I once put a dish of rice and beans in the microwave while it was still covered in aluminum foil. I was much too old to have not known aluminum foil is, in fact, not microwavable and will burst into flames. But in my defense, I was living in Bolivia and thought that — maybe, just maybe — Bolivian microwaves worked differently.
Really, not much of a defense at all. I was 23.
But I’d asked one of the sisters — let’s call her Joanna — I was living with whether or not I could, in fact, microwave a dish wrapped in aluminum foil. She was young, stone-faced, sitting directly across from the microwave, and shrugged, her eyes following my every move.
And then the flames began shooting out of the appliance.
I reacted quickly, obviously, and have not made that mistake again. Sister Joanna merely raised an eyebrow and asked what I’d been thinking.
“You said I could microwave the foil!” I gasped, pulling my smoking beans from their now-apparent doom.
“That’s insane,” she’d replied — or the closest thing in Spanish.
“But I asked you! You said yes!”
She shrugged, a slight grin at the corner of her mouth. “I can never understand your Spanish. Your accent is terrible, and you talk too fast. I just nod at everything you say.”
I don’t think she liked me. And she seemed willing to literally burn down the house to prove it.
But her observation of my language skills is pretty spot-on. My Spanish should be — should have been — a lot better after all those months in Bolivia, after studying in Spain, after literal decades of Spanish class.
All this to say, I don’t have a natural knack for learning languages. This is the scene that plays in my mind to prove it.
But the Spanish is in there, somewhere. And when I find myself immersed, when I’m surrounded by Spanish speakers and no option for English, I am, against all odds, able to communicate. Even my jokes occasionally translate. Or, more likely, folks are still just nodding along.
There’s something about language that requires a certain degree of surrender, of trust, of flow. When you’re thrown into it, when you have no choice but to muddle through, you might find that language bubbles out in all sorts of creative, unorthodox ways that are not confined to traditional grammar.
As I work through Duolingo exercises for French — my current effort to build on my meager foundation of Romance languages — I’m constantly surprised at how well I am able to progress, even without said knack for languages. When I resist the urge to analyze every verb conjugation and lament my lack of vocabulary and instead just go with it, persist, I make surprising progress.
I wonder if we can learn something from learning foreign languages for our spiritual lives. How often do we overanalyze our own inability to say just the right thing that we end up inhibiting any words at all? How often do we suffer in self-paralysis, retreating to our own place of comfort instead of risking a bit of embarrassment?
Even if the right words aren’t there, the desire to communicate is.
As we contemplate our own spiritual selves, our own spiritual lives, we, too, may realize that, though we cannot articulate the full spectrum of human experience and do not yet fully grasp the depths of creation, we still yearn to throw ourselves into the struggle, into the hard work of realizing justice and peace and compassion and mercy. We desire to experience and — in so doing — connect the spiritual with the material and build something new.
And when we get out of our own way, when we stop self-rejecting and doubting and naysaying, we can be Christ for our world: imperfect, yes, but muddling ever onward.
We all have moments in our spiritual stories where we messed up and inadvertently put aluminum foil in the microwave. All the same, Christ is still bubbling up within us, bursting out and into the world.
We can either choose to collaborate with the eager, loving Christ. Or, we can stymie that same Christ within us.
Eric A. Clayton is the author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian.