Saturday, June 28, 2008

Words, words, words...

To adhere, you just have to be sincere, to affirm the correspondence; and thus, to be reasonable. Reasonableness means to affirm the correspondence between what you've stumbled upon and yourself and your own heart. To deny this, you'd have to have a preconception. You'd need to be attached to something you want to defend. If you have something to defend in front of the evidence and the truth, you no longer see the evidence... I used a word that works for everything, the word "scandal," which comes from the Greek word scandalon which means "hindrance" -- like a boulder on a mountain that falls in your path: you need to run to town to get a crane, if you can. Scandal is the objection that comes from an interest that is not professed in the name of truth, in search of the truth. • Luigi Giussani, Is It Possible to Live This Way? pages 59-60
One of the biggest boulders in my path to seeing the beauty of Christ in Communion and Liberation was the way in which language was used (or abused) by people in the Movement.

In the beginning, the word that bugged me the most was judgment. I kept hearing people in CL talking about the need to judge everything, and my first thought, after remembering Christ's words: "Judge not, lest ye be judged," was that this use (and overuse, in my opinion, but that's another point) of the word represented faulty translation. Surely, I thought, Fr. Giussani must mean something like discern? Because the word judge also carries within it the sense of the word condemn -- and in fact, I thought I sometimes discerned a tendency to condemn others, their behavior and their beliefs and their very persons, in some of the judgments my CL friends made. The word judgment can also refer to a legal process, and indeed, sometimes my CL friends seemed to approach life with a burden of legalism. Finally, the word judge calls to mind a figure who sits above others, and I also thought I detected a whiff of superiority among those who insisted so strenuously on judging everything. It bothered me so much, and I often thought: if only Fr. Giussani's translators had chosen the word discern instead, so many wouldn't have been led into error!

I also have an allergy to jargon. Here's how Merriam-Webster defines jargon: 1 a: confused unintelligible language b: a strange, outlandish, or barbarous language or dialect c: a hybrid language or dialect simplified in vocabulary and grammar and used for communication between peoples of different speech2: the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group3: obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words. This definition is very helpful because it encapsulates the problem -- certain words are made to stand in for Big Concepts, and the poor little words aren't strong enough to hold them up. Meanwhile, while the person, who is speaking the word, would like it to stand in for a long string of words, that long string might not be the same long string that the listener fills in when he hears the word. It may even be that neither the speaker nor the listener is fully aware of the precise long string of words that spells out the heavy burden of meaning that the poor word is meant to carry. I am speaking about words like Encounter, "I," Experience, Judgment, Freedom, Companionship, Unity, Presence, Reason, Reality, Being, Mystery, Event, Preference, Nothingness, Awareness, Infinite, and Belonging. When Fr. Giussani uses these words, he almost always explains and clarifies them, but sometimes, it seems to me, when his followers use them, they appear to think that no explanation or clarification is necessary. Even a single speaker will use the same word, several times in a conversation, and mean different things each time he uses it! When words are treated this way often enough, it bleeds them of meaning. Even the person speaking may no longer be aware that there is a string of other words behind these words -- the long string of words turns into a cloud of feeling, and the truth that wants to be communicated turns into mush.

The other problem with jargon (besides the degeneration of meaning) is that it tends to foster exclusivity because there are those who have mastered the jargon and those for whom it is unintelligible. Using the jargon is a shortcut to becoming an authority, to being a part of the in crowd.

In my opinion, all of this is actually antithetical to the charism of Fr. Giussani. This is why it is so important for us to avoid ever being lazy or facile with our words. Using our words carefully and with precision, and never using one flashy word to do the work of eight or ten others, is to practice the kind of ascesis that Fr. Giussani calls us to. It also makes it possible to do the important work of mission. Unless we can speak a language that is intelligible to all, we are just trading useless chatter with the in crowd; in other words, we're trading personal comfort for the truth.

