On the Verge

Prof. Stephanie PaulsellSermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, Senior Sunday sermon May 24, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



The stories that Maggie and Karen-Alexandra read for us this morning are stories about the struggle to understand each other’s languages and how the arrival of understanding, when it comes, can feel like a miracle. The seniors we are celebrating this morning know all about this, I think. Many of them worked hard to learn languages other than their own while they were here — our Choir Secretary, May Wang, wrote a thesis in which she analyzed literature in English and in French side by side. Mei Colby, a teacher in our church school, devoted herself to the study of Spanish and of American Sign Language. And even those students who did not focus on the study of world languages learned many new languages: the language of critical theory, the language of computer programming, the language of poetry. That’s a lot of what being in school is about: the struggle to understand new languages and to learn to communicate in them — a struggle that has the potential to change us, radically, by introducing us to ways of describing and interpreting our existence that are new to us and by moving the boundaries of our own perspective further out.

This process can be frustrating, though, especially when the languages we’re trying to acquire are slow to reveal their secrets, no matter how hard we work at them. As an eternal student of Italian, I often feel like a character in one of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories who describes the experience of listening to the theorizing of a brilliant friend as standing on “the verge of comprehension, without the power to comprehend.” If you’ve ever sat over a page of Latin or Sanskrit with your head in your hands, or asked someone a question in their native tongue but been unable to decipher their answer, you know how frustrating standing on the verge of comprehension can be.

Learning new languages can also be alienating, if it feels as if our mother tongue is being displaced. A first-year student in the College, Marissa Joseph, published a beautiful piece on this experience in the Crimson last week that I very much recommend reading. She pays tribute in her essay to the beautiful, supple Creole of her mother and her community — and also worries that it is being superseded in her by the languages she is acquiring in school. Am I becoming a stranger to those I love most, she asks? She writes powerfully of fighting “to maintain ownership” of the lived struggles of her community that she hears discussed in theoretical terms in her classes and trying, as she puts it, “to find space within my people’s tradition for a remixed language that is both broken and Harvardesque.”

The story of the Tower of Babel that Maggie read for us is a story about language broken and scattered. An attempt to account for humanity’s many languages, this origin story seems, at first reading, to regard the diversity of human languages as a punishment for human beings who threaten the power of God, using their ability to communicate to build a brick tower up to heaven. “They all have one language,” God says, “and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

God seems on the defensive here, scattering human understanding in a show of power. But maybe there is another way to read this story. When God says, with one language nothing they propose to do will be impossible, maybe God means that whatever a homogeneous group of people, speaking only one language proposes will be lacking in imagination and compassion. Having only one language may thwart the possibility of transformative engagement with each other and the world. Maybe God knows that human beings will find more spacious, generous ways of living through the struggle to understand each other than as a homogeneous group of monoglots piling brick upon brick. Maybe that kind of literal-minded tower-building is not what God had imagined for us. May God imagined something more creative, more joyful.

Five years ago, my family had the great good fortune to live together for a year in Rome. Our daughter — also a senior, graduating this afternoon — began taking classes in Italian right away. One evening, she came home from having dinner with classmates from around the world, and said, “I want my life to be full of meals like these.” Sitting around the table with people who spoke different languages, and trying to communicate, felt to her like it might be one of life’s greatest pleasures.

She quickly overtook me in Italian fluency and so I signed up for a class myself, to try to catch up. It had been a long time since I’d been a student in a classroom, and I was fascinated by the blend of humility and fearlessness the best students in the class exhibited, their willingness to risk embarrassment and failure over and over again. The star students of language classrooms are the ones most comfortable making mistakes and most eager to be corrected. They are also the ones having the most fun. The star of our class, a young priest from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who was learning his fifth language, advised me to listen to more Italian music and watch more Italian films. Don’t just do the grammar exercises he said. “You have to find pleasure in a language,” he told me, “in order for the logic of the language to reveal itself.” I still think of his advice to me, no matter what I am trying to learn.

Unfortunately, long after the story of the Tower of Babel was written, the old desire to build structures that enshrine a single language, a single perspective, seems as strong as ever. Barriers are being built brick by brick all the time, both literally and figuratively. Even in the midst of this pandemic, when we need more than ever to learn with and from each other in all the languages we can muster, there are those using this crisis as an opportunity to further harden our borders, viewing other languages and the stories and perspectives that come with them with suspicion. In his powerful Guantanamo Diary, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was detained without charge in Guantanamo Bay for fourteen years, writes of being told by an interrogator there that speaking multiple languages is one of the (quote) “criteria of a top terrorist.”

