The Mother Tongue: From a Biblical Perspective

By Fr. Ron Rolheiser

“Ephphatha!”— that is, “Be opened!” —And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly (Mk 7:34b-35).

biblicalmothertongueHans Urs Von Baltasar once wrote: “After a Mother has smiled for a long time at her child, the child will begin to smile back; she has awakened love in its heart, and in awakening love in its heart, she awakes also recognition.”

Awakening love and recognition within a child’s heart is a result of more than just the mother’s smile, her voice is also important. Mothers don’t just cuddle babies and smile at them, they also speak to them. It’s this, hearing the mother’s voice beckoning the child to come outwards towards a bigger world even when there isn’t yet any real understanding of what’s being said, that’s vital in bringing a child to self-awareness and speech. We come out of the darkness and chaos of infancy precisely to the extent that we are called out by voices that cajole, caress, reassure, and keep forever luring us beyond ourselves.

During the early critical months of a child’s life, it’s the mother’s voice that does most of this. That’s why the first language we learn is called our “mother tongue”. There are no “father tongues”. It’s the mother’s voice that first caressed us and lured us out of unthinking, inarticulate darkness. Rainer Marie Rilke says that an infant’s journey into human awareness depends upon the mother’s voice displacing “the surging abyss.”

Language philosophers agree. In their view, language structures consciousness and creates the very possibility of thought and feeling. Before we can use a language, we’re trapped inside a darkness and chaos that leave us unable to think or speak as human beings.

We see this illustrated in the case of Helen Keller, who was born blind and deaf and was taught to speak only by the extraordinary efforts of a gifted teacher, Annie Sullivan. In a real sense, Annie Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, broke open the world for her. By teaching her language, Annie Sullivan precisely brought Helen Keller out of darkness and chaos and opened up for her the possibility of freedom, thought, deeper feeling, self-expression, and the awareness of love.

Perhaps no image is more valuable than this to help us understand how the Word of God is meant to work in our lives. All preaching, teaching, theology, and pastoral practice is really in function of letting God’s voice become the smiling, beckoning, caressing, cajoling, luring voice of the mother, calling us out of fear, darkness, chaos, and muted frustration to freedom, thought, self-expression, and the awareness of love.

The purpose of God’s word is not, first of all, to challenge us towards charity, social justice, morality, or even to the worship of something higher or to form community among ourselves, important though these are in themselves. Christ came, as God’s incarnate Word, to bring us life, light, and love. This means that Christ came to do what our mother tongue does, namely, to call us out beyond the fear, darkness, and chaos that prevents us from entering the world of self-expression, thought, and conscious love.

Christ, as Word, is analogous to Annie Sullivan trying to help Helen Keller break through the chaos of being trapped inside herself, unaware of deeper consciousness, unable to speak, and blocked from fully entering human life. It’s no accident that the gospels speak of Christ as “the Word” because Christianity is more a particular kind of language (a “mother tongue”) than it is a religion.

Religion doesn’t always understand itself in that way. In our theology schools, in our church circles, and in our preaching and religious teaching, in general there is too little of Annie Sullivan and too much a using of God’s word for every other kind purpose. If we look at a sampling of religious literature of any persuasion (the preaching, teaching, and writing of liberals and conservatives alike within any denomination) or at the language that drives social justice spiritualities, academic theology, devotional literature, new age spiritualities, or the theologies of other world religions, we will find, with few salient exceptions, too little that sounds like a “mother tongue”. For the most part, we will search in vain for an Annie Sullivan who with infinite patience, understanding, and gentleness, is trying to coax us out of the darkness, inarticulateness, deafness, and chaos into which we were born.

That’s not to say that what passes today for preaching, theology, and pastoral practice is not full of valuable truth, interesting insights, and prophetic challenge. There’s lots of good theology around. But what’s more absent are the loving sounds and coaxing words, along with the gentle cadence, that we first heard from our mothers when they lured us into self-awareness. What’s needed in theology, spirituality, and church circles are caressing, gentle, beckoning voices that, with the patience and love of an Annie Sullivan, try to teach us how to speak and to enter a world whose complexity and hugeness dwarfs and frightens us. It’s not easy to be led out of darkness.

The search for God is very much the search to hear the divine in our “mother tongue”.

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