Speaking a Different Language
I studied five years of Latin in high school and four years of German.
I can still decline the word for ‘farmer:’ acricola, agricolae, agricolam. And I can recall enough German to appreciate Indiana Jones on a deeper level.
I studied Greek and Hebrew in seminary, and I still know them well enough to venture into the Old and New Testaments like a treasure hunter armed with a few well-chosen tools.
But when it comes to speaking, when it comes to listening, I’ve never been very good at languages.
I’ve always heard how languages come easier for babies than they do for adults- their minds are like sponges, so goes the cliche. But, really, I think the difference is that no one hands out little treats when an adult finally gets the right word for ‘potty’ or ‘hungry.’
Despite my relative ambivalence about languages, on my second day of my first semester of college I decided to enroll in French class. My roommate and I were sitting in a boring Intro to English Literature course, listening to a beer-bellied, gray-haired professor recite Beowulf in Old English.
And across the hall, in the classroom opposite ours, we both noticed a twenty-something, red-haired woman standing in front of a chalk board wearing a tight leather skirt, teaching French.
We changed our schedules that afternoon.
The French teacher’s name was Isabelle, but, because of the siren-like spell she cast over my friend and I, to this day my wife refers to her as ‘Jezebel.’
My interest in French more or less began and ended with Isabelle but, once I’d enrolled, the college required me to stick it out for three additional semesters.
The good thing about French is that you can get by by approximating an accented mumble. My own accent slash mumble was a hybrid of Charles Aznavour and Detective Briscoe from Casablanca.
I passed the written exams by rote memorization, and I survived the listening comprehension tests by correctly assuming that most French conversations were about Miles Davis or American Imperialism.
After four semesters, I ended up with an A average but the memory of Isabelle lingered longer.
Today I can recall a few French words, but when it comes to understanding, it’s all confusion for me.
And the Lord said, ‘Look, the people all have one language; this is only the beginning of what they will do.
I traveled to France a while ago to spend a week at Taize, an ecumenical monastery in the Burgundy countryside. Taize is a destination for thousands of Christian pilgrims from places scattered all over the globe.
And ‘pilgrimage’ seems an appropriate descriptor when you consider how long and trying and confusing the journey there can prove.
At the beginning of the pilgrimage I was wandering around CDG airport in Paris, trying to locate my connecting flight. The gate number printed on my boarding pass didn’t match the listings on the terminal television screen.
I made the mistake of walking up to the desk at what should’ve been my gate and asking for help.
‘I’m just wondering if I’m at the right gate’ I said. The frenchman behind the counter stared at me blankly and said ‘Oui.’
Not satisfied he’d understood me, I handed him my boarding pass and decided to speak every traveling American’s second language. I just spoke louder: I’M JUST WONDERING IF I’M AT THE RIGHT GATE.’
He looked down at my boarding pass without moving his head- sort of like those haunted house portraits where only the eyes move- and again he said ‘Oui’ even though the sign directly behind him said that particular flight would be landing in Budapest.
I sighed, feeling confused, and as I walked away and he said ‘Thank you. Have a nice day’ in rehearsed non-comprehension.
Not trusting his reassurances, I walked up to Air France’s euphemistically titled Customer Service desk and pressed my dilemma to a young frenchwoman who wore her hair in a matronly bun.
‘You’re American?’ she said in textbook English. ‘And you don’t speak French?’
When I said no she said ‘Oh’ like she was a doctor examining my MRI and had found a suspicious mass.
Then she spoke rapid French to her customer service colleagues and set them all to tittering with laughter. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I was pretty sure I knew who they were talking about.
Not understanding, I walked away confused.
And God said: Come, let us go down, and confuse their language…
The next leg of my journey was by train.
For what seemed like an eternity, I vainly searched around the train station for a men’s room. When I finally found one, there was an old woman standing in front of the stall doors with a mop, absently wiping at the same spot on the floor.
From the cobwebs of my memory, I pulled some of the French Isabelle had taught me. ‘I need to use the restroom’ I told the old woman.
At least I’d thought that was what I’d said. In hindsight, having later consulted my French book, I think what I actually said was: ‘I need to drive your toilet.’
The old woman with the mop looked confused so I repeated it, louder: ‘I NEED TO DRIVE YOUR TOILET.’
And she held out her palm and said: ‘You need to be 25 years old.’ At least, that’s what I thought she’d said.
I nodded and said ‘Don’t worry I’m well past 25’ and I walked over to the bathroom stall. But she kept talking, faster this time, her words lashing at my ankles.
When I turned around to close the stall door, the old woman was standing in the middle of it, holding out her hand and telling me I needed to be 25 years old.
I was about to pull out my passport to prove I was old enough when a tall, blond man with hipster glasses said in a Swedish accent: ‘It costs 25 cents. You need to pay her 25 cents.’
‘Oh’ I said and fished around in my pockets.
‘Sorry for the confusion’ I muttered to her, but she did not understand a word I spoke.
And the Lord said: Come, let us confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another…
For the final leg of my journey, I had to take a bus from Macon to Taize.
I had my fare counted out in my sweaty hand. For the entire train ride I’d practiced how to ask for a bus ticket. When it was my turn, I stepped up to the driver, an elderly, tough-looking frenchman.
I laid my euros down on the tray and spit out the one sentence I’d been playing in my head like a broken record: ‘A ticket to Taize, please.’
But then the driver asked me a question and, just like that, it was like my homework had blown away with the wind. I had no idea what he was asking me.
