One of my respected professors in graduate school taught a course called general semantics. Although the title may sound frivolous, the topics he covered were actually quite profound. This discipline delves into the study of linguistics to discover the meaning we associate with the words we use. Our choice of words should never be an arbitrary decision. The British doggerel that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” can steel a child against the verbal taunts of a playground bully but we all know this rhyme is a lie. Words can hurt. And some words can hurt permanently.
In “general semantics” there is a fundamental distinction between the literal meaning and the figurative meaning of what we communicate. “The leaves are falling so it must be autumn.” Based upon their face value, we can take these words literally and understand what they mean. “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” is actually no threat to the stallions in a nearby stable. This is just a figurative expression that some people use to convey their ferocious appetite.
However, there were no figurative semantics in the public prayers offered by three Catholics at our recent Republican and Democratic conventions. Cardinal Dolan, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, gave thanks for the freedom of religion Americans enjoy and prayed that the many people who are suffering today may courageously witness that it is truly in God we trust. Sister Simone Campbell invoked the Holy Spirit to pour down upon us the graces of healing, truth, and shared responsibility so that an orderly creation can emerge from whatever chaos may surround us. And Father James Martin asked God to help us become a stronger nation where every person is loved because all life is sacred.
The New Evangelization of the Catholic Church acknowledges that our current culture has drifted away from the practice of religion in favor of exalting science over faith, preferring pride over humility, and amassing self-satisfying possessions over generously sharing our abundant talents with others in need. But we can rediscover the way and the truth and the life back to the initial patriotism and Christian principles that this country was founded upon if we inculcate the values expressed in these convention prayers. We can envision people living in 50 separate states genuinely united into one nation under God. We can share the responsibility for demanding the healing balm of truth in leadership, legislation and justice. We can exchange the exclusivity that some lives are important for the inclusivity that all life is sacred.
Holy Homework: From now until the closing of the election polls in November let’s attach three dollar bills with the words “In God We Trust” underlined to the fridge, the mirror and the computer so we can be reminded to unite our daily prayers with these three convention prayers for God’s blessings on America.
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