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Prayer for the week

10 October 2014

Christopher Collingwood considers words that hurt and heal


Almighty God, you called Luke the physician, whose praise is in the gospel, to be an evangelist and physician of the soul: by the grace of the Spirit and through the wholesome medicine of the gospel, give your Church the same love and power to heal; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

Collect for St Luke the Evangelist

(Common Worship)

AS WE look ahead to St Luke's Day, a week tomorrow, this collect reminds us of the connection between words and healing. It refers to St Luke as "an evangelist and physician of the soul", and to "the wholesome medicine of the gospel."

From early days, the Church has associated the author of the Gospel that bears the name of Luke with the doctor mentioned: for example, in St Paul's letter to the Colossians, "Luke, the beloved physician". Whatever the hard historical evidence or otherwise for this, it does not detract from the implication that words have the power to heal - and to wound.

When we speak of "the gospel", it is, of course, not only a matter of words. St John's Gospel speaks of the word made flesh, suggesting an embodied, lived, and living expression of God's very being in action. Perhaps this is why the words often attributed to St Francis of Assisi - with little evidence - can still bring us up short: "Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words."

And yet the conclusion can scarcely be drawn that how we use words has little bearing on how we communicate the gospel by the way we live. It is, after all, a matter of integrity. Not "practising what we preach" robs the gospel of its power, with far-reaching consequences.

Proverbs 18.21 warns that "death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits," a sentiment taken up in the New Testament, where we are warned that "a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. . . . With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God" (James 3.5b, 9).

What we say, and how we say it, affects our own well-being as well as that of others. A harsh word can wound people for life in some cases, whereas words of encouragement, thanks, or appreciation can make all the difference. I remember noticing once in a school, prominently displayed, the words "Yes, you can!" to inspire confidence. I have also come across numerous people who were told as children that they were "tone-deaf", with the result that they have never sung since.

Authentic words originate in that deep interior silence - beyond and before words - where we are open to the presence of God. One of the aims of Christian contemplative and Eastern spiritual practices alike is that they enable us to experience this silence. Paradoxically, tasting it makes us even more alert to the power of words.

Thus the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, for example, affirms that Right Speech is a key component of spiritual practice. Like Christians, Buddhists are encouraged to see that speaking falsely or abusively or gossiping generally has negative consequences, but being careful in the choice of words promotes harmony.

When words emerge from that unfathomable silence within, they have the power to heal, and are thereby part of the "wholesome medicine of the gospel".

The Revd Dr Christopher Collingwood is Canon Chancellor of York Minster.

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