Two incidents involving foreign languages in the days leading up to Pentecost gave me an unexpected insight into this feast that I’ve always struggled somewhat to relate to.
The first occurred on another much-relished day in London. A few of us from the Irish Chaplaincy team had met up in Camden Square for lunch and to discuss one or two things. Just as it had been during our Walk with Hope week, so too when some of us had joined a Pax Christi Peace Walk a couple of days before, it was so incredibly pleasant and energising to be with people in the flesh after over a year of seeing people almost exclusively on a computer screen. We rather reluctantly took our leave eventually but I wanted to make the most of my big day out of the house, also the temporary lull in the incessant rain and decided to have a cup of tea somewhere. And what better place than ‘Temptation’. It’s a Portuguese café on the other side of the road to the Irish Centre and I’ve had many pleasant lunches and cups of tea there since being at the Chaplaincy. I sat outside with my brew and began to write a letter. I explained to my friend in the letter how I was sitting right opposite the Kennedy Hall at the Centre where our Gerry used to say Mass every month for the Lunch Club. Gerry always took position by the window, and those of us in the congregation could look through the clear bit of glass at the top of that window and see just above Gerry’s head, as he stood behind the altar, the name of the café in big, bold letters! It was quite a nice touch.
In the midst of these ruminations, one of the women who works in the café came out and was speaking very animatedly into her phone in Portuguese. Meanwhile another woman passed by speaking in a language I didn’t recognise, and shortly after that a man got out of a car and was addressing somebody in a third language. ‘How wonderful’, I thought. Then a young Portuguese guy connected with the Café arrived and greeted me and he was joined in turn on the pavement by the Sikh man who runs the little paper shop where I’d often gone to get milk for the Chaplaincy kitchen. After over a year of working from home this was social manna from heaven.
My second language-related incident involved Korean. We’re now coming to Week 12 of the fifteen-week course that I nearly abandoned after the second lesson, and my Korean is coming back nicely. Long-forgotten words and phrases are starting to reappear from dark recesses of the brain and I’m having a bit of fun saying random stuff to Yim Soon in her native tongue. On Youtube I came across some videos of foreigners speaking perfect Korean and how it always causes such amazement amongst their Korean hosts. I remembered many times in Korea saying something quite banal like asking in a restaurant where the toilet was and the person being speechless for a few moments before exclaiming, “You speak really good Korean,” using a form of grammar that expresses both surprise and a high level of politeness. “Thank you,” I would reply, “and…where’s the toilet?” Just like with those fluent Korean speakers in the Youtube videos I think that people were delighted to encounter foreigners who were speaking their language.
We’re told in one of the Mass reading for Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2:1-11) how the disciples were filled with the spirit and began speaking in foreign languages that everyone in the cosmopolitan and polyglottic city of Jerusalem could understand as if it was their own language. This appears to be a kind of riposte to the story in Genesis 11 about the tower of babel where the sudden existence of numerous languages leads to chaos and separation. Indeed the word babel in Hebrew means confusion. By contrast the scene recounted in Acts shows people being brought together and inspired, literally ‘given breath’, the Latin word spiritus meaning breath. Pentecost is said to signify the founding of the Church, and it could be said as well that it’s an early sign of the world as a global village.
In his eve of Pentecost Thought for the Day Brian Draper spoke of how having long Covid had given him a new awareness of those who had been somehow ‘left behind’ from the busyness of life. This had led him to the realisation that, “A spirited life need not be measured by achievement or going places but by fruitfulness, wherever we are.” He went on to say, “The bible lists some delicious fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; cultivated inwardly, expressed outwardly, and all things we can lose sight of, ironically, if all life is about is getting ahead…and with good fruit, the goodness passes on.”
Whether or not I can understand the various tongues being spoken on the streets of London, I rejoice in being a member of the global village; and may we this Pentecost be filled anew with some of those delicious fruits of the Spirit.