I realize there is so much that I don’t know. I am limited by the breadth and depth of my inability to fully perceive events and ideas. Reading gives me knowledge, but not wisdom – study may give me information, but insight comes from experience. There are so many pieces that are poured out in front of me in the puzzle of life; the difficulty lies in creating a coherent whole.
My father often spoke of two Jewish friends that he had when he was a boy while growing up in the Galician city of Jarosław. I had heard his stories about them many times over. One story that I particularly enjoyed was the day that he and the two Fenkel brothers decided to use their imagination to construct a home-made cannon. Now if there is any boy reading this piece at the moment, and thinking that this would be a good idea – please read through to the end. The barrel of the cannon was made of cast iron, from a pipe that they ‘borrowed’ from a butcher’s store. Apparently meat was delivered in such a pipe in the 1930’s in Poland. To my father and his friends – if it looked like a cannon – it was probably as good as a cannon, and would operate as a cannon. Well, eleven year old boys as they were at the time, had the idea – but not the experience and expertise to understand that filling a cast iron pipe with gunpowder (where they got this material, I still wonder), piling it with stones and rubble, and lighting a fuse to shoot the material out was, dangerous, not only because they succeded in blowing up a target, but that cast iron shatters. My father received a wound for having lit the cannon, and the barrel shattering, blowing up not only toward the target, but also sideaways, and leaving a deep crater-like depression in his right shoulder blade; a scar he carried to the very end of his days. Now, as I reflect on this story, logic tells me that my father must have stood to the left of the cannon as he lit the fuse, for the explosion tore into the right side of his back. At the point of the explosion, he wouldn’t have had time to turn quickly enough to protect himself. The Fenkel brothers left the scene unscathed, which indicates to me that they were safely away when the cannon was lit. For over four decades I pictured the story as best as I could. But one day, nearing the end of my father’s life, in a study burst of realization, I turned to him and said: “Dad, the Fenkel brothers would have had sidelocks (peyot)?” My father looked at me, as if I were a complete ignoramus. “Of course! They were Hassidic Jews.” Suddenly my eyes were opened. His friends would have been dressed in black – with hats. I realized there and then, that I could hear the stories being told to me – but I could not use imagination to visualize the scenes as they were occurring. What I had heard hundreds of times, were my father’s stories dressed up by my imagination.
- The Critical Mass (cf. Luke 24: 32) Part I
- The Critical Mass – Part II (cf. Mark 7:7) Part II
- The Critical Mass – Part III (cf. Mark 4: 10 – 20, RSV)
The problem with language is that it shares only a certain percentage of an idea – but not the sum of all the parts; it requires the listener to fill in the blank spaces so as to make sense of what they are reading or listening to. It was on this day that I sat down with my father – and knowing that he was a polyglot, I asked him what language was he thinking and feeling in. I assumed because we always conversed in the English language, that he was thinking in English – as I was. But my father replied, that he always thought within the framework of the Ukrainian language. So indeed, here was a father and son, sharing much of the same DNA – and who in fact, lived under the same roof, who had spoken intimately for decades, but who were constructing thoughts, vastly different to one another, based on the particular language tool that they were using. Language sets boundaries to how we filter our feelings to others – and how we construe and formulate our thoughts. There is grammar, there is syntax, there is the limitation of adjectives, or the wealth of adjectives – all the rules of language construct not only the way we convey our feelings or perceptions, but even more importantly the way we internalize and form who we are deep inside. We reflect through use of language. I can say that I recall well the stories that my father told me – but if I were a brilliant artist, I would have little to no idea how to paint the buildings and characters, in his stories. My terms of reference would all go back to Fremantle, Western Australia, where I grew up.
Language sets boundaries to how we filter our feelings to others – and how we construe and formulate our thoughts.
