Posted January 13, 2012:
God and the English Language

by Aliz Trombitas.

I was born and raised in Hungary and had studied English in high school and university. I thought I understood and spoke English fairly well. However when I came to Canada, I soon realized that I did not.

One of my friends, a recent convert to Catholicism, said that he had a similar experience with his faith.

Through several programs he had learned about the faith, but when he came to Madonna House, he saw it lived. Then, like me with English, he realized that he knew and was living it very little.

That is when I started to wonder if there were any other similarities between learning a language and learning to live a faith. I would like to share with you what I discovered.

Total Immersion: The best and fastest way to learn a language is to live in an environment where it is spoken. And the best way to learn about and take on the faith is to live in a faith environment.

Madonna House was a good place for me to absorb the faith, but even before I came here, I made sure I surrounded myself with friends who were also interested in God so that we could support each other on our journey. I also read lives of the saints and became friends with them.

Listen and repeat: Once I was in an environment where English was spoken, all I had to do was listen and repeat. This is a natural way to learn a language; this is how a child does it.

So in trying to absorb the faith, I started to observe the different ways people here love each other.

I noticed someone spending time with a person. I could do that. I saw somebody folding laundry in her free time to help out the laundress who is so busy. I could do that, too. I noticed someone giving a hug to someone who looked sad. I could do that, even though that’s not how we do it in my culture.

Discipline: Listening and repeating take discipline. Learning a new language can be tiring, and we live in cultures where we tend to do things only when we feel like it. But if we seriously want to learn a language, we must do so with vigor, practice, and discipline.

Similarly if I want to be a Christian, I can’t live according to the Gospel only when I feel like it.

After about three months in this English-speaking environment, I came to the point when I did not want to hear one more word of English. My brain was fried; I couldn’t take it anymore.

The only way to overcome this attitude is to keep speaking the language anyway.

In my little everyday services, the same thing happened: such as the service of re-filling the water bucket at the hand-washing station next to the outdoor jons. Nobody is assigned to this job; we are all asked to do it whenever we see it close to empty.

The first time I did it, I was feeling quite happy, glad of the opportunity to serve.

The second time, I was surprised that the bucket needed refilling so soon. The third time, I decided to wash my hands inside so I wouldn’t see the empty bucket.

Why me? I even wished I couldn’t read English so that I couldn’t read the sign that said, "If the bucket is low, please fill it."

The way to overcome this attitude was to keep refilling the bucket.

This attitude of mine makes me sad and reminds me of other experiences.

It is not my language. When you first start to speak another language, you make mistakes. You don’t always say what you mean. Corrections are needed. I have many funny experiences of this and some not so funny. But I have a good excuse: "English is not my language."

Similarly, because of original sin, the gospel way of living is never our first language. We have to learn this foreign language of love, service, self-sacrifice. If I remember this, I find it easier to be compassionate and to forgive others—and myself.

This leads me to my next challenge in learning English.

Obedience to the rules: I know the grammar rules of Hungarian, and they feel natural. The rules of English are very different. I just have to trust that in speaking English, if I go by its rules, I’ll be better understood.

In my old life, I was comfortable and happy living selfishly. Now I have to trust that obeying the law of love will bring fulfillment. I had to start by taking baby steps. Little by little, I started to experience the truth of this new way and how it brings life and joy to others and to myself.

Fear of speaking: At some point during my practicing English in Canada, I discovered that I was afraid to speak it. I knew that I had an accent and that I didn’t speak it perfectly. I was also afraid that others wouldn’t understand me. Sometimes I didn’t want to speak at all.

Similarly, this can happen in our faith-life. I know that I am not perfect; I know that I cannot live my faith perfectly. With my bad example, I can scandalize others. Therefore I can be tempted to choose not to speak about my faith.

Or I can be afraid to speak about my faith because others might not understand me or might humiliate me.

I live in a society where the language of self-sacrificial love is not spoken often or understood well. My prayer here is that in spite of my fears I have the courage to speak up for my faith even in difficult situations such as life issues.

Loneliness: This last comparison is about something that not everyone learning a new language faces. I was and am the only Hungarian staff worker in Madonna House. On the plus side, this put me on the fast track to learn English.

However, it’s hard being alone. It’s lonely.

Similarly, in our faith-life we can get lonely. But at some point, I came to realize that instead of my running away from it, God was calling me to love loneliness, and through it, to be a witness to the world—to all those who are lonely—that the deepest desire of every human person is the Master of Love, God himself.

And it is he who can teach me this new language of faith if I make it a priority to spend time with him every day.

My loneliness has put me on a fast track to God.

Although there might be many more similarities, I would like to finish by saying, A new language is a new world:

When you learn a new language, a whole new world opens up to you. It is like being a whole new person. And this is, of course, even more true of the life of faith.


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