Ars Praedicandi: Pentecost, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

A few weeks back I had the privilege of speaking
to a couple of hundred scientists
gathered for the International Vacuum Electronics Conference
in Monterey California.

How I received the invitation to speak to this group,
whose area of expertise is completely beyond my understanding,
is a topic for another time.

My task for the assigned plenary was to be “inspirational”
and my presentation, “an apology to Galileo,”
was an homage to science and scientists.

In particular, I suggested that
whether or not these scientists from around the globe
shared my belief system,
their work was yet a boon to my own believing & preaching
especially because
of the powerful ways they deployed human imagination,
the deeply inspirational effects of their explorations,
and their willingness to confront unexplained mysteries.

Scientists daily face off against the inexplicable
and their delving into the unknown moves knowledge.
Current unsolved mysteries in the sciences include questions like:
what is the cause of Alzheimer?
i9s light the ultimate speed limit?
what is dark matter?
do we live in a false vacuum?
and is string theory a credible unifying formulation?

My favorite here is a question related to string theory –
that of parallel universes.
The multiverse theory projects that
many universes exist parallel to each other.

Some scientists contend that these ghost universes,
invisible to us now,
would have different timelines than our own
which could actually allow time travel
by stepping through a wormhole in space-time
allowing us to actualize our own “Back to the Future”
and intervene in other time periods. [2]

What sparks these reflections about
mysteries and multiverses,
lateral timelines and back to the future musings,
is this pivotal feast of Pentecost
which evokes, at least for me,
spiritual analogs about the multiverse,
both in the gift of the Spirit
and in the ministry of Jesus.

Regarding time, for example,
notice how the texts we proclaim and sing today
seem to confuse past and present,
then and now,
the completed and the promised,
and the already and the not yet?

Multiple propers assigned to this feast
confirm that the Spirit descended upon ancient disciples
but again today on contemporary worshippers,
that the Paraclete enlightened first believers
and opens the hearts of present-day baptized,
that the Spirit of Jesus imparted peace in the past
while remaining the enduring promise of peace for the ages.

When we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit … come, Holy Spirit”
we admit that the space-time continuum
between the 1st century and the 21st century,
between Jerusalem and Chicago
is eternally breached by God’s own spirit
who cannot be confined by human theorems
or contemporary physics.

And then there is the Only-Begotten
who in Catholic-Christian belief
is the very embodiment of parallel worlds
of a divine and human multiverse.

By contending that Jesus is truly human yet truly divine
we acknowledge a human nature
once embedded in our own history
has nonetheless transcended space and time
in its union with the divine nature
and shattered the physical and temporal gap
between Palestine and Palatine,
between the 1st millennium and the 3rd millennium,
and revealed in a unique way
how God freely negotiates chronology and geography.

While theologically impressive
such reflections could seem so speculative,
so unreal, and so unrepeatable
that we might be left, again,
with one of the more daunting questions to plague
those seeking spiritual enlightenment and salvation:
“so what?”

So what that God can transcend time and space?
So what that Jesus can occupy parallel universes
of humanity and divinity?
So what that God’s Spirit can glide across cosmic time
and simultaneously materialize across human history?

That hasn’t stopped the war in Ukraine,
thousands starving in Afghanistan,
human rights being trampled upon here and abroad,
the oceans rising in Micronesia,
or innocents being slaughtered in Texas.

The “so what” question easily arises
in the presence of an all-powerful God,
a kind of divine superhero unbounded by the laws of nature
while we mere mortals feel so vulnerable, feeble, even helpless.

Though we have been promised the gifts of the Paraclete
first in baptism,
again in confirmation,
continuously in the other sacraments,
and in every eucharist that invokes the Spirit,
we do not seem to have been empowered
to emulate God’s capacity to breach the boundaries
off time and space,
of war and division,
of hunger and hopelessness.

Or maybe we have.

