Words Without End, Amen

(The Nationalist, 23 July 2004)


Have you ever felt flooded by the torrent of printed words that are placed before us each day? To take just one example, newspapers have grown substantially in size in recent years, with supplements of many kinds. A paper like the English Sunday Times weighs, I suppose, a kilo. Apart altogether from the waste of newsprint, what does it achieve? No one could possibly read it all, or even want to.

The former UN Secretary-General, Kurt Waldheim, once spoke about this. He referred to the flood of written material that appeared each day on his desk, clamouring for attention. As an example, he cited a 75,000 word report by a UN agency – on the production of caramel in sub-Saharan Africa! Did anyone read it, he asked, apart from its author?

Waldheim went on to refer to some statements that have made a difference to the world. He cited the Ten Commandments, which, in English, run to just 76 words, and the Our Father, which has 55. Yet the impact of those two has been greater than almost anything else in writing.

The American Nobel prize-winning poet, T. S. Eliot, asked the question:

‘Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’
(Choruses from ‘The Rock‘, I.)

And he wrote that long before the computer began storing and reproducing the floods of words that assault us daily. What would he think today?

A flood of information can indeed lead to a loss of knowledge, wisdom and life. How many of us are able to remember, much less to understand, what the Balkan wars were about, even though they were reported daily in the media from 1990 to 1994? Have we learned anything from those wars that cost 250,000 people their lives, exiled two million, and left behind a legacy of hatred? We had the information, what about the wisdom?

Saint Teresa of Avila was once asked by a woman what she should do about contemplative prayer. Her reply was: ‘Say the Our Father – and spend an hour at it!’