From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Spirituality: Second language

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the Oct. 25, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

The drama class in our parish school seems to be especially excited about their efforts to imitate the stars of stage and screen. Every time I stop by for a visit, there is always a spirit of excitement in the air and an eagerness to perform. I applaud their efforts. We all need to polish up our second language, I tell them.

They look at me with faces filled with youthful query when I tell them that. Intellectually, it’s difficult to convince people that they really do speak a second language (unless of course, they already do!). American Anglos usually think of a second language in terms of Spanish, German, French, and so on. And that may well be the case for a growing number of our population. But, regardless of how many languages we may know, all of us speak the second language of the body. “Body language,” the experts call it. That doesn’t mean body language is our secondary means of communication. In fact, I would suggest that it is our primary language.

We speak powerfully by means of our body. And we even learn to communicate this way long before we speak in our so-called native tongue. Smiles, frowns, crunched faces, clenched fists, backs turned, slouched shoulders: all of these — and zillions more — are the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs our of self-communication.

It strikes me that when we hear or read the Gospel stories, the aspect of body language is missing. And body language makes a lot of difference. Just as the force of the tone of voice is missing in a written text, so, too, is the impact of body language. To know these, of course, is not essential to being inspired by Sacred Scripture, but at times it may be helpful to let our imaginations play a bit with this or that Gospel scene.

In a sense, it humanizes it. What tone of voice did Jesus use? What was his body language? This lacking dimension of Scripture came to mind this week at our weekly parish Mass which the children from our school attend. The reading from Luke’s Gospel portrayed one of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees. As we know, these characters prided themselves on their intimate knowledge of the Law, having examined every detail of God’s command as written in the first five books of the Old Testament. Thinking they were guarding holy orthodoxy, they applied their presumed knowledge with piercing judgment of all those around them! They were the equivalent of the religious police of the Taliban, who nowadays worry themselves over the length of a man’s beard.

Jesus encounters these men frequently in the Gospels. His frustration is evident even in the written text. But I wonder what kind of body language he used in these scenes?

In the Gospel from last week, Jesus is verbally arrested for not washing his hands properly. At other times he is put on the spot for not fasting on the correct days, rubbing corn in his hands on the Sabbath, healing on the wrong day, and on and on. On occasions like these I wonder: What was the tone of his body?

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus applies the ancient cry of the prophets against the Pharisees: “Woe to you!” A stronger word could not be spoken. It encapsulates the full castigation of the prophets who spoke God’s truth against a stiff-necked resistance. The “Woe to you!” was particularly invoked against those who substituted a preoccupation over the trappings of religion for that of justice and right relationship with God and fellow believers.

The body language of Jesus in these situations surely did not mimic that of a horseman halting a galloping horse! I wonder, though, if he wagged his finger or glared at them with anger’s furrowed brow? Were his teeth clenched with that physical control of angry words that we ourselves often use when deeply disturbed? Of course, we’ll never know. And knowing isn’t essential to feel the impact of his chastisement of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, whose spoke a good piece about following God’s way but played legalistic games to their advantage for power, prestige and control over others. Few things in the Gospels seem to anger Jesus more than the pretense of being holier or better than others because of a blind slavery to religious law.

It is easy to picture the wagging, judgmental fingers of the Pharisees as they found fault with the religious practices of struggling believers. (Of course, they forget about the other three on their hand which were always pointed back at them!) But I can’t picture Jesus wagging his finger at anyone. Its language of judgment and focused condemnation does not fit his character or his mission. Rather, I picture Jesus in such scenes using the body language of shunning — in much the way we use our positioned hands to create a physical barrier which says, “Stop! Away from me!”

Picturing Jesus in this body stance — and it is only an imaginary portrayal — may be helpful to capturing the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees of his day — and between Jesus and the yeast of the Pharisees which very well may have crept into our own hearts. Jesus does not condemn them or us; they, and we, we remain sons and daughters of God. But it is possible that elements of our manner of practicing religion are reprehensible and need to be shunned. We may not worry about washing our hands, nor be preoccupied with the length of beards, but we can fuss about genuflections, bows, head coverings, the wearing of vestments, religious garb — a nearly endless list. When mere adherence to these things become a sign of self-righteousness Jesus will have nothing to do with them. “Keep away!” his body language would shout. In themselves they are not measures of holiness or faithfulness to the Way of God’s Kingdom.

Phariseeism and the judgmental mentality it breeds are a danger for all those who believe and seek by human necessity to express their faith. We cannot avoid living in the real world through the mediation of the actions of our bodies. The challenge to wholesome spirituality is the on-going purification of our attitudes and practices of religion which frustrate the freedom and dignity which the true practice of religion celebrates.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish, Spokane.)


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