A series of fortunate events transpired in 2020, the miserable year I turned 25 years old. The world was in lockdown against a deadly disease that strangers would blame on my race. One looked at my ‘oriental’ face —Chinese? Don’t go near her!— to ascertain my cultural roots, roots which really grew from London at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. I was in London again, now adult working an office job from home, keeping company a septuagenarian lady with Parkinson’s disease who could not leave our flat. She stayed sane and alive by singing and playing the piano. I read languages in anticipation for Oxford where I would soon start training to become a teacher and a linguist. I was also undergoing spiritual transformation by way of Catholic Catechesis, delivered by priests and nuns —initially at Westminster Cathedral, pre-pandemic, then— over computer screens while human freedom was painfully curtailed. Baptism which should have happened that Easter got cancelled, but the good virtue of patience carried me through. First of August was the day water from the River Jordan flowed finally down my head. I was in the Sanctuary of the Cathedral —completely empty except for two priests, five catechumens, and a few guests— underneath an immense blood-red Crucifix, from which our Lord and Our Lady of Sorrows glowed. Their skin hued softly in blue.
As a convert I reflect on the times when I couldn’t know God, to determine what should be done now. God found you, said once my first Chaplain, when I learned to recognise His hand in every dark and lighted corner of my life. An old Psalmist once before wrote:
‘[Lord], you examine me and know me,
You know when I sit, when I rise, you understand my thoughts from afar.
You watch when I walk or when I lie down, you know every detail of my conduct.
A word is not yet on my tongue before you, [Lord], know all about it.’
So I came to ask myself how, on earth, did God find me on my walk towards the Truth? How does He speak to ‘my inmost self’ (Ps 139)? And why do some people not seem to be receptive to His Word, the language of love? Here I consider the ways in which God expresses Himself to human beings —the methodology of His teaching— and how His language can be better understood. Divine teaching is for all —the poor, the sick, the destitute— to the extent to which each person is able to receive. In this sense, there is always The Giver giving to His receiver in ceaseless conversation: ‘a dialogue of salvation between God and humanity’; and this salvific history in the Bible —a true love story— lives on in us, God’s people; His message remains to be channelled out and translated into today’s cultures. With a good interpreter and through personal prayer, individuals can be guided to identify signs of God’s action already present in their own lives and begin their journey of conversion.
To learn of divine mediation, we must of course start by observing and listening to the archetype of mediators —Jesus Christ, our language of love made flesh. Jesus was a gentle man who dwelt among us as our friend, teaching the wisdom of God the Father. Our Father has been trying to tell us how to live since the beginning of time. But like Adam and Eve, we have forgotten to reciprocate His love through faith —a relationship He wants for our happiness, a bond that gives meaning to life. Easily we refuse to listen to the Word when we think we know ourselves better and above the One who wrote our cells and DNA. Several Prophets and Ten Commandments later, God opted to redress our ignorance by sending forth His son who would teach us the law in person, cor ad cor: heart to heart. The radical pedagogy of Jesus was documented by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They were four of the disciples whom Jesus carefully formed to educate the world around.
Christ Jesus, our language of love, taught people through judicious actions, words, and silence. This was a pedagogy of signs: an education that promoted life, and combatted worldly evils, meant that lost people would eventually be found. Jesus washed poor men’s feet and fed the hungry. He encouraged a broken woman from Samaria to accept God’s grace and be forever healed of the hatred in her life. He spoke the Truth, firm and measured, which most people had difficulty digesting. Not the proud, but ‘blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth’ (Matthew 5). On marriage, Jesus said,
‘Haven’t you read … that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ … ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?’ (Matthew 19)
before predicting the familial destruction that follows divorce. Nobody wants to admit the shame and weakness of adultery, which is a consequence of following one’s own individual desires.
Jesus gave clear verbal instructions on how to treat wives, husbands, children, neighbours, and friends. Forgive them not seven but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18). Lend them your hands and resources if they are in need (Luke 10-11). Show gratitude (John 11). Yet, Jesus’ speech as a quantity seems very little compared to the grand prophecies in the Old Testament and the cacophony of crowds that jeered for his horrific Crucifixion. His utterances comprised only the absolute necessary facts, but also the provocative questions that challenge our weak faith, and tendency to close ourselves away from what is true:
‘Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?’ (Mark 8)
And where Jesus did not speak, he prayed and aligned his human will to that of his Father’s: ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ (Matthew 6).
Listen. Watch. You’ll notice that the language of love is alive today, woven into strong families, friendships, institutions, literature, science, art, and more. It is beautiful; one may go on. His language is experienced intimately and differently by every soul —though this soul may erroneously believe that the source of this language belongs elsewhere, not to Him. Nonetheless, in our search for inner meaning, we have no choice over orienting our hearts towards God. For ‘Behold, all souls are mine’ (Ezekiel 18), said the Lord. So concluded Edith Stein in 1938:
‘It has always been far from me to think that God’s mercy allows itself to be circumscribed by visible church boundaries. God is truth. All who seek truth seek God, whether this is clear to them or not.’
