Another high school shooting, another response with the perfunctory, “You are in our thoughts and prayers.” This bromide is now catching a lot of flak, especially when coming from politicians who obviously prefer a glib, meaningless bromide rather than any commitment to addressing a politically-divisive issue. With still another round of, “thoughts and prayers,” we have the commitment of these politicians to renew their commitment to further displays of, “not gonna do a damn thing.” And many spiritual persons, steeped in “performance art” religion, will also offer this platitude and not dare to question their legislators and local authorities.
Spiritual bromides are common…and even have value. Offering our “thoughts and prayers” to those who have experienced misfortune or tragedy. And these words can convey the heart’s deepest sentiment and any such expression carries value. But spiritual bromides can become so common place that they are merely the aforementioned, “performance art” designed to convey to others the appearance that, “we feel your pain.” Since politicians, and spiritual leaders who have long-since lost their soul, will have to face this situation again, I suggest they have a new button on their computer, “TAP,” which they can automatically press in a moment like this and send out the automated message in which “thoughts and prayers” are wished. Even better, they can call one of their staff persons and get them to push the button, allowing them to continue with interruption their daily routine of “spiritual activity” designed only to make them feel better about themselves.
Religion is so susceptible to being reduced to bromides like this, described by poet Conrad Aiken as, “well-worn words and ready phrases which build comfortable walls against the wilderness.” Words are easy, and regardless of how noble they might be, they can be simply the noise of “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals,” if they have no gut-level meaning in the person using them. This style of meaningless language is captured by an Irish poet, W. R. Rodgers, in this excerpt from his poem, “Word.”
Once words were unthinking things, signaling
Artlessly the heart’s secret screech or roar,
And once they were the gangways for anger,
Overriding the minds qualms and quagmires.
Wires that through weary miles of slow surmise
Carried the feverish message of fact
In their effortless core. Once they were these,
But now they are the life-like skins and screens
Stretched skillfully on frames and formulae,
To terrify or tame, cynical shows
Meant only to deter or draw men on,
The tricks and tags of every demagogue,
Mere scarecrow proverbs, rhetorical decoys,
Face-savers, salves, facades, the shields and shells
Of shored decay behind which cave minds sleep
And sprawl like gangsters behind bodyguards.
Its foremost ardour or its farthest wish,
Its actual ache or naked rancour.