Hans 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, however, tied to more than just the mother’s smile. Just as important as her smile is her voice.
Mothers don’t just cuddle babies and smile at them, they speak to them and it is this that is most critical in bringing a child to human awareness.
We come out of the darkness and chaos of unconscious infancy only when we are called out by voices which cajole, caress, reassure and forever keep luring us beyond ourselves.
Very often, during the early critical months of a child’s life, it is the mother’s voice that does a lot of this. Thus, it is no accident that the first language we learn is called “our mother tongue” for it was its sounds that caressed us and ultimately lured us out of unthinking darkness and uncontrollable chaos.
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 speak or otherwise use a language, we are trapped in a darkness and chaos that leaves us unable to think and feel as human beings.
We see this clearly, for instance, in a case like Helen Keller. In a real sense, it is true to say that Annie Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, broke open the world for Helen. By teaching her language, Annie Sullivan precisely took Helen Keller out of darkness and chaos and opened up for her the possibility of freedom, thought, deep feeling, self-expression and love.
Perhaps no image is more valuable than this one to help us understand the real purpose of the word of God in our lives. All preaching, teaching, theology and pastoral practice is really in function of this—of letting God’s voice become the smiling, beckoning, caressing, cajoling, luring mother, calling the child out of fear, darkness, chaos and inarticulateness to freedom, thought, deep feeling, self-expression and love.
The purpose of God’s word is not, first of all, to challenge us to charity or to do social justice or live a certain morality or even to worship something higher and to form community in a certain way among ourselves, valid though each of these is in itself.
Christ came, as God’s incarnate word, to bring us life, light and love. Christ came as the word to do for us what our mother tongue does, namely, to shape us in such a way that we can move beyond the fear, darkness and chaos that prevent us from entering the world of love, thought and self-expression.
Christ, as the word, is Annie Sullivan trying to help Helen Keller break through the chaos of being trapped inside of herself, unaware of and unable to enter into true human life. It is no accident that the gospels are fond of speaking of Christ as “the word.”
Christianity is more a particular kind of language (“our mother tongue”) than it is a religion.
My own hunch is that this is too little the case, today. In our theology schools, in our church circles, in our religious magazines and periodicals, and in our preaching and religious teaching in general, there is, I feel, too little of Annie Sullivan and too much a using of God’s word for every kind of other purpose.
If I take a representative sampling of religious language of any persuasion, the preaching, teaching and writing of conservative Catholicism, liberal Catholicism, social justice spiritualities, academic theology of most kinds, pious devotional literature, New Age spiritualities or the growing literature around alleged Marian apparitions, I find, with a few salient exceptions, precious little that sounds like my “mother tongue.”
For the most part, I search in vain in it for an Annie Sullivan who, with incredible patience, understanding and gentleness, is trying to lead me out of the darkness, inarticulateness, deafness and chaos into which I was born.
That is not to say that what passes itself off today as preaching, theology and pastoral practice is not full of valuable truth, interesting insights and prophetic challenge.
What tends to be absent is the caressing, smiling, gentle, beckoning mother who is, with the patience and love of an Annie Sullivan, trying to teach me how to speak, how to enter a world whose complexity and hugeness, at this stage, hopelessly dwarfs me, and how to shape my consciousness so that freedom, love and self-expression are possible.
Like millions of other Christians today, I long for the word of God—in my mother tongue.