Words That Won't Let Go
Who knows why we like the words and phrases we do? My fifth-grade daughter recently copped to a special fondness for “adhesive,” while my high school–age son has been spitting out “debacle” with contemptuous abandon. For a very long time I’ve been drawn to the compound “near occasion.” Maybe a linguist or brain specialist could offer a scientific explanation for the general phenomenon, but in my specific case I trace it to a youthful encounter in face-to-face confession.
The pastor was a big, gruff man who had his own way with the language. The assistants and curates might mewl, wheeze, or drone their way through homilies, but he talked, elbow propped on the lectern as he made eye contact with his parishioners, his words—some elegant, some coarse, all of them powerfully apt—hitting their targets. My parents once invited him to dinner, and he kept me and my brothers rapt with vivid stories of his missionary years in Brazil, of the UFOs he claimed to have seen and the “vicious green” hallucinogenic potions the villagers drank from plastic gallon bottles. He commanded awe, but it was awe’s close cousin fear I felt more acutely one Lenten afternoon in the sacristy, when he invited me to sit in a chair facing his and confess my sins.
I dutifully commenced the familiar recitation, increasingly aware of what seemed like his wandering attention; his gaze appeared to drift to something over my left shoulder. When I’d finished, he asked distractedly if I knew the Act of Contrition. I didn’t, I admitted (I was probably nine or ten at the time). “Why?” I asked, drymouthed, certain I was in trouble. “Should I?” He took a deep breath and intoned, as if to lead me: “Oh my God.” “Oh my God,” I repeated.
Then…nothing. Half a minute passed in silence, after which, and without explanation, I received the familiar instructions for my penance, followed by a parting blessing. Of course, I felt nothing but guilt—as if I’d let him down by not knowing the prayer. So I made sure to learn it. And in time, for whatever reason, its closing infinitive with that nested pairing came to be what resonated most: “…to avoid the near occasion of sin.”
Leave aside the theological meanings that can be teased from that collection of words; it was the combination of sound and image that made their mark on me. Many artists and writers, not necessarily religious, speak of the influence of religious language on their work. In a recent NPR interview, Bruce Springsteen attributed his ability to conjure imagery and emotion partly to his “[indoctrination] in religious language...every single morning for the first eight years of my schooling…. It was, of course, distorted, and screwed me up terribly, but at the same time, it made for good writing. And it was a wonderful source of metaphor when you went to write about the world and about your inner life.”
I didn’t go to Catholic school, but all those Masses and prayers and Saturday evenings in the confessional must have done their number on me in terms of how I hear and read and use the language (even if I can’t say they screwed me up). The words and phrases of the liturgy and of prayer still seem to influence the rhythm and arrangement of the words I speak and write. “Fountain of all holiness.” “Fruit of thy womb.” “As we wait in joyful hope.” “Go now and sin no more.” Decades later I’m still attuned to their echoes, whether encountered in the common language of the everyday or in the songs I hear or the books I read. Happening on the words “they will regret not what they have done, will only regret what they failed to do” in a short story by George Saunders, I thought: Yes, it’s just where the protagonist would summon a version of a line from the Confiteor, precisely because it’s unconscious and out of context.
Flannery O’Connor, famously receptive to the mysterious visitations of language and image, provides an especially evocative pairing in the opening pages of her prayer journal: “I do not know you, God, because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.” Metaphor isn’t just an ornament for prayer; rather, metaphor births prayer. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Yet in terms of plain appeal, “near occasion” retains pride of place. I’ve been thinking it would make a good novel or short story title, or even work as the name of a band. Or perhaps the title of a brief essay on the last page of a magazine.
About the Author
Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.