The Power of Words
IF LITERATURE IS a metaphor for the writer's experience, a mirror in which that experience is at least partially reflected, it is at the same time a mirror in which the reader can also see his or her experience reflected in a new and potentially transforming way. This is what it is like to search for God in a world where cruelty and pain hide God, Dostoevski says-"How like a winter hath my absence been from thee"; how like seeing a poor woman in a dream with a starving child at her breast; how like Father Zossima kneeling down at the feet of Dmitri Karamazov because he sees that great suffering is in store for him and because he knows, as John Donne did, that suffering is holy. And you and I, his readers, come away from our reading with no more proof of the existence or nonexistence of God than we had before, with no particular moral or message to frame on the wall, but empowered by a new sense of the depths of love and pity and hope that is transmitted to us through Dostoevski's powerful words.
Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much of this power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves. That, I suppose, is the final mystery as well as the final power of words: that not even across great distances of time and space do they ever lose their capacity for becoming incarnate. And when these words tell of virtue and nobility, when they move us closer to that truth and gentleness of spirit by which we become fully human, the reading of them is sacramental; and a library is as holy a place as any temple is holy because through the words which are treasured in it the Word itself becomes flesh again and again and dwells among us and within us, full of grace and truth.
- Originally published in A Room Called Remember