I have been living in southern France for nearly 16 months now, all the while alternately holding and then losing hope that I will one day be fluent in the poetic language of this place. To me, “It sounds better,” is a perfectly appreciable reason for French’s maddening exceptions to its own grammar rules. I can’t be annoyed over the inconsistencies that make my language-learning difficult when questions like, “Why do you pronounce the final ‘s’ in this word and not in that one?” are answered by an homage to lingual art.
A lover of words and their sounds, I discovered, a few months into my studies, that there were certain French words that resisted taking up residence in the new dictionary in my head. Upon further inspection, I realized this was because my new dictionary was fighting them off, unwilling to accept entries from words whose sounds I don’t find pleasing, while it eagerly welcomed the words whose beauty I prefer over their English counterpart.
My language acquisition is aided by the plethora of words my language of birth shares with my language of new vistas. Whether pronounced with English cadences or French ones, “incarnation” is spelled the same way in both languages and is one of those words that pleases both my ears and my tongue. Yet, I have rarely stopped to ponder it. It’s been lost in the jumble of religious words that pepper a vocabulary formed as I grew up in Christian community.
That changed a few nights ago as I sat in the 18th-century Eglise du Saint Esprit, one old building among so many here in Aix-en-Provence’s centre ville. The doors were open late. This time, in a contemplative mood, I had sought out this spot. The first time I discovered it by accident. Each time I was thankful for its quieting aesthetics.
I claimed a seat off-center in the shadows. Candles flickered near me. Gentle recorded music lilted from nearby speakers. Someone quietly worked at setting up something on the stage. I alternately kneeled and sat as I prayed.
I had entered the sacred space with a heavy heart. Aware that my Advent reading (Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross) had noted a shift of focus from scriptures of woe and the world’s wrongs to scriptures full of joy, I pondered: How does one let this gift of Christian rhythm—an Advent season that rises above my present emotion—guide my prayers and my heart?
I was seated below painted-wood stations of the cross. Within view was a massive painting of Jesus bearing the punishment of humanity’s sins. Images of redemption in progress.
But first, Advent reminds me, came the incarnation.
A year ago my grandmother asked why I needed to go to France to learn French. Couldn’t I just learn it in classes in the U.S.? The answer seemed obvious to me then: Perhaps I could, but not nearly as well. Then, though, I was still thinking of a new language as a catalog of words correctly pronounced.
Now I know the answer to her question goes even deeper than I thought. I have to live within French, embody it, absorb its rhythms and cadences and nuances, in order ever to achieve real fluency. I need to feel the language, to experience it, in order to know it. It’s the difference between one who plays the piano as I do, matching with technical accuracy the notes on the page to the notes on the keyboard, and the virtuoso who plays from the soul, in a way that wraps inside the other souls within hearing distance.
And, thus, God became man. He lived with us in flesh. He inhabited our rhythms and cadences and nuances.
Because of the incarnation, I can hope that the heart heaviness that set me kneeling under an old church’s vaulted ceiling is not the end of the story. Redemption will come. But only because the incarnation came first. Christ embodied humanity in a way more complete than I will ever be able to embody French. He knows us. He loves us. And he redeems us.
My heavy heart is wrapped up in the realities of the incarnation too. The heaviness must not be too quickly swept away with pious calls to shun sin while images of angels dance in our heads.
Just as the French dictionary I’m building must accept the pretty words as well as the ugly ones, so the incarnation calls me to accept the truth of the muck of life before it is redeemed. It gives me the courage to face it rather than fear it. It offers me a way to love myself and others despite the mud that covers us before God’s redemption reveals our full, made-in-the-image-of-God beauty.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1.)
From her southern France base, in preparation for doing more in-depth reporting internationally, freelance writer-editor Kami Rice is trying to master the exceptions that riddle French grammar and pronunciation. Long-term, she seeks to improve the nuance and accuracy with which we post stories in Western media about developing countries and their people. She is affiliated with Artists for Community Transformation.
Photo: Kami Rice