When I studied in Sweden, it took me six months to get a working grasp of the Swedish language. Soon afterward I travelled to Poland to be best man at a wedding. Now Polish was a language that I had some command of – as my Babcia was ardent that when I was a child she would drill her mother tongue into me. Babcia lived in the granny flat next door – and there was no way I could eat her delicious cooking, if I was not prepared to converse with her in Polish. So four decades after my Polish language ‘home-schooling’, I flew from Stockholm to Warsaw for the wedding. Yet the problem in Poland was that when the Poles were speaking to me, I could understand what they were saying – but my default reply back to them was in Swedish. The Poles looked at me confused. I looked at them confused – I can understand you, why can’t you understand me? After living in Sweden for many years, my dreams also became dreams with Swedish dialogue because that was the language I was using for most of my day. I believe that when I used the Swedish language, I was in fact a different person from that individual who was speaking Australian English. You become a different person when you learn a different language, or perhaps better said, you can delve within yourself and discover different elements of your being, which have laid dormant, waiting for a new medium of expression, conveyed through a different language.
So where am I leading?
Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215), wrote so wisely about Sacred Scripture – and the inability of the human mind to capture within the finite rules of language – the infinite God. He wrote: “The God of the universe, Who is above all speech and all thought and all reasoning, cannot be committed to writing, being ineffable in His power.” (Tollinton, 1914, Volume II, p. 284). In addition, St. John the Evangelist, closes his Gospel, with words profound and true about writing accounts of the life of Christ: “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21: 25, RSV). The vignettes that I opened this essay with, had a number of purposes, the first being to teach the reader about the limits of conveying experience through language; the second purpose – that by writing these words down, others may be entertained, and through being entertained – read on to the main point of the essay – the futility of trying to capture the fullness of anything, let alone the fullness of God in words. One can only come to know of God, by using the totality of the human mind and soul, in the act of loving God. Searching for God, is not a purely academic exercise, but it must be an all consuming Passion. Your senses, your will, your mind, your heart – must seek to be immersed in God, as the swimmer is fully immersed in the Ocean. One sees this immersion in the exquisite passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3: 14 – 19, RSV).
You become a different person when you learn a different language, or perhaps better said, you can delve within yourself and discover different elements of your being, which have laid dormant, waiting for a new medium of expression, conveyed through a different language.
Search, one has to – in order to understand, people, events and more importantly God. I keep the memory of my father alive, by writing down parts of his life story; but there is much futility in attempting to paint this story, without knowing the colour of the landscape, because of the darkness of contextual ignorance enshrouds my mind. As each day passes, I age, and lose more of the stories I was told. I lose much in translation. Similarly, as we write about God, who is far more Profound, Ineffable, and Infinite, we risk much more as finite creatures, trying to capture the Creator, with inadequate tools. It is like taking cupped hands to a well in order to bring a man dying of thirst, water. What you begin with at the well, is not what arrives to the lips of the man whose thirst you desire to slake. As such our most prize possession that we have is Sacred Scripture. Scripture establishes for us the Truth about God; For Truth itself speaks Truly, as St. Thomas Aquinas (1226 – 1274) reminds us, or there is nothing True in this life. Yet with Scripture we must hear, read and study the words, for their meaning; placing ourselves as a Disciple within the drama. We need to learn to understand the life and context of those who are part of this Sacred drama.
I lose much in translation. Similarly, as we write about God, who is far more Profound, Ineffable, and Infinite, we risk much more as finite creatures, trying to capture the Creator, with inadequate tools
With humble hearts we serve as best we can in the transmission of the message about God and his Gospel; being living Gospels for others to read in how we live out this Truth. Let us plead our ignorance, and not claim too much expertise about God. Indeed He will look kindly on the humble heart filled with Faith, the individual who seeks the Truth before all else. Perhaps Clement of Alexandria’s words resound still with this great truth, that despite the limitations of language, and the blur of our ignorance, we can still reach for God’s face, as a child reaches to touch their mother from the cot. As Clement writes: ” I am the door,” He [Christ] says somewhere. This door, if we would understand God, we must learn to know, that He may throw open to us abundantly the gates of Heaven. For the gates of the Word are gates of Reason, and they open by the key of Faith.” (p. 307).
So let us keep striving to know and love our God; but remembering always to savour the words we are reading, so as to not lose the Divine and poignant meaning God is conveying – and prevent losing the message in the pall of our mis-translation.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, October 2019