Some years ago, I experienced what you might call a “surprise in sound.” Coming down a corridor talking with a few other people in normal voices, we turned a corner into a smaller space. All at once our voices took on another sound — fuller, richer, you might even say thicker. It had to do with the shape of that passageway. The combination of height, breadth and width was acting as a kind of sound box for our voices making them echo and resound. A similar result is the shallow tone from a guitar when its center hole is covered compared to the much richer timbre when that opening is left clear. The fuller sound is produced when it comes out of a depth, out of a space larger than itself. It picks up overtones as it reverberates with wider and deeper surroundings.
This example gets at a theme mentioned often in the Scriptures, the connection between words that are spoken and the depth out of which they come. Do those words have resonance and thickness and anchoring? Or when mouthed, do they ring flat and thin?
In Matthew’s 23rd chapter, Jesus excoriates the kind of words coming from the religious leaders. Those officials are clear enough about the lessons they’re giving, he observes, but they don’t follow through. They preach high sounding words about obligations and attitudes, but the example they give fatally thins out the substance of those words. There’s little resonance, next to no connection between the things the words mean to say and the depths out of which they ought to be coming. They are empty because they don’t arise out of the speaker’s union with God, the giver of this graced resonance.
In Thessalonians, Paul cites the exact opposite phenomenon. He has been preaching words about Jesus Christ but wants to take things further by underscoring the intimate and personal involvement he has with those words.
Pointing out how “we gently cared for you,” he notes that “we shared not only our words about this Gospel; we shared our very selves.” To paraphrase: “We backed up what we were preaching with our whole person, body and soul. And that’s the reason you heard something more in our words than just the sound they made. Because we gave you this gospel in love, you heard our words not as coming from us, but as the words of God.”
Paul’s words had resonance. They arose from a place deeper than his vocal chords, and sprang from his heart. Still more, they echoed inside a chamber much more encompassing than Paul’s own person. His words rang out from God’s own heart – and the Thessalonians could feel it. The opposite of surfacy and glib, they resonated with God’s much more profound voice echoing in the voice of the preacher. What a difference between the reception to Paul’s words and the flat, even cynical one given those religious leaders. The difference is around the correspondence or dissonance between what’s being said and the inner place from which they arise.
What a high bar for anybody in religious leadership, or indeed for anybody who would influence another in living a life with God. How much linkage is there between the words coming out of our mouths and the depths out of which they are coming? Does what we say and do on the outside find its ground in what we’re holding onto on the inside? Do our claims about the goodness, forgiveness and love of God resonate with what we’re in touch with in the depths of our own selves?
The prophet Malachi sets out a short formula for this all important resonance. “If you do not lay it to your heart, it will make no difference.” (Mal 2:2) If you don’t bring these words of yours into living contact with God’s life inside you, you’ll be blocking God’s appearance. And isn’t Vincent’s insistence on personal transparency (simplicity) a piece of this same reality, ringing true in one’s depths as an echo of The Spirit who abides there?
So the question for us Vincentian believers: do the words we speak and the actions we perform reverberate something of the goodness of God? Do the things we show exteriorly, especially in regard to our faith, set up that depth and resonance that others can recognize as arising from God’s nearness? Can we join with Paul who in his words and actions can attest, “Because we gave you this gospel in love, you hear our words as not coming from us but from God.”