One of the more intriguing revelations at that inaugural Pentecost
reported in today’s first reading
was the miracle of tongues granted to the disciples:
the Spirit enabled gift to communicate
across the language divide
and engage a kind of holy vernacular
that was understood across a multicultural crowd.
An envious gift to be sure

Any of you who have studied another language
understand how frustrating
communicating across linguistic barriers can be.

Many years ago when trying to pass
a German requirement for school,
I spent a summer at a language school in Berlin.
While taking a break with a colleague
on one of the city’s famed waterways
I sat on a riverboard behind a British father and son.
The boy was maybe 4.

The father spoke crisp and simple German
and the child responded in a mix of languages,
unaware that he was easily floating
from English to German and back again
simply employing whatever vocabulary or grammar
that came to mind.

It was a little depressing to hear a 4-year-old
so easily bridge the language gap
while I was spending 6 days a week in a Goethe Institut
and clearly less fluent.

Jesus, of course, had a similar gift,
even though he was not a multilinguist in the technical sense,
speaking primarily Aramaic and maybe some Greek.
But when we read the gospels with a metaphorical ear,
we can hear that Jesus spoke innumerable languages:
he spoke outcast and leper,
he spoke Samaritan and adulteress,
he spoke tax collector and fisherman,
and he spoke Pharisee and Sadducee.

Besides these distinctive dialects, he also spoke
the universal languages of hope and healing,
acceptance and reconciliation
and the eternal language of love.

The celebrated peace emissary and reformer Nelson Mandela
spent 27 years in prison at Robben Island.
Condemned as a revolutionary and terrorist,
he experienced endless humiliation and abuse
in the early years of his incarceration.

Many biographers agree that a key resource
that enabled “Madiba” to self-transform
from a militant radical to a peacebuilder
was the gift of language,
particularly the language of his oppressors.

Despite the vehement objections of some of his fellow prisoners
Mandela assiduously studied the language of Afrikaans,
devouring its poetry and literature,
developing fluency in this linguistic platform for apartheid,
even delivering speeches in Afrikaans after his release
and notably quoting the Afrikaans poet Ingrid Jonker
in his 1994 address to Parliament,
his first as newly inaugurated President of the Republic

Mandela understood the power of language
so much so that when South Africa became a democracy
and crafted a new constitution,
under his influence, that constitution granted official status
to Afrikaans along with 9 other Indigenous languages
so that every man, woman, and child
could learn and flourish in their own tongue. [1]

The philosophy underlying Mandela’s linguistic insight
is often summarized in the phrase:
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands,
That goes to his head;
If you talk to him in his own language,
that goes to his heart.”

In baptism, when distinctively gifted with the Jesus spirit
We were commissioned in tongues,
not to speak to Parthian, Mede, and Elamite
but to speak to the stranger and the lost,
the broken and the bereft,
the marginalized and dismissed,
and so become graced travelers
across the multiverse we call humanity,
healing the rifts resulting from alternate languages
of exclusion, diminishment, hatred, and greed.

Once there was a woman
Who forgot who her husband was.
The two went to a church
Where there was a lost-and-found room
For married people.
She stood facing one wall;
The man faced the other wall.
There he said her name,
But she did not hear her husband.
He repeated her name for 40 minutes.
If he said her name a certain way
She knew it was her husband.
It was the way he had said it
When they were first in love.
Whenever they lose each other
They go back to the lost-and-found room
To learn again their unique language of love [2]

This is our lost and found room
where we return week after week
when we and the world have forgotten
how to speak to each other as sister and brother
and when we and the world have lost each other
on the way to God.

On this holy feast, we are invited again to speak the Spirit tongue,
to learn again those universal gifts of the Paraclete
so that they might resound among families and friends,
across cultures and countries,
and so, in hope and humility, we pray:
Send us, send us, send us your spirit, oh Lord.

[1] Michael Le Cordeur, Cordeur, “Mandela and Afrikaans,” in Nelson Mandela, ed. Crain Soudien (Rotterdam: SensePublishers, 2017), 45-61.

[2] Herbert Brokering, “’I’ Opener: 80 Parables” (Concordia Publishing House, 1974), 49.

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