But, inevitably, there is a striking discrepancy between the limits of the human vocabulary and the number of objects that can be referred to. The invention of computers forced us to “invent” totally news words to refer to all the finesses of technology. New dictionaries are therefore constantly needed.
When we turn to things spiritual, intellectual, affective or artistic, the poverty of our vocabulary becomes painfully evident. Daily we must acknowledge the anemia of the words at our disposal when trying to express adequately what is taking place in our souls. We must acknowledge defeat. When deeply moved by affective experiences, such a great love or profound gratitude or the perception of beauty, or when touched by grace, we will inevitably have to say: “Words fail me. Alas, I cannot express what I have experienced.” Silence is then more eloquent than words.
This applies to all “great” experiences. Mystics will constantly tell us that they cannot share with us what they have seen, heard or experienced. St. Paul, when caught up into Paradise, does not even know “whether in the body or out of the body.” (2Cor. 12:3) How is he to speak adequately about it? The human vocabulary is at best a “stammering.”
Moreover, each language has expressions and words which do not have their equivalents in other tongues. Some of them have a much richer vocabulary than others; the more primitive a language is, the more anemic it will be.
Only those who have dabbled at translation work know the difficulty of adequately rendering the thought of an author in another language. Purely technical works are the easiest, one reason being that the language of technology is getting to be more and more international.
When we turn to spiritual, philosophical, mystical writings, the “hopelessness” of achieving perfection is painfully experienced. This explains why great literary works have been translated and re-translated innumerable times. No one who has tried his hand at translating La Divina Commedia would ever dare say, “My work is so perfect; it would be meaningless to try to improve upon it.” The Italian language puts is well: Traduttore, traditore (“Translator, traitor”). There are words that simply have no equivalent in another tongue. At times, a translator will need a whole sentence to communicate what in the original language is expressed in a single word. Indeed, God knew what He was doing in punishing the arrogance of the “engineers” of the tower of Babel. “Come, let us go down and confuse their language.” (Gen. 11:5) Languages: the door is now open far and wide to misunderstanding. Great linguists are often tempted to “betray” their mother tongue by borrowing words from a foreign language that better express what they wish to communicate, the drawback being that others will not understand their meaning.
But words are still more mysterious: for one of the same word is often used for objects or ideas that are very different, even though they might have some superficial kinship. Unless clarified, this can lead to very serious equivocations.
One example is called for: Aristotle, the philosopher Dante calls “il maestro di collor che sanno” tells us that “the good is what all things desire.” Apart from the fact that non-living things cannot desire anything, this claim is likely to win universal assent. It sounds convincing; it sounds self-evident. The word “good” definitely refers to what is desirable as opposed to evil which triggers in us a response of rejection. But as soon as we adopt a careful philosophical approach, Aristotle’s claim is bound to raise the following question: do all men agree as to what is desirable? There will inevitably be a huge variety of responses. Very many people, following the lead of Aristippus, will identify good with “pleasure.” Whatever gives one satisfaction – be it sensual or psychic – will be qualified as “good” or worthy of being desired. The rapist is always on the lookout for victims for the very plain reason that to violate a woman gives him intense pleasure. The brutality of his action is no concern of his: all he wants is the physical sensation that forcing himself upon an unwilling victim gives him. Her anguish might possibly make it still more “spicy.” The gamut of possible self- satisfying experiences is so large that it is practically unlimited. Each one is free to consider his preferences to be justified. How is one to convince a person that he should enjoy Coca Cola if he happens to dislike it? The French language hinted at this when it asserted that it is meaningless to discuss tastes: “Des gouts et des couleurs, on ne discute pas” – it is meaningless to discuss tastes and colors.
The American Constitution states that we are entitled to pursue happiness. But we shall be hard put to find out how many people agree as to what will make them happy. For one it is power; for another, money; for another fame; for another self-fulfillment; for another love; for another love of God alone was satisfy the longing of the human soul. This would sound totally meaningless to an atheist.
