Stumbling Toward Logos

By Jane Potthast ’23 M.A.R.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

Here we have a charged otherworldly utterance: St. John opens with a steep fall, plunging us into truth’s mystery. He replaces the infancy stories of the previous three Gospels. Where the earlier books narrate Christ’s entrance into humanity, St. John gives us a theological statement of the how and the what: How Jesus traverses the divine and human realms. How Jesus is the incarnate God. Or rather, St. John gives us a poetry of origins. And poetry is essential here, because this passage is about a Word—a Word that transcends all others.

When I simply ask for the grace to turn from my many words to the Word, I notice a new simplicity, infused with love, brings me the peace of the Word incarnate.

We know St. John is giving us a reinterpretation of Genesis 1, that primordial, charged, poetic utterance. Genesis 1:1-3 reads: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” 

A Beautiful Rewrite

In his Gospel, St. John dares to give us a beautiful rewrite, a trinitarian adaptation that fleshes out our understanding of the beginning. From God’s inner life comes forth the Son. When God speaks light into being, He speaks the Son, the Word, the creative force behind all of creation. The Word is God the Father personalized, communicated first through creation, then through the Word made flesh. As the incarnate Word now, the Son is the life and the light of all humankind. The light of the Word is active.

There are many important streams of theology in this passage we could follow, but I want to focus right now on the urgent relationship between the Word and words. As the one Word, through which all things were made, Christ is the beginning and end of language. I believe this is especially important for us to consider as writers, scholars, and students, who are entrenched in language all day. And when we are not reading, writing, or discussing, we are constantly exposed to the fragmented language of social media, the narratives of news and Netflix. What does it mean for us that Christ is not just God incarnate, but also a Word?

Painful Distance

For the longest time, I could not conceive of this Word. Intellectually I understood the implications of the Logos. But it seemed a most abstract thing—what does it mean existentially that Christ is a Word, a Word that encompasses all of reality and yet is reality itself? The distance I felt from this pained me very much. Intellectual knowledge of the Word can never cure the desolation of my undone self. “All it can give me are words and concepts, which perform the middleman’s service of expressing reality to me, but can never still my heart’s craving for the reality of Christ,” says Karl Rahner in Encounters With Silence (1999).

How can this Word restore us spirit, soul, and body, when it either carries emotional baggage or appears to be a distant abstraction? My heart often found this Word emptied out, twisted, sentimentalized, numbing, triggering at times. How does it resolve the abyss of introspection, words collapsing in on themselves, the poisonous, cyclical drip of anxiety and doubt that eventually empties linguistic meaning? Then there are the other wounds—the blows words have wrought in our own souls from relational breakdowns and broken communication. Finally, I think about the constant inundation of language in our frantic daily culture—information running riot in our heads, pursuing, flying, clashing, merging endlessly.

In his Homilies on the Gospel of John, St. Augustine says, “You’ve already been made by this Word, but you must be remade by this Word. And although creation through the Word has happened to you so that you have been made by this Word, you are unmade by yourself.” (I would add, Sin, your own and others, unmakes you; trauma and pain unmake you.) Augustine continues, “But how can he remake you through the Word if you hold a wrong belief about the Word, or cannot conceive of this Word?”

“How Shall I Proceed?”

Modernist writer Samuel Beckett was intensely aware of language’s role in the unmaking of ourselves. His 1953 novel, The Unnamable, opens with the lines: “I say I unbelieving … How shall I proceed, but aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, sooner or later?” The unnamed narrator is trapped in a swirl of words made of meanings which he can neither confirm nor deny. Speaking performs de-creation, unraveling the speaker’s ability to affirm his own existence—“I say I unbelieving” is the mirror opposite of “I am that I am.” This is language cut off from the Word. In Beckett’s novel, a human being has placed himself at the center of reality, tasking himself with finding a word that creates, that contains its own truth. But it can’t be done. The unnamable narrator stutters hopelessly towards something like the Logos, looking for the one Word to set him free from the deepening meaninglessness of his frenzied utterings. But without the divine Logos, all the Unnamable has is the “dust of words with no ground for their settling, no sky for their dispersing.” As Augustine might say, the more the Unnamable narrator tries to generate this Word himself, the more he is undone.

Reading the Gospels has proved, for me, an antidote to the painful excess of words that flow out of introspective isolation or personal wounds. If I take to heart that Christ is the Word, I try to listen to the scriptures in hope of being addressed by this Word. Called out of my restless self-seeking, I am addressed in the Gospels by the same Christ who turns and reaches for the woman who grabbed his cloak, the Christ who heals the crippled on the Sabbath, who feeds a crowd for fear they will grow faint. The miracles demonstrate to me over again a personal God who restores being through being with. The Gospels still my internal tower of babel through Christ’s offer of healing.

No Darkness There

Praying to break out of the rigid confines of my tired self-made meanings, and to dwell with Christ, reorients me towards the peace of the Word. I find myself hoping with Paul, that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen us with power through his Spirit in our inner being, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith—that, being rooted and established in love, all God’s people may have power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16-19)

When we are lost in verbose meanings and multiplicities of our own making and unmaking, we always have the choice to turn our minds and our hearts to Christ, who took the pain of all language with him to the cross. How can we approach this Word at the heart of reality, the heart of all things? Not by our own knowledge, but by the full flower of knowledge, which is love. All words point to one Word, and that Word is the creative force of love incarnate. Only when our many words bloom into words of love merged with truth do they contain the hope of the transformative power of the One Word. This is very hard for me to do, and to believe. But I notice when I simply ask for the grace to turn from my many words to the Word, a new simplicity, infused with love, brings me the peace of the Word incarnate, and there is no darkness there.

Jane Potthast ’23 M.A.R. is a writer and a Yale Institute of Sacred Music student. She has a B.A. and M.A. in comparative literature from University of London, and currently studies religion and literature. This essay was adapted from a sermon she gave in Marquand Chapel at YDS during Advent 2022.