly assist when we search for words, images and metaphors to use in our attempts to express the mysteries which tend to elude us when we use our inadequate human language. For all who pray, meditation should be encouraged as the centre of prayer life.

John O'D | 10 December 2020  

There seems to be this urge amongst many religious opinionati today to bring prayer 'down to earth' and to make it 'relevant'. To me this can distract people from the numinous, which raises you up. I find it hard to see a better prayer for all occasions than The Lord's Prayer, which Jesus himself taught. Following close behind would be The Angelic Salutation, whose essence is attributed to the Archangel Gabriel. The late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who I consider one of the spiritual giants of the 20th Century, wrote a great deal about prayer. In his Orthodox tradition they treasure the Jesus Prayer, which is incredibly simple and enormously efficacious. In Christianity all effective prayer needs to be anchored in a religious life. The Eucharist would be the centre of that for most Catholics and Orthodox and some Anglicans. The Rosary is an incredibly efficacious prayer, as are the Stations of the Cross. These days many people are too busy, too jaded and too tired to attempt these. They have lost their inner connection. This happened to St Paul: God restored him to it with a big bang. Few of us will be awakened with a big bang. It is the quiet inner voice calling, which life fills with so much noise we cannot hear we need to listen to. Perhaps McGirr and Perrin, following in the footsteps of the late Michel Quoist, will awaken some. I do hope so.

Edward Fido | 10 December 2020  

Thank you, Andrew - profound indeed! You remind us well, that through theological language, we become sculptors’ of His sacramental reality. Theological literacy empowers us to ponder that image more clearly… it is a language worthy of study and contemplation.

Anthony Maher | 11 December 2020  

I would concur with what John RD said about prayer with the proviso, which I think he would agree with, that there is a step beyond everything we can do. There comes a stage where, after every effort you make, you have to be quiet, surrender and await the response. Sometimes the response will come in life itself. I think many people were praying during the bushfires and for a proper response to the COVID-19 outbreak. But they didn't just pray: they did something. Australians are at their best when dealing with emergencies. The Bible is full of emergencies. It is the response to them which is important.

Edward Fido | 12 December 2020  

My prayer is ‘Come Lord Jesus. He does.

Barry | 12 December 2020  

Hello Edward. The following are lines the source of which I can't locate but which bear, I think, directly on what you say very well: "Beyond the highest reach of sense /Or finest edge of argument/ The vision intimate, intense/Awaits the quiet heart's consent."

John Kelly | 14 December 2020  

Hello John Kelly. I'm not sure either where that quote of yours comes from but it hit the nail on the head. Thank you.

Edward Fido | 14 December 2020  


EDITORS | 22 December 2020  

Thank you Andrew. I very much appreciate your kindness and generosity. Happy Christmas!

Michael McGirr | 23 December 2020  

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