I wish I had a universal translator. You know, like the one they use so pervasively on Star Trek. Surely you’ve seen how it works: No matter what planet the starship crew is on, no matter how incredibly alien another species may be, all someone has to do is strap on a translator and everyone understands everyone else perfectly. I mean, how cool is that?
With such a device, all language barriers melt into the ether. Believe me, Google Translate is a far cry from sci-fi technology. Some years back I had a guest from Uzbekistan in my home for a week and only an iPad to assist us in communicating. It wasn’t pretty. We had a running disagreement about the dubious use of a hair dryer in a century-old apartment building like mine, and it was like standing at the base of the tower of Babel.
Night after night, our debate ended in total frustration. My guest couldn’t grasp why her host, who seemed otherwise hospitable, was being so terribly unkind in refusing her the familiar task of doing her hair as she wished. In the end, I told her to do whatever she wanted, and of course she blew the fuse. When the lights went out, a light bulb, as it were, went on. She finally understood what mere words had been incapable of making clear as we fumbled around together in the dark.
Even a universal translator might not help in all situations involving miscommunication. It’s not always the words that catch us up. Behind each word are values, feelings, intentions, history, personal interpretation, and experience. The folks who stood at the base of the biblical tower of Babel may not have benefited from having their sudden multiplicity of languages knit back into one. Because what those folks failed to understand was much more fundamental than words. They couldn’t appreciate what an affront human arrogance is to the powers of heaven. I don’t know how you teach the language of humility to the unrepentantly proud.
At Pentecost, we celebrate the gift of inspired speech bestowed by the Holy Spirit, which makes divine truth clear to all times, places, and people who seek it. We also reflect on the confused jumble that human speech has once more become. We live in an age of boutique truths, alternative facts, and opinions that stand in for reality—not to mention casual, comfortable lies. Since anything can be presented as “my truth,” the very concept of what’s certain has been cheapened. Instead, truth feels perilously unknowable.
Not for nothing is the Evil One also known as the Father of Lies and the Prince of Darkness. Once we can’t trust the veracity of our conversation partners, news sources, or institutional authorities, we find ourselves mingling with the crowd at Babel, frustrated and alone as the buzz of meaningless words swirls around and shuts out the hope of understanding.
Church, of course, is supposed to radiate the opposite of all that. Empowered by the Spirit’s gift of clarified speech, our communion is meant to put us on the same page: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, as St. Paul declares to the Ephesians. Believers have a shared sacred story, shared assembly, shared sacraments. We are Catholic—that is, universal. Like a universal translator, Catholicism should make those who embrace the church capable of speaking to one another and be perfectly understood.
Yet this present generation is presently absorbing painful lessons about how many ways there are to be dishonest. We lie with images and words. We lie with what we omit and what we say. We speak now of the “male gaze” and the “white gaze”: how dominant cultures teach us to conform to their agendas by how they present the rest of us to ourselves. So generations of women and girls learned to be helpless, sexy, ditzy, or all three to conform with how stories about us were told or visualized for all of us, male and female alike. Hedy Lamarr shrewdly observed, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” We came to understand that thin was the only good way to be, and half-dressed even better. We submitted to being fashion victims, willing and eager to wear the “cruel shoes,” as Steve Martin suggested. To not do these things made our womanhood suspect. Even if we could think and were entirely capable, it paid to play along with the illusion.
Until very recently, stereotypes of minorities in media portrayals were damagingly uniform—and tragically effective in keeping such persons fearful and suspicious-seeming in the popular mind. You know the lineup: Black men were drug dealers, Black women welfare recipients. Asian men were uniformly villains, Asian women both seductive and traitorous. Gay people were curiously either killers, victims, or comic relief. All Muslims were terrorists, and none smiled as broadly as Hasan Minhaj unless he was about to cut your throat. All Catholic priests apparently slept in the confessional until awakened by someone in trouble—at which point they proved to be senselessly mean or spiritually useless.
It gets wearisome to confront the dominant gaze with its distinct way of dissembling by means of repetitive and universalized depictions. Even if you’re Christian and straight, the often merciless “Christian gaze” or “straight gaze” is both annoying and dangerous to those who get pigeonholed by it. I once attended a Good Friday liturgy with a lovely Jewish friend of mine and was ashamed to hear how John’s passion gospel sounded to his ears with its constant drumming against “the Jews.” As I listen to some folks complain about the “queering of television,” I can only wonder what it was like before now, when likely 1 out of 10 of us was unrepresented to the point of questioning their existence.
Pentecost is the liturgical hour when citizens of every nation, race, and tongue hear good news preached to them—and hear it in their own language. When Peter steps out into the streets, he speaks to the multitudes irrespective of who they are or where they come from. The Spirit isn’t exclusive, and apparently no one hears bad news preached to them on that day. Just imagine what would happen if such a Pentecost message were unleashed from every pulpit! If every person in our parishes could hear the gospel proclaimed in a way that made their hearts dance!
What if each of us embraced the aesthetic of love, as Pope Francis calls it, turning on one another the “kind gaze” that views each person as valuable, loveable, and precious to God? The kind gaze does not discriminate, judge, measure, or exclude. The kind gaze sees the divine image in every face rather than imposes an image it prefers or insists on. This great worth in every person is what the pope calls beauty in the 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family): “Love opens our eyes and enables us to see, beyond all else, the great worth of a human being.”
Such beauty is not an artificial aesthetic enhanced by a wardrobe, glammed up with jewels, given to the few, or faded with time. This sacred beauty is innate and irrevocable. It’s something we invest with our own tenderness as we look at the beloved other and see all the possibilities to love in that face. If we learn to speak the language of love, we can’t help but see the beauty of God in every countenance. And everyone understands love just fine.
Image: La tour de Babel, Endre Rozsda, 1958. Wikimedia Commons