Sometimes, when I begin another essay, I sense that I am standing at the precipice of a steep ski slope. Will the words that I chose enable us to reconnoiter this slope of life together? I truly hope so. Let’s strap on our skis and push off.
Sometimes, these “essays” are romps – adventures into the little known or unknown. They give us an opportunity to go adventuring together. For example, as I thought about “essay,” I wondered, about “sashay.” Apart from the rhyme, might there be some possible connection? Frankly, no. But here is the discovery: “sashay,” according to OED “is a mangled Anglicization of the French word chassé – ‘gliding step’ used in square dancing.” “Sashay” literally means “chased,” and comes from the Old French chacier “to hunt.” So, mere curiosity moves us from essays to square dancing. But, square dancing is actually connected with elk hunting as well as catch and release! What a world of connections!
Some connections, like those above, have a sense of arbitrariness. Too many and we lose meaning – and I lose you. It’s like skiing a black diamond slope without edges.
Let’s get back on the trail. When I came across the phrase, “mangled Anglicization of the French word,” I remembered another OED comment about English folk using a French term: “This derogatory slang could have originated during some period of strained Anglo-French relations, i.e. most of recorded history.”
And “strained relations” brings me to recent conversations. Strained relations have gotten to the place where spouses have separated after decades of marriage. Here are people standing at a precipice.
Questions rise up like a flock of startled Ptarmigans emerging in full flight from the snow. Will the words these folks chose enable them to reconnoiter this precarious slope of life together? Will they remain distant? What if they allow a shallow diagnosis?: “We grew apart. We wanted to ski different trails.” Had they ever been united? Had neglect grown?
If a conspiracy of silence grows, who will ask hard questions that rise up: “How did you two allow this to happen? You’ve built a business. Is building a marriage that much more complex? What has been going on?”
And then, will they ask each other “God” questions like: “Do we have biblical grounds for separating? What about the vows that we took in God’s name? With God’s help, is there a possibility of reconciliation?”
Perhaps they don’t verbalize the questions of their hearts – they may often find themselves hopeless. Perhaps they are convinced matters are too deep, too complex.
Sometimes, the situation may be too wicked for words. Consider how evil robbed a wordsmith of words. In 1793, after the execution of the French King, Louis XVI during the French Revolution, Englishman Horace Walpole (1717 – 1797) wrote a long time confidante: “Indeed, Madam, I write unwillingly; there is not a word left in my Dictionary that can express what I feel. It remained for the enlightened eighteenth century to baffle language and invent horrors that can be found in no vocabulary. What tongue could be prepared to paint a Nation that should avow Atheism, profess Assassination, and practice Massacres on Massacres for four years together: and who, as if they had destroyed God as well as their King and established Incredulity by law, give no symptoms of repentance!” (R. W. Ketton-Cremer, Horace Walpole. A Biography [London: Methuen, 1964] pp. 305–306). How will we find our voice after violence or abuse where there is no repentance?
Sometimes, when we refuse to repent, our absence of words indicates the darkness of our hearts. Theodore Dalrymple (1949-) – an English doctor/essayist – wrote: My own parents chose to live in the most abject conflictual misery…Though they lived together, they addressed not a single word to one another in my presence during the eighteen years I spent in their house, though we ate at least one meal a day together: once, as a child, I was awakened in the night by the raised voice of my mother exclaiming to my father, “You’re a wicked, wicked man.” Those are the only words I ever heard pass between them. It was like a bolt of lightning on a dark night: dazzling but unilluminating. For the rest, their silences were highly nuanced, expressing resentment, aggression, injured innocence, exasperation, moral superiority, and all the other dishonest little emotions of which the human mind is capable. They continued their absurd, self-dramatizing civil war to the end of my father’s life: on his deathbed, my father, by then long separated from my mother, said to me, “Tell her she can come if she wants to,” to which my mother’s reply was, “Tell him I’ll come if he asks me.” They stuck to their principles and never did meet: for what is mere death by comparison to a lifelong quarrel?” (Our Culture, What’s Left of It, p. 24).
“Never did meet.” Oh, the follies of our pride and its ability to damage and destroy our connectors.
