Fr Conor McDonough OP
Among the books on my shelves, one of my favourites is Ernest Klein’s two-volume Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. It doesn’t offer definitions of words, but shows their roots in other languages and periods. So the entry for the word ‘diamond’ traces it back to a Middle English word which was borrowed from the French.
This French word was in turn a corruption of the Latin diamas, which combined two Greek words, adamas, meaning unconquerable, and diaphanes, meaning transparent. The archaeology of the word ‘diamond’ thus brings us two and a half millennia backwards in time and transports us 2,000 miles away. Flipping casually through the pages of this dictionary brings you on all sorts of journeys like this through time and space.
What I really love about this book, though, is the reason the author dedicated his life to this work. Klein, a Czech Jew, lost his entire family in the Holocaust, including his wife and young son. With the aid of “the Eternal who gives power to the faint”, he somehow transformed this unimaginable trauma into a lifelong pursuit of peace on Earth through linguistic research. His dictionary would show that language connects us all, and spills over the racial and political boundaries which seem to divide.
As Christians, we are motivated by a similar desire for unity, not just the harmony of earthly peace, but the longer-lasting spiritual harmony of the Body of Christ, both here on Earth and in Heaven.
Because this Body is to be made up of members “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev 7:9), the growth of the Body depends on the Gospel being translated and transported into an enormous variety of contexts, and this requires a knowledge of, respect for, and love of the varieties of human culture.
We see this work of translation right at the beginning of the apostolic mission, in the preaching of Paul in Athens. Addressing a philosophically-educated Greek audience, he quotes two Greek thinkers, Epimenides and Aratus.
He looks for common ground with his hearers, referring with respect to the Athenians’ “Altar to the Unknown God”. But, importantly, he refuses to water down the Gospel for the sake of winning his audience over. When he mentions the resurrection of the body – unthinkable to the Greeks – many of his hearers scoff and depart, and Paul does not recant.
In recent times, this work of evangelical translation is what kept our Irish missionaries busy, from Nigeria to Korea. They learned the local languages, but also customs and thought patterns, so that the Gospel could be preached, understood, and lived in situ. In 21st Century Ireland, this is our task too. Our society is made up of an enormous array of overlapping subcultures each with its own way of thinking and talking – the sporting world, the elderly, gamers, hipsters...
Our temptation as Christians is simply to become one of these subcultures, an inward-looking love-in with its own impenetrable dialect. But our mission is to grow the Body of Christ, and this demands curiosity and sympathy on our part, as we come to know, understand and connect with the lives of others.
Our first task, of course, is to be rooted in Christ and to learn the language of the Word of God, but we should also, with all the necessary caution and prudence, be learning the languages of our contemporaries, watching their movies, listening to their music and reading their books, always with the goal of adding ever more shades of colour to the people of God.
The seduction of beauty: The best motivation to learn a language is an experience of its beauty. I first became interested in the German language when I heard a female announcer pronouncing extraordinarily delicate and charming German at World Youth Day in Cologne. This was not the harsh speech of Nazi soldiers in the movies I had seen, but something else entirely, and something worth exploring.
For our non-believing contemporaries, the lives and examples of their Christian friends are perhaps the only encounter they will have with ‘speakers’ of the Word of God. What will they encounter in the speech of our lives? Simplicity, charm and spiritual beauty?
Our contemporaries struggle with the grammar and vocabulary of the Christian life, but if they are seduced by its beauty, there’s hope they will persevere and become, in their turn, fluent speakers of the Word.
At our Dominican summer camp in Knockadoon, Co. Cork, we run many catechetical workshops for the young people who attend. One of the most enlightening, for me at least, involves simply listening carefully to pop songs with the campers, and discussing the lyrics with an eye on the Gospel.
The results are always fascinating. The campers, who know all these songs but rarely actually listen to them, are able to find all sorts of common ground between the aspirations of their music and those of the Christian faith. We find points of discord too, which can lead to heated conversations. When one group dissected and discarded the vision of love found in a One Direction song, the diehard fan among them offered this dubious defence: “They don’t write their songs!”