Thursday, May 8, 2014

Babel: Punishment then and now

It was 2010.  My last living grandparent was having her birthday.  I was blessed to be with her in Singapore, my birthplace and a country I had not visited for 20 years, to celebrate it.  My uncles and aunts were all present and they laughed quietly as I observed my grandmother.  My brow was deeply furrowed and I had summoned all of my concentration to try to even understand one word of the language I was passingly acquainted with in my youth: Mandarin Chinese.

Since I had left Singapore I had learned words and phrases in Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, and Spanish.  But all I could do in Chinese was count to ten, say hello, goodbye, thank you, and that I was doing well.  All in an impossibly heavy "ang-mo" (read: gringo) American accent.  Chinese, like Basque and Czech, was and is impenetrable to me.  This was a punishment - thought the Asian kid - for not having made a more concerted effort to study the language of at least part of my ancestry.

In the past 4 weeks I've been in countries that spoke English, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Romanian.  As I write this I am in Poland.  I've moved from the joys and comforts of my native tongue, to the playful travails of Spanish and French, to the lost-on-me musicality of Dutch, to the wonderfully Italianate sounds of Romanian, to the yet-still-different accents and feel of Polish.  While part of me wanted to blame myself for the lack of study, I've also realized that these language barriers are a legacy of Babel, in the tradition of ongoing Original Sin.

If you don't remember the story of Babel, a unified race of people who spoke the same language contrived, after the Flood, to build a tower to keep them together and to, in a way, grasp at divinity.  They were simply repeating the story of Eden, but this time they were building their own tree.

Our Lord scattered them and we have the languages we have today.  We sought the knowledge of good and evil, and as our punishment we lost the ability to communicate on even a basic level with our fellow man.  But even in our sinfulness Our Lord allowed a remedy: the unifying language of the Church.  Wherever I have been in the world I've often had the opportunity to attend the True Mass; I've often knelt next to people with whom I could not even exchange basic phrases of every day life.  Yet at Mass we were completely united in every gesture, pause, genuflection, whisper, and word.

In this way, Mass is a preview of the eternal discourse that Heaven offers.  There, not only will each, as at Pentecost, understand each in his own tongue, but the dumb too shall have their voice, denied to them here below.

This is not an excuse for giving up your language studies (and it was amusing to hear the madrileño corrections to my muy norteamericano-accented Spanish last week) but rather it is an additional reflection on the theme of seeing things through a glass, darkly.  It shall be our lot until we have gained salvation.  And that end is worth praying for, in every language.