Shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama: Language is Magic

This is part of an ongoing series on my month shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama, poet, theologian, and leader of The Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland. To read the introduction to the series, click here. To read the rest of the series, click here


I love that the Bible opens with a story. And even more so, I love that the story is of how everything began with language. God speaks words, and then things are. In the story, it was like magic.

The very first thing I wrote down in my notebook while shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama in and around Belfast was: “Grammar comes from glamour, which was a Scottish word for ‘magic.’” Pádraig spoke frequently of the power of language. The late rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Words create worlds.” Words also destroy worlds. Whoever coined that old phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” was a liar.

Much of my time with Pádraig had to do with poetry. For Pádraig, poetry is a way of life. It is the “art of the brave.” When used well, poetry is “like a scalpel,” Pádraig would say; it let us cut straight through and say the precise words we’ve always needed to say but didn’t know how.

Listening to Pádraig’s poetry—and curating and gathering stories at home in Nashville and in deeply divided societies around the world—I’ve seen the magic of words. When an author begins to write a book, at first there is nothing on the page. Then, there’s an entire world. Our language can create universes, produce illusion, unravel and craft mystery, excite, entertain, condemn, alienate, welcome, make us believe and doubt everything we’ve known, and more.

It can be easy for some of us—especially if you have most of the marks of privilege like I do—to feel our words are constantly policed and judged. Donald Trump knew this when he campaigned, and he capitalized on the disillusionment with “politically correct” speech. I wonder, though, if we might open ourselves to the possibility that those who “police” language are not doing so to be controlling, judgmental, or oppressive. Rather, they challenge words because they know the weight of words. They know that sometimes the words we say with or without thinking may cause someone to go home and bleed. To paraphrase a line in Pádraig’s book In the Shelter, our unconsidered intentions may have the considerable impact of terror.

We must take care with the magic of language. What kind of magic will we create? Will we try to make people’s dignity, individualism, safety, and welcome disappear? Or will we try to make a better world begin to appear right before our eyes?

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