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Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Language of God

Portuguese is my first language.

As an infant, when I cried or was fussy, I heard my mother's voice coo, "Shhh. Shhh. Que e errado, querida?" ("What's wrong, sweetheart?").

As I fell asleep, I heard my mother or grandmother or one of my aunts singing a soft lullaby, "Nana, nene, na casa da avo, avo nao tem cochao, o nene dorme no chao" ("Sleep, baby, at grandmother's house, grandmother doesn’t have a mattress, the baby sleeps on the ground").

That's probably not completely correct - a mixture of Lisboan and Azorean Portuguese - but it's the way I remember it - what I used to sing to my own babies.

Mi avo used to say, "Learn to speak Portuguese, or else, when you get to heaven, you won't be able to understand what the angels are saying."

It is a very beautiful language.

When I went to school, I quickly discovered that not everyone held the language of the Portuguese in such high estate.

As the newest immigrant population to move into Fall River, MA, the educational system was not prepared to deal with a great influx of children who did not speak English - or, in my case, didn't speak it well. So, I spent the first quarter of the first year of my academic career in a class with "special needs" children.

Well, that's not what that class was called. We didn't yet have a language for "learning disabilities". The class was called, simply, "Retarded Learners". On the playground, we were known as "The Retards."

At the time, I wasn't exactly sure what that meant, but I knew it wasn't good. Something of which to be deeply ashamed. My parents were absolutely mortified. And, angry. My mother declared that we were never to speak Portuguese again in the household. And, we never did.

Mrs. Kelliher, my first-grade teacher, knew I was neither a "retarded learner" nor had "learning disabilities", so she sat with my "special needs" and taught me to speak English. By the second quarter I was mainstreamed into the regular classroom, but by then, the damage had been done to my self-esteem.

I can read Portuguese fairly well and understand most of it when it's spoken to me (I'm a little fuzzier with Brazilian or Lisboan Portuguese), but I have a HUGE block when it comes to speaking it myself. That block has a name on it. It's called: SHAME.

I suppose that's one of the reasons that, while I love language - the sound of it, the intelligence of it, the limits of it, the varieties of it, the way it can play with itself - I don't completely trust language.

I'm especially fascinated by what language reveals about the culture and life circumstances of an individual or a community.

Have you ever noticed that many women from Texas or Mississippi or Alabama are much more apt to hold onto their Southern accents, while men from those same places are more apt to either drop their accent completely or soften it to a sometimes barely discernible lilt?

I suspect there's a powerful message in there about communication and power and status and gender in the workplace, and who is 'taken seriously' - or how language can be used seductively to someone's advantage (or, in some cases, disadvantage).

I remember when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, came to General Convention to "speak to us" about a moratorium on ordaining LGBT people to the episcopacy. I groaned. Something happens in the gray matter of the brains of Episcopalians - especially men in purple shirts - when a man in a purple shirt begins to talk to us in muted, grave tones with a heavy British accent.

The rapid 'rat-a-tat-tat' of the language of rap or 'poetry slams' is a reflective mirror on the frenetic pace and often violent reality of the urban landscape. The language is often raw, peppered with vulgarities or obscenities, leaving little doubt in the mind of anyone who is paying attention about where that person is 'coming from', so to speak.

I have a very dear friend - an African American man (Happens also to be heterosexual. He can't help it. He was born that way.) who is very close to my heart - with whom I sometimes get into trouble over language. His hermeneutic of suspicion is often - necessarily - in overdrive. Sometimes, when I gently tease him about something, I can see his hackles go up and he is on alert for "the language of oppression." Sometimes, when he gently teases me about something, I have a similar reaction.

The language of our gender differences is compounded by our experiences of the power inequalities of race and ethnicity. We often communicate things to each other we don't intend. Offensive things. It can be challenging. And, exhausting.

In an odd way, it's part of the cement of our relationship. What keeps us together in a commitment to be friends in spite - or, in fact, because - of our differences of race and gender and sexual orientation. Because we have so much to teach - and learn from - each other.

Every profession seems to have its own lexicon - a language that separates and identifies itself as unique. Some of it is intentionally 'code' - like the hand signals between the catcher and the pitcher in baseball.

Nouns become verbs and verbs become nouns. Particular situations - "out in left field" - become a descriptive phrase for another situation.

