Language Makes us Human

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. - Mark 8:34, 35

Our experiences often elicit a recall of words associated with those experiences. 

Words mean what they signify. That is why we often say to children, “be careful what words you use.” Even adults have to be mindful of what words we use. Sometimes words can hurt more than actions, because they can tear at the insides - the soul - of a person. 

Language is what makes us human. We communicate our thoughts and experiences to each other with language, and to the extent that we communicate those thoughts and experiences effectively, we bind ourselves closer to a common union of purpose and meaning. 

It is also often said to a child, “pick up a dictionary if you don’t know a word.” I would honestly be hard pressed to put my complete confidence in dictionaries today. They are filled with ideology and what I would call regressive language tactics. Nuance is no longer used nor seen. We are confronted with a bluntness that puts things on this side or that side, and the words deployed are the primary instrument that set this dividing line between us. 

How do we recover nuance? Well, we have to piece words back together according to their original meaning. Seeing as how those meanings go back in time, and that the very notion of tradition is revolting to the culture today, I can see why this may be a vain effort. But when you walk around our high school, you can see traces of this effort on the white boards. It is called etymology. Etymology essentially nullifies the need for a dictionary by tracing the word from its original use in the native language it was used. We can go to the source itself - much like all of our carefully selected texts that we read in junior high and high school - because the source itself facilitates the free ascent of our mind and intellect to understand more clearly, without risking that another influence may force us into an overly simplified and possibly reduced sense of what is really being said or happening. Nuance opens us to the possibility of all that is happening. 

I would like to show you all how this works in our classrooms, simultaneously bringing to our attention the significance of the liturgical season of lent. Two words come to mind every time we enter this season of preparation, a microcosm of the very life we live: sacrifice and suffering. 

Sacrifice typically invokes in us a sense of losing something, giving something up, or forfeiting some type of self-gratifying or self-indulgent behavior. The word itself is derived from the Latin sacrificium, meaning to set something apart from the secular for a religious purpose. In Hebrew, the term is qorban and it means to bring something forward, an offering. In both languages, a sacrifice connotes whenever something or some act in the material realm is re-purposed for the spiritual. A sacrifice is fundamentally an intentional giving of something to the divine, and although we may use simple and ordinary means to do so, the significance of that act is elevated when it is done for a higher purpose. St. Paul said it best: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Romans: 12:1). And by bodies, we can deduce that St. Paul was beckoning the faithful of Rome to offer their very life for God. Good thing they listened, because the witness of those early martyrs are the seeds of faith for all of Christianity. 

No one wants to see someone else suffer in any sense: physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. We have this primitive impulse to always aim to alleviate the suffering of others, and from that, we can see how there seems universal agreement that suffering in all forms is bad for the human person. The Latin roots paint a vivid picture of what suffering looks like: it is a combination of sub meaning “below” and ferre, “bear”; something is felt from below that has to be endured. 

I got to thinking to myself, “below what?” What must be endured that is below our condition? I then went to the cross, the penultimate moment of the Paschal mystery. That is where Christ placed himself below his condition; the divine perfection bore and received the brunt of all human imperfections. He did so to ensure that suffering was not the last word, and quite literally, to raise us from the below state to a place where we no longer feel the effects of suffering. 

Suffering signifies that we are below where we are supposed to be, and that we are meant to rise to a higher level of existence. For me, I find this to be good news. 

Back in 1984, Saint John Paul II declared a jubilee year to commemorate the Redemption. He issued a letter to the faithful so that we could better understand the salvific meaning of suffering, an answer to this question: How does suffering lead to salvation?

I will leave you with these words from his apostolic letter:

Christ drew close above all to the world of human suffering through the fact of having taken this suffering upon his very self. During his public activity, he experienced not only fatigue, homelessness, misunderstanding even on the part of those closest to him, but, more than anything, he became progressively more and more isolated and encircled by hostility and the preparations for putting him to death. Christ is aware of this, and often speaks to his disciples of the sufferings and death that await him: "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise"(35). Christ goes towards his Passion and death with full awareness of the mission that he has to fulfil precisely in this way. Precisely by means of this suffering he must bring it about "that man should not perish, but have eternal life". Precisely by means of his Cross he must strike at the roots of evil, planted in the history of man and in human souls. Precisely by means of his Cross he must accomplish the work of salvation. This work, in the plan of eternal Love, has a redemptive character...

This is the meaning of suffering, which is truly supernatural and at the same time human. It is supernatural because it is rooted in the divine mystery of the Redemption of the world, and it is likewise deeply human, because in it the person discovers himself, his own humanity, his own dignity, his own mission.

Suffering is certainly part of the mystery of man. Perhaps suffering is not wrapped up as much as man is by this mystery, which is an especially impenetrable one. The Second Vatican Council expressed this truth that "...only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. In fact..., Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear”.. If these words refer to everything that concerns the mystery of man, then they certainly refer in a very special way to human suffering. Precisely at this point the "revealing of man to himself and making his supreme vocation clear" is particularly indispensable. It also happens as experience proves—that this can be particularly dramatic. But when it is completely accomplished and becomes the light of human life, it is particularly blessed. "Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful".

- Derek Tremblay, Headmaster