Stein was a German psychologist–philosopher who became a Carmelite nun, changing her name to St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
The great St Thomas Aquinas wrote humilitas est veritas: ‘humility is truth’. Analysing the Latin word for ‘truth’, veritas, one falls on a set of definitions which can be summarised as ‘the true actual nature of a thing’; the thing’s ‘reality’; its ‘honesty’. If you turn on the radio, you might be lucky to hear the lovely Aretha Franklin singing: ‘The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup, I say a little prayer for you.’ Her song is more than a soothing call to offer our day up to God. It states a simple reality of our human existence being dependent on God, about which we should be honest.
Following the footsteps of Jesus and his disciples, today’s family of followers —the universal Church— enacts Catechesis to educate sinners to varying degrees. The etymology of the word ‘education’ may explain what this process entails. Its Latin verbal root educo has several aspects. One is ‘to bring up, rear, educate’ in the sense of educating a child. The responsibility of family —the Domestic Church— along with teachers to correctly catechise their children should be highlighted here. Other senses of educo include ‘drawing (water) out’, ‘leading (troops) out’, ‘to raise up’, ‘to live’, and ‘to spend (time)’. These activities pertain more to catechesis in an adult to adult, Jesus to disciple sense whereby a person mature in their faith inculturates God’s language into the depths of persons and peoples. The fashion in which Jesus bound himself to the socio–cultural milieu of his era must be imitated by us so that the people we accompany can internalise the fullest possible experience of faith. Catechesis —advocating in and for Christ— goes beyond teaching morality and the rules that we should not break for our own good. It involves proclaiming the beauty and joy of God, which are made real for each person once he or she chooses to abide with Him and to adhere to His command of loving always, amidst human suffering.
God has built a treasure of languages that allow us to share a common tongue and pray back to Him as one united Church: biblical language (Sacred Scripture), symbolic-liturgical language (liturgical symbols and ceremonies), doctrinal language (Creeds, writings of the Fathers), and performative language (witness of the saints and martyrs). Elements of all these languages are contained in the Mass. Grace and mercy, moreover, transcend the physical church walls, as Edith Stein noted before. Walk into any art gallery or music hall and you shall receive opportunities to pray anew with your eyes and your ears, through divine colours and cosmic sounds. For us to understand Him, we need simply say ‘Yes’ and listen, with openness, like did Mary, Mother of God. Aged 13 or 16 —we do not know exactly how old she was— Mary was courageous enough to receive His language into her womb: ‘Be it done to me according to Thy word’ (Luke 1).
Our mission now is to find new variations of His radical language for the times. God is calling us to hand down the divine pedagogy in written, visual, spoken, and silent practised forms that make sense to ourselves, such that we feel free to share them with those around us as authentic expressions of our love, born from His. One can make larger gestures —composing a memoir: Haydn’s Seven Last Words on the Cross— or smaller gestures through kindly walks and chats over tea. A spontaneous invitation to Mass could plant a ‘mustard seed’ (Matthew 13; Mark 4; Luke 13) of faith into the soul of a nonbeliever to be renourished in good time. However, the language of love should never be forced upon others. For that is not how God works. God will wait; He is compassionate and yearns for our prayers, but understands it is not always easy for us to give them constantly in our sinful weakness. The beauty of His language may even overwhelm newcomers to the Church. So believers must empathise with a catechumen who has suffered without God her entire life and still struggles to comprehend His faithful love for her. The freedom promised in love purified through Jesus Christ is so great that too much of His language too soon might actually cause pain.
I recall one weekday this year gone when I went to Mass and Confession after an exhausting day teaching at school. Kneeling in the confessional, I produced a ineloquent stream of confession to the effect of:
‘Forgive me for doing this today in my classroom. My students deserve better. I forgot the words for this in French and that in Mandarin. I’ve even forgotten how to speak English, so I really need your help.’
The priest advised me to give regard to two particular qualities in the Holy Spirit, our Teacher: that of enacting the will of God, and that of patience. We are summoned to take action and do God’s work to the very best of our abilities, but His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55), especially where a student’s learning process is concerned, be it in French, Mandarin, German, or divinely inspired. The least I can do in my teaching is to establish the right conditions for students to receive this language and to help them to understand the vocabulary and the grammar. Then, I must show them how to use the language for the good of themselves. These are the moments in which I am to act on behalf of God.
And there are moments when it is better to step away from my students, pray, and let the Holy Spirit take His course. The Catholic Church has survived since the day Jesus made Peter her Rock. God will speak to my students as he deems fit. They will eventually speak back —in faith, the language of love— once they are truly ready.
A redacted version of this article was first published on 9 October, 2021 in Issue 2 of Cor ad Cor — The Magazine of The Newman Society.
Resources: Directory for Catechesis (2020)