Thursday, June 19, 2014

Living in French and Thinking in English

Praying and Counting

During our time in the novitiate, one of the men in my class noted that "you always count and pray in your native tongue."  It was one of those statements for which the truth was immediately obvious.  Later on, when I lived in international communities, I would watch men in places like the store etc. when they had to count out money.  All of them were muttering in their native language as they counted.  Even the ones who spoke English easily and well.  Obviously both praying and counting have become significant stumbling blocks here in Lyon.  Counting first.

Counting from one to sixty-nine in French is easy.  Then it gets challenging.  After sixty-nine, all the numbers between 70 and 100 involve a system addition and multiplication.   After 69 (soixant-neuf) 70 to 79 involves soixant (60) plus something between 10 and 19 such that 75 is 60 + 15.   For all numbers above 79, the base is 80.  Thus 93 is 4 times 20 plus 13 (quatre (4) vingt (20) treze (13).  The teacher can see my fingers moving trying to figure those numbers out.  There is no way I will ever be able to count or think in French numbers.  The glories of centigrade don't help either.  I can handle milligrams and kilograms.   Med school made certain of that.  I can sort of handle meters and kilometers.  But temperatures are a vast unknown.  I have had fevers of 102.  I have never had a fever of 38.8.  Oh sure, one can convert that 102 into 38.8 but it is lacking a certain je ne sais quoi.  "It's 101 in the shade"  says a lot more than "It's 38.3 in the shade." 

Another number difference between France and the U.S. is in how phone numbers are given.  In the U.S. it is one digit at a time starting with the area code 7-1-7-7-7-9-1-etc (part of dad's and my office phone number in Plymouth, now defunct).  Here the numbers are given in two digit numbers unless there is a zero.  Zero trois (03)-vingt cing (25) soixant huit (68) and so on.  The day we spent part of class learning how to do this was a truly wretched one.  French numbers will never mean anything to me until I translate them into English.  I will save a description of my illiteracy in other realms of math, such as calculus, for another day.

I suspect unless one grew up fully bilingual from the earliest years, one prays in one's native tongue.  When grandma was dying she laid in her bed and whispered prayers (short, simple ones as dementia was a problem) in Polish, her first language.  Here in France I am not even trying to pray in French.  Mass, particularly small Masses in the chapel, feel more like an obligation being fulfilled than anything else.  Even saying the Our Father, which I have to read and can rarely keep up with, is painful.  I have a new sympathy for Jesuit friends who spent years in the U.S. during formation always having to attend Mass in English. 

Prayer is the most emotional of human endeavors.  It is the most affectively laden.  Affect, for the most part, happens in our native tongue.  Over ten years ago I recall a newspaper item about a Cuban woman, a writer, who was fully fluent in English and Spanish.  She who wrote and published novels in both languages.  She noted that when she wrote about some of the difficulties of her childhood it was easier to write in English than in Spanish because, though fully bilingual, Spanish was her mother tongue and it carried all the emotion.  Writing about childhood was easier in English because some of the emotion was disconnected.  During fellowship at MGH I had dinner with the chief resident.  Her husband was a PhD linguist whose first language was Italian.  She said that one's first language is 'limbic' while subsequent languages are 'cortical.'  Quick explanation. 

The limbic system is the most primitive part of the brain.  The amygdala in particular appears to attach emotional valence to experience; i.e. if a child puts his hand on a hot burner (been there done that) the emotional valence attached to the pain of that experience will prevent him from doing the same thing again (it did).  In general the amygdala is more efficient at attaching emotional valence to negative and painful experiences than to happy and positive ones.  There is obvious survival value for the individual with this arrangement. 

In contrast, the cortex ('cortical') is what most people think of as the brain.  It is the gray matter that gives most human skulls such as pleasing appearance as it fills the cranial vault.  As one goes over lists of vocabulary or looks up a word (for the fifth time!) the cortex is engaged in the learning.  The limbic system is relatively silent, until things get really frustrating (am there, doing it). 

It is difficult knowing that I won't celebrate Mass again until September when I get to Ireland.   Or perhaps not until I get to the U.S.  The language in Chad is French plus a bunch of Chadian dialects.  I don't expect much of a need for Mass in English.  Am not happy with this part of the situation but there is nothing much to be done about it.  I say the office in English, do my meditations in English (with the occasional French sound creeping in) and read scripture in English.  I have a book for Mass that is helpful mostly as a way of learning French but the words, even when I translate them, don't particularly move me. 

Even during the words of consecration I feel strangely detached and unmoved.  I've said them at the altar over a thousand times.  I've known them by heart for years and always deeply moved while saying the them over the Sacred Body and Blood of Our Lord.  But at the consecration in French something is missing.  That something is the limbic system (it also attaches valence to positive experiences).  I am thinking the words of consecration in French but not feeling them in the depth of my soul.

On occasion I go over to evening Mass at St. Georges across the river.  All Masses at St. Georges are celebrated in the extraordinary form in Latin with the priest facing the same direction as the people.  There are long periods of silence and almost immobility on the part of the priest who is saying the prayers in a low voice.  Maybe because it hearkens back to my youth and days as an altar boy (Introibo ad altare Dei.  Ad Dei qui laetificat juventutam meum) there is a deeper emotional involvement in what is going on.  In addition, I recognize and recall much of the Latin.  However, the affective charge isn't from the meaning of the Latin.  Most of us did not know what we were saying.  The affective charge and emotional involvement comes more from the ritual and the memories of times past.  Think Proust. 
The photos will progress from the ridiculous to the truly sublime.  

And what is more ridiculous in Lyon, the center of French gastronomy, than McDonald's?  I titled this photo, "Kilroy WAS here but Ronald IS here."  This particular McD's is not far from the community.  There is one huge difference between this McDonalds (and I assume others) and the U.S.  It doesn't open until 10 AM and closes at 2 AM.  One assumes the Egg McMuffin has not replaced the baguette. 

One can photograph tourists in Vieux Lyon unawares by using the rearview mirror of a motorcycle. 

Tourists in Vieux Lyon. 

I saw this place and thought immediately that it would be a good place for a second or third date.  If I dated.  Which I don't.  Because I can't.  But it makes a lovely composition with the warmth of the color.  Perhaps I can fantasize seeing Audrey Hepburn sitting here being wooed.  

I would love to rip-off this sign for a very small bar that I've yet to see open so as to hang it in my room.  Love the whimsy. 

The last two are of the truly sublime.  Votive candles in the cathedral in Vieux Lyon. 

And finally, the crucifix and light streaming through the two or three story-sized stained glass window behind the main altar at Eglise St. Georges.  I've never seen stained glass with so many shades of yellow, ochre and orange with only small flecks of the primary colors one has come to expect in stained glass.  The glow is mystical, particularly when clouds of incense are rising into it.  I want to go back with the tripod so as to take a longer exposure at a slower film speed. 
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

No comments:

Post a Comment