Belfast Telegraph

Thought for the weekend: Words feed the soul

Malcolm Guite is an Anglican priest based in Cambridge and one of those gifted individuals with several strings to his bow. He's written books on theology, plays live music in a couple of bands, has several CD recordings under his belt, and is an accomplished wordsmith whose poetry is well worth checking out.

In a conversation with the late, great Seamus Heaney he recalls an observation that Heaney made that really struck home.

Heaney said that it's not really the case that people can remember an entire poem, desirable though that is. More often, there are certain standout lines that resonate so deeply that we can recall them, even years after their first, deep impression. Heaney calls these "phrases that feed the soul".

Heaney, of course, didn't speak or write from an explicitly religious perspective, though one might argue a decent case for a humane voice like his doing more to serve the purposes of God than many a stridently self-conscious 'Christian' one.

But that thought aside, I want to suggest that he's put his finger on a phenomenon of good communication that's in serious danger of being neglected or rejected. I refer to the fact that style and substance, the 'how' and the 'what' are brought together, or belong together, in ways that affect us profoundly – phrases that feed the soul.

Rhetoric used to be a serious branch of study but in more recent times it's fallen into serious decline. The result of which is that much public utterance is flat, stereotyped and banal. How words work in ways that inform and inspire, motivate as well as educate, is worth the efforts of anyone involved in teaching, preaching, journalism and writing to name just a few important vocations.

To cite just one example: the biblical prophet Isaiah could simply have said that God's servant would suffer much to serve the divine purpose of redemption – so far so correct.

But how much more memorable and inspiring is that message rendered in chapters 52 and 53 – phrases, indeed, that truly feed the soul.

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