In this fourth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the twenty-six letters that make up the Latin alphabet as it is used in English – h, five vowels, three semi-vowels, fourteen consonants, and three “redundant” letters (c, q and x) – and sees how these letters are used to represent the three elements of speech which are also the three elements of creation: breath, water, and flesh.
So now we are diving down into the depths of language and discovering that language has a lot to tell us about the meaning of human life and about the world we live in. We are here to count down from the ego, I, to God, O, as we saw in words like LIVE and LOVE, SIN and SON, CHRIST and CROSS. Christ himself, who is God and has no need to count down, came down to earth so that he could show us how to do this. He came down and was incarnate in order to translate for us the meaning of life. He did this by means of parables, writing for the spiritually blind.
But we have also seen that the world is a spiritual womb in which the body of the Church is being formed until the end of time. Just as we have physical and spiritual blindness, so we have a physical and spiritual birth. Sadly, many of us in this life focus solely on the physical side of things, to the detriment of our spiritual growth. We must open not only our physical eyes, but also our spiritual eyes. This is why ‘I’ and ‘eye’ sound the same. Because an open I is O.
God does not let us dive for too long. We must come back to the surface for air. And just as God separated the waters from the waters in order to create the dome of the sky (Gen 1:6-8), so we see that air is extremely important to us. We started this series of articles by talking about the Coronavirus, which has currently got us practising social distancing, something that was foreign to our way of thinking just a few months ago and is now ‘the new normal’. Viruses make it difficult for us to breathe, they precisely attack our air supply, as if we were divers in the water and our air supply was getting low or the connection with the bottle was faulty. We cannot gulp air as we would like to, and we realize how tenuous our connection to life really is.
The ancients spelled ‘air’ like this: ‘aer’. This is how it is written in Latin and Greek, and I find this extraordinarily significant. Imagine yourself on the surface of the sea, this line in creation where so many creatures live, criss-crossing the line in their search for food or to escape predators. A gentle breeze is ruffling the surface of the water, creating an effect like a desert, like pimpled flesh or a crinkled crisp. Our breathing is shallow, barely noticeable, just enough. We are on the line between two frighteningly different elements. And yet for nine months in our mother’s womb the element of water was normal to us and we breathed.
We have already seen how oxygen is present in water, so they cannot be altogether so different. Indeed, if we apply the alphabetical pair r-s, we will see that AER in reverse reads SEA. Just a step in the alphabet, that line we were talking about, a murmur in the ear (oh, EAR is obviously connected as well).
And we may notice that AER is in WATER if we take away the w and the t, thus confirming what we said about oxygen being in water.
AER is also in BREATH, another of the elements of speech/creation, but where does it come from, this element that we breathe? Where does the wind arise? Where is it when we wait in the heat of the day and it seems to have disappeared? Only the other day, I stood in my room and a cold current of air came in through the window, just like the current you sometimes get in Greek seas (off the west coast of Corfu), chilling your feet, providing welcome refreshment.
I can only assume that air, breath, comes from the Father, who breathed into the newly created human being the breath of life. Isn’t he the source of life, the source of all creation? Wasn’t it the Father who separated the waters from the waters in Genesis chapter 1? Hang on a moment, though, at the beginning of that chapter I remember there was a wind that swept over the face of the waters. Can that wind somehow be connected to the Holy Spirit? On the day of Pentecost, didn’t the Holy Spirit descend ‘like the rush of a violent wind’ (Acts 2:2)? Didn’t Christ himself breathe the Holy Spirit on his disciples (Jn 20:22), not because the Spirit proceeds from him, but because they are both part of the Holy Trinity and their lives are intertwined? WIND contains the numbers 0, 1, 2, 3 – a reflection of the Holy Trinity, which can also be found in words like GOD, WOOD and ONE.
But AER is in other words as well, for example FEAR. When fear assails us, we find it difficult to breathe, our breathing becomes rapid, we hyperventilate. What is fear? Well, it can be unfounded when it relates to our predictions for the future. In fact, I would say it generally is unfounded. And yet it can have a profound effect on our behaviour and make us RAGE (alphabetical pair f-g). Another kind of FEAR is SAFE (alphabetical pair r-s), the fear that makes us cling to our Father, what Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol describes as awe, love and reverence in our hearts.
And what is it that pumps the air, the oxygen, around our bodies? The organ called the HEART. AER is there also. If our heart stops, so does our air supply, just like divers in the water (though there is AER in WATER as well). We saw that HEART is connected with EARTH, and I would say that AER is the main characteristic that we associate with the earth – the ability to breathe.
We are beginning to see that AER is a crucial component of language. It is in SEA and WATER, it is in BREATH (which as the letter h is also in water or its chemical formula H2O), it is in FEAR and HEART (see how these two words are connected – isn’t this where we feel fear most keenly, when it strikes dread into our hearts?).
But interestingly enough we cannot only live by breathing. We must also eat: BREAD. When we are babies, we are reliant on our mother’s milk, which fills our bellies and provides us with protection: BREAST. BREATH-BREAD-BREAST. All three words contain AER and are sources of nourishment. How curious that they should be so similar!
BREAD is connected to WATER by the phonetic pair d-t and the ‘eighth’ phonetic pair, b-v-w, which we talked about at the end of the previous article.
And ‘breath’, if we apply the physical pair b-d, gives ‘thread’. Breath is like a thread, the thread that the Fates are waiting to snip. It is air – isn’t it? – that provides the continuum to our lives. We are alive inasmuch as we are breathing. This is why we can see that ‘breath’ is connected to ‘birth’ if I use the front vowels (a-e-i), but also to ‘death’ if I use the physical pair b-d and remove the r.
Breath is the thread that links birth and death. All this information is contained in language.
I open my mouth. Breath emerges from my mouth. God knows where it has come from. If I add voice, I can speak. I can imitate the Father in the act of creation (CREATE also contains AER). After all, I am made in his image and likeness (Gen 1:26).
There is the Father again, the source of all things, who begat the Son, who gives rise to the Spirit, who created us human beings and all that we can see (and cannot see).
He emerges from the shadows ‘at the time of the evening breeze’. There is AER in him as well. AER is in FATHER, just as BREATH is, EARTH and HEART, FEAR (FAITH) and WATER.
Air carries water; air is in water. We associate air with the letter h, but also with oxygen (O2). Perhaps that dividing line is thinner than we thought. Certainly creatures like gannets and flying fish think so.
Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com