Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Not too long ago I found out that eunoia is the shortest word in English that contains all the vowels—unless you want to count iouea which is a genus of creataceous fossil sponges, which is the shortest four-syllable word in English. However, I don’t count it; it’s too obscure and eclectic. Of course, eunoia is neither.

When I found out that eunoia means “beautiful thinking”, my devotion to the word was sealed. I suppose it could be translated “good thinking”, for its component Greek words are eu (good) and noia (thinking).

The first word is found in eucharist—thanksgiving, another name for the Mass; it literally means “good gift”, eu charism. It’s also found in the word Tolkien coined: eucatastrophe—some awful thing that happens that turns out to have been a necessary occurrence for a tremendous blessing. If eu goes beyond “good” to meaning “beautiful”, though, what new meaning is put into these other familiar words: “beautiful gift” and “beautiful catastrophe”.

Noia, according to the very smart Micah Snell, is the participial form of the Greek verb noeo, which means to perceive, to think, to suppose, etc. It is a very deep verb obviously related to nous—which is equivalent to “mind”.

Micah points out that metanoia is thus an “after-thought”, whence it readily becomes “repentance”; and paranoia is “beyond thought”, or derangement/madness.

Good thinking can mean thinking logically or maybe even being able to add inspiration or creativity to logic, thereby coming to a result that not only makes sense but is pleasing. Beautiful thinking, though, says that and more. It recognizes that “beauty” is a quality or virtue in things themselves—that the concept of “beauty” is not merely a subjective evaluation, i.e. a matter of opinion, but is a reality inherent in the order of things. The difference is of incalculable significance.

To think “beautifully”, then, is to be able to use one’s mind in harmony with the order of things. It’s a great Buddhist or Taoist concept, but best of all it’s a striking Christian concept. It means laying aside the “sin which clings to closely” (Hebrews 12:1), which is “crouching at the door” (Genesis 4:7), whose desire against us must be ruled over. The mind is the first spiritual battleground, for whatever evil we commit must begin by being thought about and then consented to.

We regularly confess that we have sinned against God and our neighbor in “thought, word, and deed” (Book of Common Prayer, pages 331, 360); I hope that most serious Christians are able to identify sins of “word” and “deed” pretty effectively, but sins of “thought” may be more difficult to identify, for they occur only within our own minds; no one hears them and no one is affected by them—at least not directly or observably. Sins of thought include inner pride, lustful fantasies, contempt of others, dreams of wealth and luxury, “what I would do if I ruled the world”, whining and self-pity, daydreams of manipulating people to suit our wishes and pleasures, entertaining vortices of thoughts of self-righteousness and holding grudges against people, refusing to forgive others or ask forgiveness from them, attributing attitudes and motives to others that permit us to hold them in contempt, and the like. These things are all muddy thinking that lead to perverse and wicked thinking and mental acts of the rebellious will—decidedly unlovely and unattractive. Ugly.

Eunoia, then, beautiful thinking, is where virtue begins, for eunoia cannot abide ugly thinking. Beautiful thinking is what results in genuine love and strength. Paul commended eunoia when he wrote, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). This does not mean, “daydream about these things,” but rather, “put these things into your mind as the basis of your life,” for when whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise is at home in one’s mind, there cannot be much room for anything that is false, underhanded or manipulative, prejudicial or partisan, debased, ugly, perverted, exploitative, rapacious, or shameful.

Eunoia is the shortest word in English that contains all the vowels. Vowels are sounds that are neither truncated nor hard. Vowel sounds can last as long as there is breath to make them. Select the “voice” option in a synthesizer and you get the vowel sounds of ooh and aah to express wonder and joy and excitement. “Eunoia” has all the vowels wrapped up closely. I’m committed to it.

1 comment:

Linds said...

Excellent and beautiful thoughts, Fr. David! Thank you so much for musing publicly for us. :)