How do you communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language, nor you theirs?
That, essentially, is the question Pam and I always face when we visit our French friends, Serge and Betty, whom we visited in Nice for five days last week. We do speak some French, Pam more than I; and they do speak some English, Serge more than Betty. It’s good for things like, “How did you sleep?” “Where is the nearest Pharmacy?” and “Let’s have lamb for dinner.” What it can’t muster are things like, “There’s this hilarious scene in ‘Annie Hall’ where Woody Allen walks up to this couple on the street—he doesn’t know them from a bale of hay….” Or even, “A penny for your thoughts.”
Nevertheless for almost 25 years we have been friends, close friends, the four of us. We eat dinner with a dictionary and a pad of paper (for drawing things) on the table, somehow discussing religion and politics and relationships. We make up for the paucity of words with body language and fierce facial expressions. We listen harder, seeking cues in voice inflection, in word fragments that sound like cognates of our mother tongues. We have found there is a way to say, “I am so disillusioned with this political system” by shaking the head slowly with eyes closed.
Somewhere in the richness of this verbal-nonverbal interplay I find clues to prayer. Words are so facile. They pour out of our mouths daily by the thousands. Yet what is being truly spoken? And is anyone listening, really? Once we see how people hide behind words, how endless talk can be a defense against real engagement, we’re properly sick of every syllable. We’re ready for another mode of communication.
“Silence is God’s first language,” said St. John of the Cross. Accordingly, it is as if God and we speak different languages. Our first nervous impulse is to fill the space between us with verbiage. This may be why Jesus said, “And in praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7).
On the last day of our visit to Nice, Serge and Betty drove us to the train station and carried our luggage to the platform. We stood there, wondering what to say. Betty put her hand on her heart, and Serge said, “There is no words.”