When reading St. John’s Last Supper, we are struck by the fact that the word “world” is constantly repeated. When combined with the other Evangelists, it is mentioned twenty-six times. This is surprising indeed. Obviously, Christ’s use of the word must be clarified in order to understand His message. I shall try to shed some modest light on this crucial question.
Let us first turn to the very beginning of his Gospel. “The disciple Jesus loved” writes the following words: “He was in the world and the world was made through him, and the world knew him not.” (1:10 – emphasis mine) These words sound ominous: how can a world made by Him be rejected by those who benefited from the gift of existence? This gives a somber background to our task.
At the Last Supper, Christ tells us, “I came into the world.” The meaning is clear. He is referring to the Incarnation: God became flesh. This is the mystery of mystery of Christianity: a scandal for the Jews, madness for the Gentiles. He came to save us by giving His life for God’s rebellious creatures who have rejected His invitation to “follow him to Glory.” (Rule of St. Benedict, Ch. 1) Indeed, there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends.
Alas, from the very moment of the fall, man seems to be reluctant to being redeemed, like a sick patient who refuses to take the medicine that a loving doctor offers him. Wishing to become gods without God, man has become his own worst enemy, and the “enemy now being within,” he is difficult to expel: a savior was desperately needed. Gueranger writes: “… we have all to triumph over self, and self is the harshest of tyrants”. (Liturgical Year, Christmas II, p. 386)
Shortly afterwards, Christ tells us that He is about to “leave this world.” He is now announcing his imminent death and hinting at his resurrection, and ascension. His mission of love being accomplished; He will go back to the Father, with whom “he is one” and then send us The Holy Spirit – the Spirit of truth which will teach us all things.
The “visible world” in which we are born is beautiful: the awesomeness of a star-studded sky, a glorious sunset, the joy of spring, should trigger in us admiration and gratitude toward the Creator. Upon completing creation, God “saw that it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31) Yet this world has all the marks of metaphysical fragility; it was created in time, and will end in time. Its days are counted. The universe will, one day, be reduced to ashes. It is therefore most unwise to strike our roots in this fleeting reality, which, metaphysically speaking, is only a place of “transit,” for “we are made for immortality.” (Wis. 3:23).
But further in the sacred text, Christ uses the same word in a radically different sense. He tells his disciples, that the “world will hate you as it has hated me.” This is fearful news indeed. If there is one thing that we fear it is “to be hated.” Obviously our savior is not referring to the physical universe which cannot hate, but to persons who, alas, not only can hate, but even seem to thrive on their hatred. “Hatred” is a very strong word; it actually expresses one’s wish to hurt or even to annihilate the hated one: “Thou shalt NOT be.” The very existence of that other triggers in the hater the desire to blot him out of existence. Yet, this is the word our Savior uses to warn us of the ultimate seriousness of our earthly situation. His message is grave indeed, and warns us of the perilous situation in which we find ourselves while “in the world.” That the Holy One, the Son of the Father who sacrificed Himself out of Love to teach us again to Love, should be “hated,” is nothing short of appalling. Hatred should be a response only to what is detestable, i.e. worthy of hate. How can Holiness and Love be hated? This has been called the mystery of iniquity. It is fearful and sheds some light on the drama of a world constantly assailed by evil. Christ is referring to the Kingdom of Lucifer, the Prince of this world, who having waged war on God in uttering the words “non serviam”, has tried ever since, to recruit “disciples” who will join him in waging war on truth, goodness, holiness and beauty. This world is headed by the Evil one and his “cohort” of slaves, and is perversely waging war on Him who incarnates Love and Goodness.
This revelation is troubling indeed: we find ourselves in a “world” which – until time is no more – is the Enemy’s territory, for Satan is “the Prince of this world.” He was a “murderer from the very beginning” and a professional liar. But he is so proficient in this field that it does not cost him much effort to win over weak human beings whose intelligence is not only much inferior to his own, but moreover, has been darkened by original sin.