A friend of mine, Fred, helped me to see another side to this issue, though. He wrote:
Jargon can be a crutch even in CL, but I'm of several minds about this. I think it's always worthwhile to express one's experience in one's own words - to strain at describing things with rigorous detail. I also thought many things in CL were untrue, people just repeating something they heard - the latest example is this: people saying that Christ showed his face to them through their kids. But then it happened, so now I can't say if someone's just repeating. It may have happened to them too.

The other thing (and I argue this point with Karen) is that as a student of language and history, I know that the words that Fr. Giussani used were not a presumptuous imposition of his notions on reality, but words that more often than not had a different meaning than they do now. They're important words that express the contours of distinctly Christian experience, and we shouldn't give them up to the common mentality. We should fight for them and reclaim them. Like he reminds us in Is it Possible to Live This Way?: a child says "mama" and repeats that word for years and decades until as an adult it has a completely different depth to it. So, perhaps some of this jargon is people baby talking, trying out the words as they look for the experience.

What's interesting is this: so much of what we learn in CL can be reduced to a series of cliches that are printed everywhere we look. What's different for us, I hope, is the recoil. I love this word recoil (like the recoil of a gun). Is this a CL word? There's a seriousness and a depth that goes all the way down. We don't need new words so much as to mean the ones that we use.
I asked Fred for permission to quote what he said to me, and he just granted it, on the condition that I also quote the following passage from Fr. Giussani:
We'll have you repeat words heard as discourse or words spoken as prayer that you don't understand. Not because we're fools and we make you do things that you don't understand. We know that you don't understand them. We didn't understand them either when we were young like you. Yet it's only by repeating them that you understand. What a two-year-old calls "mama" he'll refer to by the same word when he is fifty. That same word, not another word, will be profoundly different, understood more deeply, loved more deeply, judged more deeply ... but still one he has repeated his whole life long. The method we use to go to God is like this. This is how we come to terms with Christ.

This came to mind when I heard "We regard no one from the point of view of the flesh." Do you remember reading this? You mean you don't remember it any longer, you've already forgotten it? "If one is in Christ, he is a new creature." If I were to say to you, "Explain this sentence to me," none of you - except some genius, still unknown - would be able to explain it to me. Would anyone be able to explain it to me?

If you don't know what it means, why repeat it? Because you're told to repeat it! And why are you told to repeat it? Because it's a form of asking... You're asking Christ. You don't understand the formula you use to ask. This will emerge in your experience as it matures over time
(Is it Possible To Live this Way? pages 79-80).
So, okay. People need to repeat certain words that they don't fully understand. I do the same thing, really. I'm fully aware that I don't truly understand mercy, or freedom, or even love. Yet I use (and yes, misuse) them every day. I hope I am nearer the truth than when I first began to use them!

What crane did I use to remove this particular obstacle from my path? Why does it no longer bother me when I feel as if people in the Movement are using jargon? Because Fred's insight, and the passage from Fr. Giussani that he has me quote here, were only recently given to me, but my irritation at the use and misuse of certain precious words has been gone for some time...

There are so many things that are exceedingly precious to to me -- language among them -- but there is something far more precious than all these things. It is the voice of my Beloved asking, "Suzanne, do you love me more than all of these?" It has taken me so long to relinquish the urge to protect and defend what I count as precious. But, unless I do indeed relinquish my sense that it is my duty to save these things, I will lose what is most precious. And then everything else dries up and turns to dust, too. I do love him, more than I love everything, even language. And loving him means viewing the people who speak to me in a completely new light. As Angelo once said, "
My reactions to others are one billionth of what they are." And it is the other 99.99999% of them that interests me now.


Freder1ck said...

Fr. Giussani was also critical of other people's words, like in assemblies or in that discussion "What is Christianity?" I read something recently where he castigated CL folk for using the word "incarnate" in a glib way and he told them it was sacrilege.

Suzanne said...

