Music of the Week — May 27, 2006
Music of the Week — June 3, 2007

Sunday Night Journal — May 27, 2007

A Speculation on Pentecost

Today at Mass I had a brief glimpse of what Pentecost might have been like. Two men sitting behind me were annoying me with loud muttering, loud enough to be distracting but not quite loud enough to be understood. Then as the homily began I heard quite clearly one of them say “Ich kann nicht verstehen”—“I cannot understand.” But it was a heartbeat later that I realized that I had heard German words. What happened in the instant that I heard them was that I understood them. It was only after I had heard the man say that he could not understand the homilist that I realized he had said it in German. I had understood the German directly, without translating it into English.

This would be a perfectly ordinary occurrence for one who is truly fluent in more than one language, but that’s far from the case with me. I had a couple of years of German in high school forty years ago, a bit more in college to which I paid scant attention. Somehow a bit of it has stuck with me all these years. Now that I think about it, the fact that I hadn’t previously heard the man’s voice clearly enough to realize he was speaking German probably allowed the thing to happen. Because I was not expecting the German words, the conscious effort of translation was bypassed and the words went straight into some deep part of the mind where they were simply known: perfectly normal for one who knows that he knows German, startling for one who does not.

As I’ve had occasion to mention before, I have only a smattering of theology and philosophy. But what I do have, I mull over at length, and I seem to get something out of it. Lately I’ve been thinking about nominalism, (see Wikipedia article) and about the assertion made by a number of 20th century Catholic thinkers that its rise in late medieval times was the beginning of modern materialism. As I understand it, nominalism entails a rejection of the reality of ideas, such as truth and justice. Real existence belongs to the concrete specific things, not to the abstractions by which we describe them. So incomprehension, for instance—the thing which my German speaker communicated to me—is only a mental construct which we derive from observing instances of it. It’s not hard to see how this habit of mind tends toward the abandonment or at least attenuation of belief in spiritual reality, which comes to seem a sort of watery derivation from the material.

But experiment for a moment. Play with the idea that incomprehension is a thing, a real thing, though not a material one. Think about that, and then think about language. Language, in this light, is, among other things, the means by which we convey a real thing from one mind to another (and there is probably a hint of insight into the nature of spiritual reality in the realization that the thing conveyed is now in both “places” at once and equally).

When language is understood without conscious thought, as it is for everyone in his native language, these spiritual things pass easily from one mind to another; little more than an act of will is required, assuming there is no physical impediment, and that both minds are capable of grasping the thing.

I suppose I’ve always taken the miracle of Pentecost to be a kind of instantaneous translation, like those scenes at the U.N., where every delegate hears the words of a speaker whose language he does not know, while hearing it almost immediately rendered into his own language by an interpreter. And the words of Acts support that view. But the text can also support the sort of immediate apprehension I’ve described. Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? This would happen if the hearer truly did not know the language being spoken at all; upon having the idea communicated to him, he would instantly and instinctively put it into his own language, as the other would be an arbitrary string of sounds.

We can’t really conceive of ideas without language, just as we can’t really conceive of souls without bodies (personally I find that idea frightening, but that’s another topic). But if there is spiritual reality, and if the Holy Spirit is its absolute fullness and perfection, then it makes a sort of sense that it could push or pull one beyond dependence on words, presenting one’s own spirit with the unmediated and unrepresented idea. So, perhaps, at Pentecost the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the apostles produces a desire to communicate what is known; language results; but the presence is so rich and pure that ideas jump from mind to mind, like a spark across a gap—this perhaps is what’s meant by “infused knowledge”—where they become at once embodied, so to speak, in the hearer’s own language—as in my experience, momentarily after the fact. Asked in English, “what did he say?” I would have replied, “He said he couldn’t understand.”

Most likely this speculation is a commonplace among theologians, but it’s new to me.

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