Occasional Cafe

Paradox of the Word

Literature devoted to the medieval paradox is a fount of creativity and wit. This short piece considers two paradoxes of religious orthodoxy that have inspired writers through the ages, from medieval theologians, to seventeenth century Englishmen, to modern poets like Eliot interested in the metaphysical tradition. Both examples show the enjoyment their authors derived from the paradoxical nature of much religious dogma. Both dramatise the Incarnation, the teaching that ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’.

St Thomas Acquinas presents this core doctrine of Christianity as a couplet in the vesper humn Pange Lingua:

‘Verbum caro panem verum
Verbo carnem effict’
[Word became flesh and bread, Word made flesh]

With this conceit we are presented with the self-referential autopoiesis at the heart of Christian teaching: the paradox of the Incarnation of the Word of God. Here we do not speak of God the Father or God the Holy Spirit, but the ‘second person’ God the Word. The Catholic mass still employs the words of God the Word (the reported speech of Christ from St Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians) at the moment of transubstantiation: ‘This is my body. This is my blood.’

Here, then, is another example of the performativity of words; words from the Word. The moment of transubstantiation is a moment of high biblical reflexivity when, as Ong puts it: ‘God the Word became flesh and this same Word, when He wishes to convert bread into His flesh uses words as the instruments for His action.’

Another familiar medieval paradox, associated with the sermons of St Augustine, is the paradox of the Verbum Infans. The Verbum Infans, the child Jesus, was not only the infant word, but also the silent word. Infans a synonym for mutus; the unspeaking word, presenting a ‘strange and startling paradox, but an unmistakable dogmatic fact that the Word of God initiates His personal mission among men in the inarticulate role of a child’. The paradox has been enjoyed by many including Lancelot Andrewes in a sermon: ‘What, Verbum infans, the Word of an infant? The word and not to be able to speak a word.’ And T.S. Eliot in Gerontion:

‘The word within a word unable to speak a word
Swaddled in darkness.’


Ong, W. ‘Wit and Mystery: A Revaluation in Mediaeval Latin Hymnody’, 22(3) Speculum (1947) 310.