living in longer sentences

We live longer
but less precisely
and in shorter sentences.
— Wislawa Szymborska, “Nonreading”

I borrow these words from Szymborska’s poem because they echo my disappointment at the shorthand and abbreviations that often define how we speak with one another. And yet, they also hint at something I love.

I don’t need to belabor the frustration in these words. Conversation and healthy discourse are not particularly valued in our world today. Sound-bites have become the meat of our conversations. Critical thought is hard to come by. We are quick to demonize those who disagree with us. We lack the depth, humility, and willingness to see things from anything but our own perspectives.

We live less precisely, and in shorter sentences.

Perhaps the place to start, then, is to simply try thinking in longer sentences. If our grammar allows for complex and nuanced thoughts, why don’t give it a try?

I think if we can look a little more deeply into our tradition, we may find that this has been tried before (and worked pretty well). This year, for a Lenten discipline, I took up the task of memorizing hymns. I intended to learn some hymns that were familiar and some that weren’t. I secretly hoped to do forty hymns in forty days. I think I got to five…such is the life of a priest in Lent.

And yet, this may have been one of the most rewarding disciplines I’ve ever taken up. Not only did I simply enjoy humming newly-memorized hymns when I was doing chores; I also discovered a number of lines of poetry in the hymns that were complex and challenging, and came to their fullness of meaning when I thought about how all those phrases and parts of speech fit together as one whole (and not particularly short) sentence.

My list is not exhaustive (remember, only five hymns) but here are a couple of examples.

“God of grace and God of glory, on thy people pour thy power: crown thine ancient Church’s story; bring her bud to glorious flower.” (Hymn 595). Reading the whole sentence together (which I had to do in order to memorize it) reveals both glory and humility: while the church is something to celebrate, it has not yet reached the fullness of who we are called to be.

And in hymn 143, recalling the sacred encounters of Moses, Elijah, John, and Daniel in earlier verses, we sing: “Then grant us, Lord, like them to be full oft in fast and prayer with thee; our spirits strengthen with thy grace, and give us joy to see thy face.” The words were translated from a 6th century Latin hymn by Maurice F. Bell, and would make an absolutely terrible PowerPoint slide. And yet they form a beautiful thought, a prayer that is as complex and layered as our faith can be.

Perhaps we can indeed live more precisely, and more graciously, and with greater depth of understanding. Perhaps the place to begin is by practicing the discipline of thinking and speaking in more complete sentences.


About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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