One of the hallmarks of the language of the medical profession is emotional distance. "We have exhausted all treatment plans," means, "There is nothing left we can do. Your loved one is going to die." But, a doctor will rarely say that - out loud - unless s/he is very tired and frustrated and sad.

That's not only for the benefit of the patient's family, but for him or herself as well. Doctors HATE to give up. Which is not a Bad Thing. I personally want a doctor who will 'exhaust all treatment plans' before s/he decides 'there's nothing left we can do'. And, a certain amount of emotional distance is often critically important in order to make keen analysis and difficult, sometimes pressured judgments and time-sensitive decisions. It's interesting to me how that gets reflected in the language of the profession.

When I worked for a time in the neo-natal intensive care unit, some doctors had taken to writing in some babies' charts 'FLK'. It was a code to everyone in the NICU to pay close attention to this one, and perhaps consider doing some chromosomal or endocrine studies in the future.

'FLK' stood for 'Funny Looking Kid'.

Say the word "Hospice" and what you hear is "Death". That isn't always necessarily true, but it's become a shorthand, of sorts, for communicating the gravity of a situation which is - ready for it? - "terminal".

In the movies - well, up until a decade or so ago - when a baby is going to be born, someone will ask someone to boil some water. When someone was about to die, someone would send for the priest. Either way, you knew what was being communicated without ever saying the words "birth" or "death".

Religious language is much the same. I'm willing to bet that The Anglican Communion wins the dubious distinction of having the largest lexicon in all of Western Christendom.

Who else has a sexton to clean the narthex and the undercroft? Or sings the Te Deum or Magnificat or celebrates Whitsunday/tide, Rogation Sunday, Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima, Michaelmas, Ascensiontide, Season of Trinity, or Rose/Gaudette Sunday? Or fusses to make sure there's a proper pyx, ciborium, corporal, burse, and veil in the sacristy and an aumbrey in the sanctuary - preferably above the credence table and not, say, in the middle of the crossing which would interfere with the crucifer and acolytes during the procession of The Great Litany?

Indeed, who else in the Anglican Communion but The Episcopal Church USA has a UTO Sunday, or an Every Member Canvass, knows about Venture in Mission, the Decade of Evangelism, or the 1928 Prayer Book Society?  Or, cares?

It serves to set us apart, doesn't it? Says something about our class status and education and how we value intelligence. All without saying those words.

There's a line in the book (and movie) "A River Runs Through It" - the story of a Presbyterian minister and his wife and two sons, set in the Big Sky Country of Montana. The line, I think is spoken by 'Older Norma', the narrator. It goes something like, "They were Methodists, a denomination my father referred to as Baptists who could read."

It's probably my snooty Episcopalian sensibilities that have to work very hard to stifle a chuckle when I hear "Christianese" being spoken. I'm not very fluent in Christianese and probably, if you're reading this, neither are you, but you and I recognize it immediately and understand every word that's spoken.

There's a very funny clip on YouTube about Christinese which you can watch here. Let me give you a few examples:

"It's a real blessing to be with you today."

"The Lord put it on my heart to talk to you."

"It grieves my heart."

"My spirit is deeply troubled."

"I struggle with that."

"I stepped out in faith."

"Uh, huh" and "Mm, mm, mm."

When I'm not being sinfully classist about this, I must admit that what's really being communicated here is, well, something that 'troubles my spirit' and 'grieves my heart'.

I sense - and I confess that this probably says more about me and my hermeneutic of suspicion than anything else - an underlying religious tyranny. That comes more from the insistence on conformity of language than the language itself. The YouTube makes a little joke of that. I don't find it very funny.

The latest example of that is a blog my friend Ann sent me about the death and last written words of Elizabeth Edwards. You can find it here at the blog "American Power", where blogger Donald Douglas critiques and criticizes Edwards' Facebook post in which she writes, "You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces—my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope."

Douglas laments - indeed, it's the title of his blog - "Elizabeth Edwards' Parting Statement Omits Mention of Faith in God".