But working in multiple languages is actually the mark of a person of faith. In Rome, it almost felt like a Christian obligation. Worshipping among the crowds in St Peter’s Square, I heard prayers offered in Mandarin, Arabic, French, Swahili, and Malayalam, scripture read in Spanish, English, and Italian, the Lord’s Prayer sung in Latin. It’s hard to imagine anyone present understanding everything — at some point in the service everyone would have stood on the verge of comprehension, recognizing the familiar sound of longing, prayer and praise but not knowing the words. You couldn’t help but wonder what fresh understanding of our faith might be available to us if we could pray in all those languages.

In the story of Pentecost that Karen-Alexandra read for us from the Acts of the Apostles, we see the frightened disciples of Jesus struggling with how to communicate what had happened to them — how even after his death, Jesus lived and continued to call them more deeply into the life of the world. Licked by tongues of flame and filled with the Holy Spirit, they find themselves suddenly able to speak in many different languages and to be understood by native speakers of many places — Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome. What seems at first like a reversal of the story of the tower of Babel becomes something even better: rather than returning the human race to a single language, God’s reaffirms the goodness of the variety of languages in which human beings struggle to speak of the things that matter most. On Pentecost, rather than scattering in confusion like the tower-builders of Babel did, people of many tongues gather close and listen together.

But even as they understood all the words the disciples were speaking, they still had to ask: “What does this mean?” Comprehension does not necessarily arrive when we have looked up all the words, or taken all the classes, or received our degrees. The place where we glimpse the meaning of what we’ve learned is in the life we share with others. Those who heard the disciples preach on Pentecost understood the words. But that was only the beginning. It was in the life they lived together that their answers to “What does this mean?” begin to take shape.

I hope this will be true for all of you, especially those of you who graduate this week. I hope that you will bring your fluency in the languages of history and anthropology, queer theory and feminist theology, poetry and biology to a world in dire need of new perspectives and better directions and ask “what does this mean?” I hope you will stand with others on the verge of comprehension and experiment with answers that take everyone into account. I hope you will test the weight and heft of your new languages within your communities, asking how well they communicate across boundaries, translating them — or better, following Marissa Joseph and remixing them to make them supple enough to “cross borders and take detours” and speak to the realities of our embodied lives.

I don’t know if this will happen next Sunday because of the continuing threat of covid-19, but ordinarily, on the feast of Pentecost, people from many nations and languages line up early in the morning outside the Pantheon in Rome, hoping to get a place inside for the Pentecost mass. The Pantheon, which, as its name suggests, started out as a temple to all the gods, has an oculus in its dome which allows light to move through the building as the earth turns. That oculus has never been covered. It has stood open like the threshold between heaven and earth, no matter which gods were being worshipped beneath it. Looking up through it at the unadorned sky, you could be standing in any moment in time, next to all who have ever stood beneath it and lifted their faces.

On Pentecost, Roman firefighters climb to the top of Pantheon’s dome with backpacks full of thousands of red rose petals. And at the end of the service, they pour them through the oculus to recall the tongues of flame that hovered over the heads of the disciples. Some of the people standing below will have heard the gospel proclaimed in their own language; others will have heard it in a language they can’t understand. But when the rose petals begin falling down from above, they become for a moment like the Parthians, Judeans, Romans and Arabs who heard the gospel in their own tongues. They might not know each other’s languages, but when the rain of rose petals begins, they all turn their faces in the same direction: toward the sky, toward beauty, toward light.

“What does this mean?” the first Pentecost congregation asked, and they kept trying to find out — through breaking bread together and praying for each other, by studying together and sharing fellowship together, by pooling their goods and possessions and caring for the needs of the community out of that abundance. Even on the feast of Pentecost, even on the feast of graduation, we remain on the verge of comprehension, called not to perfect understanding, but to the imperfect life of community. Here at the intersection of the known and the unknown, there is room to have our understanding shaped by solidarity with speakers of many languages, and room to turn our faces together toward a possible future in which the dignity of everyone’s humanity is cherished and protected.