Lucifer – the Prince of Darkness – is the very incarnation of moral evil. Fully conscious of the precariousness of our earthly situation, our Savior nevertheless says to His Father: “I do not ask you to take them out of this world, but to preserve them from evil.” We are in a threatening world, but Christ makes it clear that – at least for a while – we are to live in it. Alas, being constantly threatened by somnolence, we are like the three privileged Apostles at Gethsemane who left Christ alone while he was agonizing. A glass of wine too many can make us trip and fall. Even administering an exorcism can be used by our enemy to bring to a fall the priest performing this noble but dangerous mission.
However, our Savior also tells his Father: “I have taken them out of this world.” Through his sacrifice on the cross, he has gained merits of infinite value generously offered to those who beg for his constant help. He will give them the grace necessary to be in the “world” and yet not “of the world.”
Faith should not be just a “word,” but a living reality, a “breathing” to God, that will enable us to face evil while fully realizing our weakness and yet never forgetting for a single moment that help is always available. Christ told us plainly, “without Me you can do nothing” and yet, this is paradoxical, we should firmly believe that “we can do all things in Him that strengthened us.” (2Cor. 11) As soon as we trust in our own strength, we are bound to suffer dreadful defeats. Never should we forget to put on the helmet of faith and the breastplate of humility. When achieving victory, we should always remember that it is thanks to His loving help. How beautiful are the words of St. Augustine: “Many and great are those infirmities of mine … but more potent is your medicine.” (Confessions, 10, 43)
In his holy rule, when speaking about the “tools of good work.” St. Benedict tells his monks that the first command is to love God with one’s whole heart, and then one’s neighbor as ourselves. This is also commanded to everyone one of us. But then to our amazement, he adds speaking to his monks, that they should abstain from murder and adultery! When I read this for the first time, it took away my breath: can one conceive that someone responding to a religious vocation should be told that he should abstain from these heinous sins? It is nothing short of amazing. But St Benedict – holy and wise – knew that never, absolutely never, should we assume that we have reached a degree of perfection which safeguards us from grave sins. Indeed, the walls of the monastery protect the monks from certain temptations provided that they do not for a single moment leave “the sacred enclosure” that protects them. Humility should remind us daily that there are sins that we have not committed because we have not been tempted. It is sheer illusion to assume because we sincerely wish to follow God, we are by this very fact, “beyond danger.” Temptations such as jealousy, rivalry, pride, egoism, hard heartedness can even creep into Carthusian monasteries where the monks, living in isolation, have practically no contact with one another. This is why, paradoxical as it seems, while we beg monks and nuns to pray for us, we should not forget to pray for them. Furthermore, St. Benedict commands his sons to turn to God seven times a day: “Lord, come to my aid; hasten to help me,” telling them in plain language that they constantly need divine help. When praying Compline, the monks are told to beware of “noctium phantasmata”. Once again, as St. Augustine remarks in his Confessions (Book 10, 30), the Evil One can make us relive our sexual aberrations while dreaming and thereby try to re kindle their attraction. He constantly reminds them and himself that humility is the best safeguard against deadly spiritual diseases. Yet, he also firmly believed that Christ has “overcome the world.” God will never refuse his help when asked for, and ultimately will help us achieve victory.
We should not forget that in the meantime, we are living “behind the enemy’s lines” and that having reached a certain degree of perfection does not immune us against spiritual falls. To borrow a thought from St. Francis of Sales, pride (and concupiscence) dies fifteen minutes after we do.
We only need read the lives of saints to see that they never, absolutely never, lost sight of the fact that, affected by original sin, Brother Ass can be a dangerous companion. This alone justifies the fearful asceticism that they practiced: not only by reducing food, drink, sleep to an absolute minimum but moreover, subjecting their body to pain and discomfort, be it by taking the discipline, wearing hair shirts, and refusing to yield to the body’s whining for being so badly treated. The dying St. Francis apologized to Brother Ass for having treated him so rashly. St. Thomas More (a married man) did not abandon his ascetic practices after having received the sacrament of matrimony: he still wore a hair shirt. What a lesson for “modern man” so concerned about “maximizing” pleasure. The word “asceticism” is today practically eliminated from the religious vocabulary.
