If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. 1Cor. 14:11
Being immersed in a foreign language can be mentally exhausting. Every sign, menu or map represents a new learning curve as we try to decipher what is not our first mode of communication. The spoken word is even more challenging. Until our capacity to track a new language grows, the hyper-focus required to pick up a word here or there is something we can only sustain for short periods. We soon lose our grip and once again resign ourselves to its unintelligibility.
The experience I describe comes from recent memory of time spent in northern Spain. I know enough Spanish to make it worth listening to people speaking it. I can pick up a few words here and there and usually get the gist of what is being said. And with every new phrase I learn I have a better grip on the language. But it happens often enough that I lose the thread of conversation. Someone speaks too fast and I am overwhelmed by my inability to find entrance into this language. Whatever hope there was for communication gets garbled by words that now alienate more than give me access to the other person. I think my relationship with God is often like that too.
I can be going along fine in my spiritual life feeling, for the most part, that I have a pretty good grasp of this language. I get the gist of what God is saying to me and how I am supposed to respond. But such competence is short-lived. Things happen often enough in prayer and in the circumstances of my life that I don’t fully understand how to participate with. The language goes by too fast. Or maybe it’s just that God is using bigger words. Whatever the case, I end up feeling quite “lost in translation.”
It’s always disconcerting to know that someone is trying to communicate with you and you have no idea what they are saying. Even more so when that other person is God. What am I supposed to be hearing? What does God want me to do? I feel confused, not to mention a fair bit of trepidation knowing that the Lord has something important to say, but I can’t tell what it is.
But if we compare our capacity to understand God with learning any other language it might be easier to accept our miscommunications as a natural stage of growing in fluency. To get beyond God 101 we should not be surprised that we will need to learn a more complex vocabulary. And this we glean best from those who are more fluent than we are.
Anyone learning a new language will do well to spend time with others who speak, or who are also learning this language themselves. By discussing our spiritual lives with others or with a spiritual director, and by studying the works of various spiritual writers, we not only increase our word base, but are also introduced to new expressions, fresher metaphors and better ways of understanding the initiatives of God. Our vocabulary will grow as we are immersed in spiritual culture, and the particular dialogue that we share at Imago Dei should give us every reason to hope for greater proficiency in our communications with God, and more fluency in our spiritual lives.