The service of the word

In the Catholic funeral liturgy, we hear that ‘Life is changed, not ended’. These words, laconic and simple, have stayed with me recently, as I have been with dying and bereaved friends, and lived with the passing over of Eureka Street from print to online.

Caught close to dying, the wise attend to their words, and particularly to words that make large claims. They ask what kind of change this might be, and whether, in its living, it is better than an end. Only when they have explored the desolation experienced in bereavement or dying will they seek words for the consolations brought by not ending. They are like dentists who probe the full scope of decay before sealing the cavity.

The grief of many of our readers at the change in Eureka Street counsels this same wisdom. It should come naturally to little magazines, because it is central to our service of Australian public life. Our business is with words, and particularly with sifting the bad use of words. It is not just that public language is often ugly, meaningless, stale or incorrectly used. The larger fault is that words are not tested. Whether elegant and literate, or ugly and badly joined, they fail to test the deep human reality of the situations and policies they describe. They decorate them more or less elegantly. This gap, between the way in which people’s lives are changed and the words we use to decorate the process, is turf for spin.

It is the task of good writing, as distinct from elegant writing, to enter honestly difficult human reality, particularly where life is changed for the worse. In Eureka Street we have tried to do this for people detained, bombed, deprived of legal rights and patronised. The only reason to record such forms of dying is the conviction, against the odds, that life is not ended, and that therefore those whose lives have been destroyed should be remembered.

To sift, purify and measure words against human reality is not a choice. It is a commission. Many have received it, ourselves among the least of them. If Eureka Street dies, it matters little. It does matter that, living, Eureka Street is faithful.

When speaking of sermons, Lancelot Andrewes criticised those who ignored the claim that words make. By sermons, he meant words shaped with meaning and purpose.

They seemed to reckon of sermons no otherwise than of songs; to give them the hearing, to commend the air of them, and so let them go. The music of a song, and the rhetoric of a sermon, all is one. A foul error, even in the very nature of the word; for that is a law, a testament, and neither song nor sonnet. A law, enacted to be done.

It is a plain mistaking of the word—which is as seed in a soil, or as a scion in a stock—to take it for a stake in a hedge, there to stick and stand still, and bring forth nothing. Or according to the metaphor … where it is termed ‘a glass’, which we should look in to do somewhat by; to take away some spot, to mend somewhat amiss, to set somewhat right; and it is plainly to mistake it to look in it and look off it, and forget our chief errand to it.

When we attend upon any of the couplings of living and dying, the service of honest words is both gift and charge.

Andrew Hamilton sj is an editorial consultant for Eureka Street.



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