When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.- Acts 2:1-4
Learning Portuguese is a challenge. Well, learning any language is a challenge. There is no such thing as an easy language. It takes relatively a short time to learn the words. However, they are not just mere words. They represent symbols and experiences of a people. I can say the words without understanding their deeper meanings. I can spend years speaking without really communicating. I can only connect verbally with the Brazilian people when I allow their symbols and experiences to inform my soul. Only then there will be a communication between souls.
There is one lingering problem. I can never appropriate the meanings of these foreign words perfectly. They will always be foreign words to me. I cannot integrate them perfectly. Amazingly, I find this is quite irrelevant. The Brazilians, more specifically in our case, the children and teens don’t seem to mind. They are happy to hear their words flow out of our lips. We might say the words in a disjointed manner but they are still able to accept us. They can see that we want their experiences and symbols to be part of our reality even in an imperfect manner. Perfection is not a prerequisite, just a willing and open attitude. The strange thing is that we are beginning to use these foreign words to express some of our deepest thoughts now. It is no longer “their words” but now we feel that they belong to us as well. They reflect who we are. The children and teens have grown accustomed to our way of speaking and now they don’t even notice the difference anymore.
Mary sat down with Ruan to teach him to read. He spent some of his time correcting her pronunciation. Then he realized that it takes an extra effort on her part to teach him in a foreign language. It made it more special for him. Now, he only wants her to be his teacher. No one else can take her place. It means that he needs to make an extra effort to decipher her accent to understand the words. It doesn’t matter to him. She is able to communicate perfectly to him. She understands his symbols and experiences. Native speakers of Portuguese might have a better advantage over Mary but it doesn’t mean that they would be able to communicate with Ruan. Learning to communicate takes time and patience and, most importantly of all, love.
The Post Office was on strike recently. I only realized it when the strike ended and I received a stack of letters. They were all for the children and teens. We have established a letter reading ritual with the children. I inform them that they have received a letter and they demand that I read it to them at once. Then we sit down at the nearby square together and they open their letters. They want to be the ones who open them or at least, they want me to open the letters in front of them. They like to see the words in English. They are proud that they are written in a foreign language. They can tell others that they received a letter from abroad. However, seeing and touching the letters do not make them meaningful until they hear them read in their own language. The act of translation works like magic for them. The foreign words are suddenly transformed into tangible notions for them. Alex was not happy with just hearing the words in Portuguese. He wanted me to write them down and give him this translation. He is illiterate. He can barely read his name. However, it is important for him to have these words from his special person in the States in his own language. This way he can own these precious words permanently. One day the children asked Mary to read one of Alex’s letters in English. They wanted to hear the letter in its original language. She did it and Alex was baffled. He took her aside and asked how she learned how to read in English. He could not imagine that Mary, once upon a time, did not use the same language as he did.
Words are abundant in the city of São Paulo but communication is always lacking. It took us years to learn how to communicate with the children and teens. We are not there yet completely. It is a long process and there are no shortcuts. It is not a question of using impressive vocabulary or having perfect pronunciation or abiding to the convoluted grammatical rules. All these things are helpful but they don’t necessarily guarantee perfect communication. Communication is something that comes from the heart. Words are spoken everyday without any attempt to communicate. They are like a clanging cymbal. They do not bring peace or joy to those who hear them. Words are necessary but they have to come from the heart to touch the soul.
I have some influence of the Pentecostal movement in my spiritual journey. It was a long time ago. Whenever someone would ask me if I spoke in tongues I always had the right answer for them. However, Mary is not so fortunate in this sense. For years, she said “no”. However, as we grow older, we understand this gift of the Holy Spirit better. The coming of the divine Spirit was to give us the ability to communicate meaningfully. It means that we recognize that God is not limited to one people’s symbols and experiences. He is present and active in all people’s languages. The gift of tongues is the ability to recognize God’s presence in these symbols and experiences. Mary definitely has this gift. She communicates clearly to the children and teens with her gift. It is not about the words.
There is much talk about dialog and communication today. Perhaps, the feast of the Holy Spirit is more relevant today than it has ever been in the history of humanity.