Having sketched our perilous situation “in the world,” the moment has come to address the advice of Vatican II to be opened to the world: apertura al mondo.
Like every single word of the Gospel, this message can be properly read or gravely misunderstood.
The Council is clearly reminding us that the Good News is to be shared with all nations, without exception. We are called upon to teach the Holy Doctrine that Christ has given us through his apostles, and realize that Catholicism is not a sect, not a “secret society” reserved for the few “elect,” who alone worthy to receive its cryptic doctrine, a “divine message” which they are severely prohibited to share with the hoi polloi. All sects, without exception, are characterized by this “secrecy.” Truth by its very essence is Catholic, that is, universal: offered to all people, of all ages, without distinction of sex, or talent. This missionary vocation of the Church was one of its prominent marks from the very beginning. “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them.” It follows from this divine command, that “apertura al mondo” and Catholicism are intimately linked. May I suggest that the noble emphasis that Vatican II put on this mission, is not to be interpreted as something new, but rather as a truth which, through our spiritual somnolence, has been obscured and even forgotten. Like the conductors of a divine orchestra, our spiritual leaders have the mission opportune, importune, to wake us up. Without the conductor’s constant guidance, the musicians will inevitably “slow down” and ruin the performance. Apertura al mondo proclaimed by the Council reminds one of the sublime words of St. Augustine in his Confessions, referring to God as “this beauty so ancient and so new.” (10, 27) The message of the Gospel must constantly be “re-discovered.” The plenitude of revelation ended with the death of St. John. Its message was complete, but because of man’s culpable forgetfulness, we constantly need to be reminded of it. Inevitably through spiritual laziness, its beauty “fades.” This is why from time to time, even great religious orders need to be reformed. This is also why the successor of Peter must repeat the words of St. Peter vigilate. The divine message is therefore both “new” and “ancient.”
The “new evangelization” could be called “a new spring time” of a forgotten message. This reawakening is bound to trigger enthusiasm in those who “hear it for the first time,” but its beauty should not make us forget for a single moment that the “world” is also the kingdom of Lucifer. St. John’s message is luminously clear; “do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (First Epistle, 2:15) Missionary work cannot bear fruits if an enthusiastic “new born” missionary forgets for a single moment how “treacherous” the world is, how we constantly need God’s help. If he optimistically assumes that his fervor for the great work of winning souls to God guarantees that he is “safe” when going into the lion’s den and striking friendships with those who, alas, are God’s enemies (that is, citizens of the “city of the Devil”). Why does St. John, write in his second Epistle (4-10) that we should neither receive a heretic into our house, nor even greet him? What would he say about our striking a “friendship” with him in the name of “Christian charity?”
Once again we are facing one of the “holy paradoxes” of our faith, so magnificently expressed in the words of St. Cyril of Alexandria who waged a merciless war against Nestorius while claiming “I will yield to none in my love of Nestorius“. (Gueranger, p. 383, Septuagesima).
Let me conclude with the amazing proclamation of Pius XI, declaring St. Therese of Lisieux, “patron of the missions.” That someone who, aged fifteen, entered a little known Carmelite monastery, and never left it, should be given this noble title, is nothing short of amazing. Yet the message of the Pontiff is luminous. It is by spiritual means that most souls are conquered for God: faith, love, prayer, sacrifice, kissing of the cross, humility, abnegation. One of the overwhelmingly joys of eternity will be to see that little known, humble servants of God (whether male or female) have been the greatest missionaries, and that those saved by their sacrifices and love, will be given the joy of encountering them face to face, and given a chance to say: “thank you.”
Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.