The gift we cannot fake
When it comes to giving witness to who God is, and being the instruments of his consolation, care, and love for the world, it is not a matter of cleverness and expertise – but only of trust.
I love to greet Korean people with these three sentences which I learnt many years ago. Usually the first two do not generate much surprise.
- Agnon aseo, which means “Hello”
- and Gamsa hamnida which means Thank you
are words that most people easily learn in many languages – we can all say Ciao, Salut, Hola, Halo - we even know how to say hello in Chinese, Nihao – and thank you, Xièxiè nǐ (siesieni)
But Koreans are delighted when a foreigner says to them Mannaso bankapsimnida which means Lovely to meet you. Few non Koreans bother to learn this expression. Until some 10 years ago I was able to impress them even more by taking anything at hand written in Korean and reading from it… It sounds impressive but it is not – unlike Chinese, the Korean language has a simple alphabet of 24 letters – once you learn these characters you can read Korean, however haltingly – understanding what you are reading of course is another matter…
There is a very simple explanation for my familiarity with Korean. When I was a Benedictine novice, back in 1987, there was a group of Korean monks in theological training at the Archabbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, near Siena, in Tuscany. Everyone else in the community was Italian, so the Korean monks felt a bit marginalized and tended to spend most of their free time together. They struggled to eat Western food, so they were authorised to cook Korean food from time to time. I was very young at the time and had never met anyone from Asia before, so I was fascinated by them and managed to befriend them. They would even invite me to their Korean dinners and this explains why I am totally fine with massive quantities of raw garlic, formidably spicy soups and especially Kimchi, a spicy, slightly sweet, fermented cabbage. Today many people love this kind of food considering the proliferation of Korean restaurants in London in recent years (if you have never tried it, I highly recommend the Kimchee restaurant near King’s Cross) – but 30 years ago in Italy (where people are notoriously supercilious about anything other than Italian food) very few were brave enough to give it a try.
Besides the few words I mentioned earlier, I never learnt to speak Korean. But the linguistic barrier did not prevent me from forming a lasting friendship with these monks, whom I visited in a trip to Korea many years later, and learn how to communicate with them, over meals, long walks, or just spending time with them. They even taught me Buddhist practices of meditation which vastly benefited my personal prayer over the following years.
During those three years of initial formation in Tuscany I also lived with many monks from my own country with whom I shared the same language and culture. In theory, communicating with them should have been easier than with the group of Korean monks. In fact, interactions proved to be much more challenging with most of my fellow countrymen, for a variety of reasons.
For the first time in my life, I experienced that speaking a language and communicating are two different things. People who are gifted with languages are not necessarily good communicators. Establishing healthy and deep connections depends much more on emotional intelligence, empathy, curiosity, ability to overcome our prejudices of simply our habits, and especially our willingness to leave our comfort zone and take time to adjust to different ways of living, behaving, and eating.
This obvious difference between being gifted with languages and being gifted with the ability to connect with people helps us to understand the page from the Acts of the Apostles in which we are told that, as they were filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ disciples “began to speak in other languages” and, a bit later, that people from many different countries “heard them speaking in the native language of each” (xx).
Nowadays receiving the Holy Spirit through the imposition of hands at confirmation or when ordained to the ministry of priest or bishop does not alter anybody’s linguistic skills - is this the sign that somehow we are resisting to the Spirit’s gifts? That we lack faith? That we are less daring in our zeal for the proclamation of the Gospel? Should we want to look for ways to recover this gift?
I have to acknowledge that I am not entirely sure about the part of history and the part of literary device which is at play in this page of the Acts of the Apostles. As in most passages of Scripture, the two -history and symbols- are difficult to disentangle and anyway I doubt that this would be a profitable way of interpreting these texts. It seems to me that whether the disciples did indeed suddenly start speaking in foreign unknown languages or this just is a literary device, the rest of the New Testament is quite clear about one thing: there is only one language that really speaks of God, only one language that overcomes any barriers of culture, nationality, religion, and race, only one language that speaks to anyone of “God’s deeds of power”.
It is the language famously and movingly described by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
It is not an accident if in the New Testament love is described not just as what the Holy Spirit does, as in the case of the Father and the Son, of whom Scripture says that they love us. The Holy Spirit is love itself or, which is the same, love isthe Holy Spirit: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us”, says Paul (Rom 5.5). This too is figuratively suggested in the passage from Acts by the fact that the tongues that descended on the apostles where made of fire – if the apostles’ preaching could be understood by anyone, it was because the “tongue of fire”, that is the “language of love” that Jesus had taught them with his life, teaching, and death, had been bestowed to them by the Holy Spirit.
Here we reach a crucial point, which is explained in the Gospel, when Jesus says of the Holy Spirit that “he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (xxx). As long as we remain generic in our understanding of the love which the Holy Spirit pours in our hearts, we don’t go very far. The only language that speaks of God is a very specific form of love – it is the way Jesus himself dealt with his disciples and with everyone he met in his life on earth – and which Paul describes just after the passage from 1 Corinthians I quoted above:
“Love is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Cor 13.4-7).
Do we want to know the only effective way of giving witness to God? The only way in which our words, actions and life can proclaim the good news, bring God’s consolation and hope to the world? The only way in which people can see God himself through us? The only way in which people from any language, culture, race can “hear us speaking in a language which they can understand”?
Let us think about this for a moment – each one of us: who are the people we are willing to listen to, the people we trust, the people we go to when we need advice, or support?
Certainly not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude people. Certainly not people who are irritable, resentful, judgmental. Unfortunately often this is how people who have expertise, authority, power, and wealth behave – and we do have to deal with these people all the time. I can benefit from the expertise of arrogant people.
However, when it comes to giving witness to who God is, and being the instruments of his consolation, care, and love for the world, it is not a matter of cleverness and expertise – but only of trust.
We only have to recall to our mind the way countless generations of Christian missionaries have brought the good news to all cultures and nations.
They certainly did resort to expertise: they learnt the languages of the people they evangelized, often they were the first to write dictionaries for these languages. In many cultures the first known literary work often is a translation of the bible or, as in the case of Italian, St Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, that is a Christian poem. But missionaries know that all this expertise is useless, that it is “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” unless they first win the trust of the populations they are sent to. And for this, they start by sharing their lives, eat their food, adopt their habits - because this is how we really speak the language of people, connect with them: not primarily by expressing ourselves in their words, but by understanding their sensitivities, perceiving their values, becoming part of their families.
Even this level of sharing, however, only works if it is infused with care, patience, kindness, and humility. Missionaries put themselves at the service of the people to whom they are sent: cure their diseases, teach to their children, take care of the most vulnerable among them – and do so kindly, patiently, humbly. This is how people are won over, and start wondering why this people do this, and listen to them when they are told about the good news – they recognize something unheard of, something that indeed is irresistible, because nobody can resist the language of love.
In this feast of Pentecost, this is the gift we receive, this is the language we are taught, the simplest, the most effective, which we cannot fake, which gives just as much joy to those who speak it than to those who hear it: the language of kindness and patience, the language of genuine care for other people, the language of humility - the language of love.