Oh, but wait. There's more. There always is with these wing-nuts.
Clearly Elizabeth Edwards wants to put her faith in something, be it hope or strength or anything. But not God. I wonder if it's just bitterness, that's she's been forsaken by more than just her estranged husband --- that's she's been forsaken by Him. And imagine if she'd have become First Lady. Americans generally expect outward expressions of faith in our presidents, Christian faith especially, and thus in our First Ladies as well. The Democratic base obviously doesn't care, as we can see in the "wow factor" expressed by the author at the American Prospect. Being anti-religion is cool, so Edwards' non-theological theology gets props from the neo-communists. Still, at her death bed and giving what most folks are calling a final goodbye, Elizabeth Edwards couldn't find it somewhere down deep to ask for His blessings as she prepares for the hereafter? I guess that nihilism I've been discussing reaches up higher into the hard-left precincts than I thought.
Can you believe this?

Here's a telling question from Douglas, "Haven't the campaign communications consultants schooled her in how to talk the God-talk?"

". . .how to talk the God-talk". Clearly, this man's understanding of the language about God is limited by his strict adherence to "God-talk".

How ever does he get through the psalms?

Indeed, how does a man who criticizes - in the name of political expediency - the words of a woman who is dying from metastatic breast cancer, put his head down on the pillow at night and wake up in the morning to look at himself in the mirror?

The "God-talk" we use, the language we employ about God, pales in comparison to the language of God.

God speaks to people in a variety of ways. God spoke to Elizabeth Edwards and comforted her with words like "resilience' and 'hope' that revealed the presence of God's spirit. Edwards then used those very same words to try to bring comfort to her already grieving family and friends.

I believe that God speaks to us in vibrant colors of blue and green, and muted tones of azure and moss. God also speaks in the cry of the gulls and the soaring of the eagle, the quack of a duck and the peep-peep of a baby chick.

God's words can be heard in the soft rustle of the summer wind on the marsh grass, and the hard 'clack-clack' of a barren, frozen branch on an icy bedroom window.

God speaks to me, personally, in magnificent sunsets and sunrises, the way the tides come in and go out, and the way the stars twinkle in the night sky.  I've always heard the children's song "Twinkle, Twinkle" as a prayer in response to the language of God in the twinkling sparkle of a star.

God speaks powerfully to me in music and poetry and the arts, in the imagination and intelligence of the human mind as well as the intimate body language of making love.

God may speak even more powerfully to others in the language of mathematics or chemistry or biology or psychology or physics.

I don't know, when I do get to heaven, if my grandmother will be right and the angels will speak to me in Portuguese. I suspect that the angels will speak to us in whatever language we consider beautiful.

My fantasy is that when one of our 'fundegelical' brethern or sistern appears before God and says, in his or her best Christanese, "Father God, I juss wanna say . . .", She's gonna slap her more than ample thigh, tilt back her double-chinned face, open her full mouth and roar with laughter.

And, when I get to heaven and stand before God and ask, in proper clipped English, "Is this the narthex?" And "When do we celebrate Quinquagesima?" She's going to do exactly the same thing.

And then all of us, my fundegelical brothers and sisters and I, will be escorted by the angels to the Great Banquet Table, where we'll feast for days on great mounds of mashed potatoes and pasta - oh, and a whole table piled high with those amazing, spicy Jamaican meat pies - and drink great vats of wine and eat veritable boat loads of chocolate and never gain an ounce or be troubled by one millisecond of heartburn or have a care or concern about cholesterol or fat or carbohydrates.

And, the only prayer of satisfaction and gratitude and thanksgiving we'll make is the sound I believe is at the center of the universe: "Om".

And then, we'll be scooped up in the arms of the angels, who will sing us a soft lullaby.  In the end - as it was in the beginning - we'll all be like wee babies, sleeping on the soft cloud ground in our Grandmother's house.

I don't know this to be true, but I believe it is.

If we're honest, isn't that the underlying message of all of words and symbols and metaphors - no matter what language you speak?


Mary-Cauliflower said...

Que Deus esteja com tigo, minha amiga!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Muitos agradecimentos

Kirkepiscatoid said...

This reminds me of a conversation I had with my Spiritual Director a couple of weeks ago. We've been batting this one around for months and I still do not have a clear answer. We go back to it every couple months or so.

I had said, "You know, sometimes I wish I knew what God's 'pet name' was for me. Like how many people call me Doc, or some call me Ree, and my mentor Mitch always called me by my last name in that clubby Ivy League way, because he's a Harvard man. I wish I knew what my name was when God was just calling me and wanting me to be his pal."

I have still never figured out that "pet name."

But I think that's what all this language of God is about. We simply want to speak in a way God will call us by our pet name.