‘Lociento, no seh Francais’ I babbled….in Spanish.
The driver clenched his wrinkled jaw and asked his question again, and I just smiled, feeling confused.
‘Oh, yes. Yes, please’ I said.
The bus driver tore off my receipt and slapped it down in my palm and began shouting at me: ‘SPEAK THE LANGUAGE. YOU COME TO FRANCE…SPEAK FRENCH!’
The skinny German behind me continued his translating duties: ‘He’s saying that when you come to France you should speak French.’
‘Yeah, I got that part. Danke’ I said and sat down, confused and red-faced.
Therefore the place was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth.
The story of Babel belongs to what is known as the Primeval History.
The Primeval History narrates God’s dealings with creation before God ever called Abraham or commissioned Israel to be a light to the nations.
The Primeval History is not, like the rest of scripture, a particular history of a chosen People. It’s a general history of all humanity.
The Primeval History is Israel’s attempt to project backwards in time and answer some of the questions we still ask:
Where did we come from? Who made us and how? Why is there Sin in the world?
Babel is the climax of the Primeval History.
But the story isn’t just meant to answer the obvious question:
Why are there so many languages in the world?
The story of Babel is also the bible’s attempt to pinpoint the origination of: War and Our Fear of the Stranger and Hatred of the Other
Our Suspicion of And Hostility towards and Distrust of Difference.
Because even though the confusing and scattering God does at Babel is meant as a grace to save us from our own hubris, we don’t receive it as gift.
At Babel God creates tribes with different languages and customs and complexions. Different, diverse tribes.
And we respond by creating tribalism.
The energies and ingenuities we’d spent on baking bricks and cutting stone we soon turn to making weapons.
The Sin of Cain and the Sin of Babel mix and, as the Primeval History draws to a close, war is born.
For much of the time, my time at the monastery was as confusing as my journey there.
Going through the dinner line one evening and seeing they were serving a gruel that resembled the porridge from Oliver Twist, I said: ‘No thank you, I’ll just have the bread and the apple.’
The volunteer server, a teenage girl who’d colored the Hungarian flag onto her name tag, she just smiled at me and said ‘Yah’ and then plopped a heaping spoonful on my plate.
One afternoon I asked another pilgrim for the time- I even gestured to my wrist- but I was instead pointed the way to the bathroom.
In the group bible study, I tried in vain to discuss Paul’s Letter to the Romans with folks for whom English was a second language.
It was confusing all round.
And I couldn’t help but think that everything would be so much easier if we all spoke the same language.
That’s pretty much how I felt the Thursday evening I ventured into the monastery sanctuary for the fixed-hour worship.
I grabbed a wrinkled blue paper songbook at the door and found an empty spot among the couple thousand pilgrims. All of us sat on the sloped cement floor facing a terra cotta altar table, above which hung three red-orange sheets of canvas arranged to resemble a fiery dove.
The worship that Thursday night followed the same pattern as all the other nights. Scripture was read. Prayers were spoken and sung. Silence was stretched out longer than any sermon.
Towards the end of the worship, before we took communion, a song number flashed on the digital screen that hung on either side of the altar.
Everyone flipped in their books, a 12 string guitar struck the right note and we started to sing: ‘Da pacem in diebus.’ Give Peace in our Days.
It’s a chant, only a couple of phrases. We sang it maybe two dozen times at first, in Latin. But then I noticed the pilgrims in front of me, a youth group it looked like, they’d started to sing it in German.
We kept singing and after a few more repetitions I could make out French being sung behind me by a husband and wife and their three little children. And after that I could hear French starting to pop out in the crowd from other places in the sanctuary.
We were still singing the same song; it was the same tune. They’d just started to sing it in their own language.
It took me a few times more through the song before I worked up the courage to sing in English, but when I did I heard British accents joining me.
And to my left I could make out the hard consonants of what sounded like Russian and to my right I could hear Italian that reminded me of my grandparents.
And maybe it’s the tune or the words but together, the thousands of us, all singing each in our own language, it kind of sounded like the roll of an ocean wave.
Or like a mighty rushing wind.
And even though there were other sounds I couldn’t make out, other languages I couldn’t identify, I understood everyone of them.
And after we sang we passed the Peace of Christ and a teenage girl with stonewashed jeans and dyed green hair embraced me and said something in my ear.
And I didn’t know what language she was speaking, but I understood.
And when I filed up through the line and held my hands out to receive the Body of Christ, the dark-skinned monk looked down upon me, smiling and softly spoke a few words.
I didn’t know what he’d said, but I’d understood perfectly.
And after the worship service ended and a small crowd of us lingered behind to gather around the Cross, I couldn’t have translated all the whispered prayers I heard but I understood everyone of them.
God doesn’t undo what God did at Babel until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends upon a crowd of thousands of scattered tribes: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya, and visitors all the way from Rome.”
Just as God comes down at Babel to confuse their speech, the Holy Spirit comes down at Pentecost to fill with them with praise.
And though each of them speaks their own language, each of them is understood.
No more confusion.
God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a common language, but by creating a People.
A people who, despite their differences, understand one another because they remember what was forgotten at Babel: that you were made to praise God and embody God’s love and serve in God’s name and point towards God’s future.
God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a new language.
God heals the wounds of Babel, which are the wounds of the world, by creating a People who are God’s new language.
* This sermon owes, as does my entire theological worldview, to Stanley Hauerwas.
Jason Micheli www.tamedcynic.org