Almost as soon as I got married I came to a heartbreaking realization: the man to whom I had pledged my entire future did not speak my “language,” figuratively speaking. I constantly felt misunderstood. I felt totally let down, and at times I even felt betrayed – not by my my husband, but by God. Hadn’t He called me into this marriage? Hadn’t we said the vows in a church blessed by a priest and witnessed by a supportive community? Was this not a Sacrament? Where was the magic that was supposed to turn two into one? Where was the unity?
God is just. He has seen to it that I have a diverse cadre of male friends, and because of them I have learned a great truth: men and women rarely speak each other’s language, and when we do, it’s only by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s not a foregone conclusion that women understand each other, either. All of us are walking around doing the best we can to translate our native tongue into something others can understand.
In fact, this inability to communicate seems to go beyond our individual relationships. Whole groups of people seem incapable of finding common ground. People throw out words like “compromise” from their respective corners, demonizing each other while we dig ever deeper trenches of defensive self-justification, focused entirely on what makes us different instead of what makes us the same – our human dignity and the feelings we share.
What if, instead of demanding that each other compromise, we put our energy into the goals we have in common? Is it too much to ask?
I can’t help but think of the communication deficits we all have when I meditate on this past Sunday of Pentecost. The scripture from Acts detailing the coming of the Holy Spirit talks about wind and tongues of fire and the apostles speaking about God in many languages so that all the foreigners in Jerusalem could understand the story of Jesus in their native tongue. I’m pretty sure it was literal linguistic language to which the evangelist was referring. But what if it was applied to emotional language?
There are many “languages” we speak – poetry, ritual, mythology, theology, analogy, sport, music, art, humor. Self-expression comes in so many forms, and experience teaches us to interpret and appreciate all those forms. We may even become “multilingual,” but each of us has a native tongue, and when we meet someone who speaks it back to us, magic happens. We no longer have to translate ourselves into a common language. We don’t have to compromise to fit with the person on the other side of the street. Instead, we feel understood, and united.
That’s Pentecost. It was about God’s story being shared in a way that each person could intimately understand, in his or her own language. Pentecost wasn’t just about talking and being understood. It was about hearing and understanding. It was a demonstration of the powerful uniting force of love. As in the words of the St. Francis prayer:
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
If Jesus’ death and resurrection are the climax of the story of salvation, Pentecost is its conclusion. It’s the summation of all the Old Testament tales and New Testament parables that preceded it. It’s our marching orders as believers in a God who raised His Son from the dead. Speak in ways that others will understand. Share our experience of God’s love in ways that unite rather than divide. Let the foreigners know they are not so foreign after all.
Pentecost is the feast of unity.