When I look back on my life, I can tell God has a sense of humor. I am not a person who can learn to speak another language easily. I can read in a few languages, but if you ask me to speak, I will just remind you how bad my English is. During my life God sent me to many different countries. When you’re sent to a non-English speaking country you either learn to laugh at yourself or you become a hermit. I am too much of an extrovert to be a good hermit. Yet, I am a Carmelite, a Religious Order started by hermits; however, being an extrovert in a foreign country has taught me one thing- the need to listen.
Learning a language is like a dance between words and silence. Sufficiency within a language can arise through merely memorizing words. By sufficiency, I mean a person understands the mere mechanics or utility of the language. For instance, he will not starve, since he can use the new language obtain food. Proficiency, though, comes from mastering the dance of the language. Languages, like dances, are intimate things that open the hearts of the people involved with them through generous hearts that are nourished by joy.
When two people dance they must give themselves over to each other; so they can move as one. In speaking a language, the rhythm of that language needs to be learned. By learning the rhythm, a person can know how to move with the people of that language. The rhythm comes about from the movement of words and silences. A person can only learn the rhythm by listening to another. Thus, they must be generous with their time. The gift of time, which is finite within each person’s life, opens the heart of the other to share the rhythm of their language.
When I lived in The Gambia, West Africa while I was in the Peace Corps, I was given several weeks in a remote village for formation. My time in that village was for learning the language and culture, generally speaking, of the Gambians. During my time there I was given classes that taught me the words and the general syntax of the Wolof language, but it was not until I was invited to sit at the local banta bar that I began to learn the Wolof rhythm. The banta bar was a raised platform under a tree that local men sat on during the hotter parts of the day. To say this was a place of ruckus would be an understatement.
It was at this place that these local men shared their lives with each other. They would talk about the crops, animals, families, general life philosophies, etc. A person could sit there, but that did not make them part of the group. An invitation from an elder allowed one to not only sit with them but to also be included within the group. During my short time in the village, I received such an invitation. One of the men told me that he saw how hard I was trying to learn his language. He also continued to tell me I could never learn it in a classroom. To learn his language, I had to listen to these men. After a few days of being with these men my ears began to hear how each man would move in and out of the conversation to make points. I also heard the initial beats that were used to bring up sad, happy, or angry news. Then, one hot day before the men of the banta bar there were a few young boys trying to quickly water the animals; so they could go play. Unfortunately, in their haste the kids only created more work for themselves. During their struggles one of the men yelled out “ndank ndank mooy jaap golo ci ñaay bi” (Slowly, Slowly, catches the monkey in the bush). I was the first to laugh. I knew this proverbial Wolof Wisdom from a sheet of proverbs I was given, but now I understood it. I laughed, because I could see the man’s desire to joke but to also help the kids. The men all looked at me and smiled. One of them told me that I could now dance with them and reminded me “ñit ni lay garabam” (people are medicine for others). In that moment, their joy and my joy became our joy; then, from our joy we were able to rejoice together.
This dance of language must also be learned within our relationship with God, as persons and as a group. Within the book of Nehemiah, we read “… for today is holy to our LORD. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the LORD is your strength!” (Neh. 8:10b). The law was given back to the people through the reading of it over them by Nehemiah; however, a sadness gripped the hearts of the people. They received the words of the law but not the silence that was necessary to begin to participate in the sweet dance of God. It is only later in the celebration (Neh. 8:12) that an understanding begins to unfold within the people. Remember, silence is not a measly absence of sound but is more about a disposition of the heart that is willing to breathe in the air of the other.
What does this mean for us Christians? St. Paul tells us “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit …” (Rom. 14:17). The Holy Spirit, the breath of God, is the air that makes our ability to communicate with God possible and meaningful (Ez. 37: 4-14, Job 33:4). Within the Catholic life that is why the season of Advent is important. As Catholics, we are preparing for the second coming of Christ during our lives. Advent is a time when that is brought before us by remembering the first coming of Christ. In this season of remembering, we can begin to listen to the movements of the Spirit within the lives of those that trusted in the God of Israel. By listening to them, we are being taught by the Spirit how to rediscover the rhythm that is necessary to speak, receive, and understand the language of God. A rhythm that our hearts were created by from the moment each person was brought into existence. As we prepare our mangers for the Lord, may our hearts remember that the Divine language finds not its culmination in the sorrow of a Cross, but in the rejoicing of an empty tomb.
We do not have to talk very much in order to pray well. We know that God is there in his Holy Tabernacle; let us open our hearts to him; let us rejoice in His Presence: This is the best prayer. ~ St. John Vianney