He's always surprising me, that one!

Marie said...

Ok, so this post has been making me think. I will confess I am still find it a bit... weird, uncomfortable, odd... to hear jargony type talk. But reading this (a very lovely being-escorted to Fred's point) makes me able to point to what it is that I feel that bothers me. When I hear others flinging the "CL words" around, I feel like "they" get something that I don't; that awkward social moment where I want to be with someone, but I'm just next to them instead. I get this sense, this knowing, frequently, that I do actually "get" what Fr. Gius is saying in his writings, but I don't have the use of the terms down. My heart hasn't made connection between the reality and the kind of understanding of it that makes me able to put a term to it, in the way that I can think "circular flat thing on legs" and say "table." Of course, that's probably because it really and truly is easier for me to SAY "circular flat thing on legs" than it is to say "table". It is something about how my brain processes language. I guess I think of what things are, rather than what they are called. Maybe it is why I don't always talk a lot!

But the irritation? Yeah, I think it is the outside looking in feeling.

Traductor said...

I agree with you. Apart from translation errors (there are fewer than it seems, and they usually don't involve the "big words"), I think a problem with our approach to Giussani's vocabulary is that we easily get caught up in the connotations of certain words as opposed to their meanings. Your example of "judge" is a case in point: I have a winemaker friend who won a prize because his Cabernet was judged to be better than the others. No one complained about the use of "judge" in that circumstance.

Suzanne said...

Thank you, Marie. I really appreciate this response. And welcome, Traductor!

Here's what Merriam-Webster says about the word "judge" --

transitive verb1: to form an opinion about through careful weighing of evidence and testing of premises2: to sit in judgment on : try3: to determine or pronounce after inquiry and deliberation4: govern, rule —used of a Hebrew tribal leader5: to form an estimate or evaluation of; especially : to form a negative opinion about (shouldn't judge him because of his accent) 6: to hold as an opinion : guess, think (I judge she knew what she was doing) intransitive verb1: to form an opinion2: to decide as a judge.

-- and "connotation" (just the first definition):
the suggesting of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it explicitly names or describes.

According to these definitions, it seems that the translators chose "judge" for the first sense in its definition. But, I think, that the other senses of the word, contained in the definition, aren't connotations but actually elements of its meaning?

Freder1ck said...


It would be a shame if the words we learn from Fr. Giussani become jargon, code words for a bunch of folks to hide from the world in the Church, and then to hide from the Church within the Church. And yet it does happen. If that's CL, then I don't need it.

But being able to throw around a word is not good enough and really only the mark of one who has learned a discourse. Fr. Giussani was tireless in his fight against people using words without understanding them - from the days in the Berchet when the kids told him faith and reason were incompatible but without being able to tell him what faith or reason was.

And then also, I was blown away by "What is Christianity?" - it was like pulling teeth for those students to tell Fr. Giussani what Christianity is (If I had been with them, I wouldn't have done any better).

kabloona said...

I must take the time to slowly read this. I quickly ran thru it and so much matches my own thought. I need a little time!

Marie said...


Thinking about your comment... The use of words as defense is bothersome, indeed. But, it could very easily be that those who use "these words" (and I am thinking primarily of my experience at the Exercises this Spring) fully understand what they are saying, and it still bugs me. Sometimes it just seems to me that what is supposed to serve as clarification, specification (terms as Giussani taught them) become cumbersome at least as I hear them, as one who is new to them.

I'm thinking of the text of the Exercises themselves, for example. I just get frustrated that there is so much work in decoding the English words. When I finally get the point, it seems there are many simpler ways to put it.

I think that the value I find is in chewing up these words and taking their meaning in like nourishment, and then acting and speaking to others in, dare I say, normal language, is the benefit of CL to me (thinking in terms of evangelical value, that which I "get" to share). Perhaps what I find is my limitations bumping up against the lingo, making for rather slow up-take for me.

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."