My favorite subject in high school was French. I lived in rural northern Iowa, where small schools dotted the landscape in the same way small farms did. Every school was required to offer a foreign language, regardless of how few students were actually interested in the subject. So I was one of a handful of students who counted ourselves lucky to learn such a beautiful language.
I stuck with it long enough to get three years under my belt in high school, then another year in college. However, I never gained fluency. Oh, I can get along fine in Mali, a former French colony in western Africa. It is the business language there, and thus everyone’s second (or third or fourth) language. I go there just often enough to warrant the occasional practice session.
As for using French among the French themselves, my skill can be summed up in one encounter. I arrived at my hotel after an overnight flight from Bamako, Mali. I wearily tried to communicate with the desk clerk in French, and he responded, “Speak English, please.”
My limited ability in the language does serve me well as a tourist though. I can decipher most menus and signs, even museum descriptive placards that aren’t too esoteric. Still, to listen to a native speaking rapidly in that fluid tongue feels like drinking out of a fire hose. I have to ask, “Lentement, s’il vous plait.” Slowly, please!
A number of years ago, I was in Paris on Pentecost. It was my first visit, and I had not yet gone to the trouble of finding the American church I attended on a subsequent trip. Still, it was Sunday morning, and my lodgings were within walking distance of Notre Dame de Paris, so the choice was obvious. I wandered across the Seine and joined the continuous stream of tourists entering the massive doors.
Worship was indeed in progress, but the worshipping community was sectioned off from those who strolled the perimeter to view the side altars and to gaze at the famous rose window high above. Because there was construction underway, the congregation was literally cut off behind scaffolding. It gave the odd feeling of being on the outer edge of something important and mysterious. I could hear the priest, but I couldn’t see him or penetrate the barrier between us.
In my travels I have learned to roll with the punches. It had taken us an extra day and two extra stops on our flight to get to Paris, in fact. Musée de l’Orangerie was closed. The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was under renovation. But there is so much else to see, complaining seems petty. Life goes on and old buildings need repair, after all.
I laid aside my frustration and resolved to appreciate what I could still see around me. Slipping into typical preacher’s mode, I realized that I was experiencing what felt like a profound metaphor. Yet the reality it represented consecrated the moment at the same time. There I was, in a place where I could hear the gospel in a foreign language on Pentecost, of all days. I recalled the story in Acts 2, with the disciples chattering away in unfamiliar languages after the Holy Spirit showed up with a whoosh, sparks flying over their heads.
It didn’t matter that, due to the rapid pace of the liturgy combined with the reverberations in the sacred space, I couldn’t understand a word. It seemed all the more like Pentecost, actually. All that mattered in the moment was that somebody there could understand, and that it was holy. I knew that le Saint-Esprit was there among them, the same Spirit I share with them. These people were worshiping God, and we spectators kept a reverent silence to help keep the space sacred for them.
It was a fitting observance of Pentecost for me, one that has enriched my understanding of the festival and of the Holy Spirit. Over the past few years, my perspective on salvation has expanded many fold, through study and travel and daily experience in the parish. I have emerged from my theological roots to branch out in many directions, seeking and finding truth about the divine in numerous contexts. I have stood uncomprehending outside others’ traditions while recognizing that something holy is happening. God is connecting with people in countless ways that I will never understand. But I can be a reverent tourist, trusting that God is speaking the language of each one, and it unites us, and it is beautiful.