Tanti anni fa, as the Italians would say, I was studying Italian at the Dante Alighieri Scuola per Stranieri in Florence, just off the Ponte Vecchio. I had already passed a year in Rome, studying theology, in the Italian language, at the Gregorian University. But I had arrived in the Eternal City, like the other American seminarians in my class, shortly before classes began at the university, with no knowledge of Italian. My first year in that Roman classroom, I passed the hours, alternating between listening intently, writing aerograms home or just weeping. So, come my first full summer in Europe, I went to Florence to fortify my Italian.
I boarded in the city, along with a young man from Germany, with an older Italian woman, a Signora Marghieri. She spoke no English, which was of course the point. I would have to speak Italian. The German of course could speak English, but he wouldn’t. My ancestral Volk are a strident lot.
Each night Signora Marghieri prepared a home-cooked meal for us. The German youth could compliment even the spices she used. In Italian, of course. That was beyond me, but I did manage to endear myself with our cook by borrowing a phrase from the liturgy, which I heard each morning, in Italian at Mass. As the plates would be cleared, I would rub my belly and proclaim, “Signora Marghieri, sono pieno della tua gloria.” (Mrs. Maghieri, I am full of your glory.) She loved it! My German companion no doubt thought about how unfair life could be.
Coming home from class one day, Signora Marghieri met me at the door with happy news. “Your mother from Kansas called. Your sister has had her baby. A nine pound baby boy!” I was delighted with the news, but I had to investigate. “Signora Marghieri. You don’t speak English.”
“I know that my mother doesn’t speak a word of Italian. So how do you know that my sister had a nine pound baby boy?”
“Nostre donne, sappiamo,” she said with a satisfied grin (We women, we know).
Reflect for a moment upon languages, the medium by which we humans share our humanity. The German, Cuban, Canadian and Australian Jesuits who taught me that first year in Rome represented a deep cache of theological acuity, but I, and my American classmates, were barred from it, without some mastery of Italian.
Now consider the phenomenon of language itself. Whatever our vernaculars, we human beings share life with each other by means of language. Indeed, there’s little that we can share without it. When the first cave man hit the other, his slug was comprehensible in its own terms, but that would not be true of the first kiss. It no doubt came with words.
If you can marvel at the sheer existence of language, then perhaps you can also ponder the incredible claim that God enters language by way of inspired Scripture. The verb alone is telling. “Inspire” means to breathe into. This is the first incarnation, if you will, of God.
It’s an astonishing claim, that God has spoken to us, because, whatever else God is, God is not us, not human. This was the great insight of the Greeks who defined God by way of declaring God to be that which humans were not. God is immortal, not subject to death. God is omnipotent, not limited in power. God is omniscient, not limited in knowledge. All this being asserted, by us, and in language. God, in contrast to us, does not dwell in language, or know by way of it.
Yet we claim that God has spoken with human beings, which is to say, entered into our circle of communion. One can deny that claim, but the only reason for doing so is the presumption that God doesn’t exist or doesn’t communicate that way with us. As neither of those presumptions can be proven, they are, for the person who holds them, no more than prejudices. Or one can accept the claim of revelation, but one must do so either by way of one’s own prejudices or in faith.
Yet whether one denies or affirms our assertion, no one can gainsay it, or get around it. Centuries after the events of revelation, we cannot reconstruct the psychological processes by which God first communicated with human beings. We can’t, for examples, gauge for ourselves the radiance coming off of the face of Moses or the smoke that filled Ezekiel’s temple. The validation of inspiration doesn’t deride from individual acuity. It comes from the community—first Israel and then the church—recognizing God in its midst, even unto the psyche of its prophets and apostles.
Sacred Scripture has always been an ecclesial reality. It was composed in community; retained and revered in community; and is only truly interpreted in community. There’s only one answer to the chicken or egg question when it comes to Scripture and the church. God’s entry into human language can only be acknowledged by that community, which recognizes itself to be addressed.
Italian was the portal that I needed to study theology, the science of God. My mother and Signora Marghieri managed to bypass vernacular impediments, but that would not have been possible if they were not, however small, a community of women who could pick through sounds and recognize the import of what was being said. If one can understand that accomplishment, one has a better appreciation for an oft repeated, yet seldom articulated assertion, one we hear over and over again when we gather as the community we call the church: “The Word of the Lord.”
Isaiah 55: 10-11 Romans 8: 18-23 Matthew 13: 1-23