So, going beyond marriage, we ask: “Do we meet with others? Do we have heart to heart conversations?”
And we ask: “Do we meet with God? Do we pray – heart to heart – with him?”
As part of my work, I meet with people. As part of our friendship, I offer to pray with them and/or for them. One new friend told me he only prays when he gets in precarious situations – skiing, kayaking, or biking. I told him: “I must think life is more precarious than you do; I need to pray often!” I hope he thought about my reply.
I thought about his. His use of “precarious” got me wondering about its origin. It is a legal word – “held through the favor of another.” In this slippery life, what/who do we trust to hold us? In this harsh world, who will show us favor? OED says: The notion of “dependent on the will of another” led to the sense “risky, dangerous, uncertain.” Yes, it is that kind of world.
But there is still more to “precarious.” Look at this discovery. “Precarious” is from the Latin – precarius – “obtained by asking or praying “- from prex -“entreaty, prayer.” Eureka!
What doors that connection opens! For example, when our relationships are “precarious,” shall we deny the risk? Shall we withdraw from the uncertainty? Shall we overpower the other person? Instead, with God’s help, let’s use the true meaning of “precarious.” Let’s embrace the danger with hope and PRAY.
Please recognize that, if we do not pray, we have gone beyond being in “jeopardy.” Our word, “jeopardy” comes from a word that is Anglo-French (aren’t you glad to see the hyphen between these two words! If a hyphen can be there, can it not also be between a husband and a wife?). Ioparde comes from the Old French jeu parti – literally, “a divided game, game with even chances.” Friend, with the foes we have – the world, our old natures, and the devil – we have gone beyond “jeopardy” – beyond “even chances.” We need God’s help.
As we in our precarious places call out to the omnipotent God of the universe, Jesus recommends that we leap over our distance from him by calling him “Father, Papa.” Although we could be intimidated in speaking to GOD, this beginning, and the rest of the Lord’s Prayer, is simple, plain speech. There are riches here. Pray – simply, humbly – with childlike, precarious prayers.
In “prayer” we have eureka discoveries beyond “precarious.” As we keep speaking our hearts to this Father, naming what was hidden or fearful, we may begin to develop a kind of “eloquence” – from Latin – eloquentia – from ex – “out” + loqui “to speak.” In prayer, we find new ways to “adore”- from the Latin – adorare – “speak to formally, beseech, ask in prayer,” and in Late Latin “worship.” “Adore” comes from ad – “to” + orare “speak formally, pray.” As we come to delight in speaking with our Father in heaven, awe and intimacy grow, and we may become “orators” – “those who plead or argue for a cause,” from Anglo-French (there is that hyphen again!) – orator. The Latin root is orare – “speak before a court or assembly, plead, pray.” How filled with possibilities these origins are!
Imagine speaking to God like this – you – us. Imagine a couple contemplating divorce praying like this. In regard to this precarious, eloquent, adoring, praying oratory, “Amazing Grace” John Newton wrote: You are coming to a King, large petitions with you bring; for his grace and power are such, none can ever ask too much; none can ever ask too much.
Christian, know that he prays for you.
Hesitant one, come; let’s find our voice – with God and one another! Let’s go skiing.
Sucking out (some of) the marrow-nourishment from the bone-words with you,
PS: I found Walpole’s quote above after looking up the origin of “serendipity.” Its precise origin is his 1/28/1754 letter. He coined this delightful word by adding “ity” to a word in the title of a Persian fairy tale, “The Three Princes of Serendip.” The heroes in this tale “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” That sounds like “Essays into the Lively Lexicon!” Serendip is an old name for Ceylon, modern Sri Lanka. Its origin is from Sanskrit – Simhaladvipa – “Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island.”
PPS: For those who like to ponder, consider this quote: There is no way from one person to another. However loving and sympathetic we try to be, however sound our psychology, however frank and open our behavior, we cannot penetrate the incognito of the other man, for there are no direct relationships, not even between soul and soul. Christ stands between us, and we can only get into touch with our neighbors through him. That is why intercession is the most promising way to reach our neighbors, and corporate prayer, offered in the name of Christ, the purest form of fellowship” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship).