A new language skill

In everyday life, we often encounter new languages in ways we do not always fully comprehend. But when we take the trouble to listen, our reward is that we feel awe, peace and hope.


By Fr Eka Tanaya SJ

Acquiring new language skills would allow us to understand and communicate with more people. And people are generally fascinating.

I was born in Indonesia, grew up speaking Indonesian and Javanese, a dialect in Central Java, as my mother often spoke it in the house. I only started learning English at the age of fourteen and Mandarin as an adult for only a year, in Sydney. After entering the Jesuits and spending years without using it, that language skill is regretfully now gone. Use it or lose it. That’s a rule about languages, especially if you learn them as adults.

The word “Pentecost”, which is celebrated seven weeks after Easter, is itself rooted in Greek for “fiftieth” hence it is observed fifty days after the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Scripture tells us of the event of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit, in the forms of strong wind and tongues of fire, came down upon Jesus’ followers. Then, the people gathered there also began to understand each other’s native languages (Acts 2:1-12), as if they were no longer foreign.

In our lives, we too can sometimes hear a new “language” – something foreign, yet it echoes with great familiarity. Last term, I participated in a weekend retreat program for leaders of Jesuit schools in Australia. In one of our personal prayer sessions, I was standing by a field where cows were grazing. Some chickens and roosters were also in the field, pestering the calves and then got chased away. I heard different flocks of birds chirping and murmuring different tunes from tree branches.

Fr Eka Tanaya SJ.

I suddenly felt grateful, as if I was understanding nature’s language. I felt as if the cold wind was not just blowing through the trees, but that it began to whisper stories of the site and the people who had once been there. The animals also began to tell me stories of joy and of life. The circumstance filled me with a sense of awe, but also peace and hope.

Each of us must have also experienced personal Pentecost-like moments, occasions when we know God is not just with us or around us, but also within us, which makes us feel somehow different. We feel more real, more alive, more whole. Pentecost is far more than the images depicted in the Scriptures: the arrival of wind and fire. It is, more significantly, the arrival of the Holy Spirit into the hearts of Jesus’ followers, allowing them to translate God’s language into the ordinary day-to-day reality. In their time, it gave them the language skills to translate God into charitable words and deeds despite their own challenges, and soon that skill became known to all the lands.

We are often called to understand challenges of a nature that we are not yet fully versed in dealing with. We remember the First Nations people and their continued marginalisation. We are all called to a meaningful reconciliation, not merely during the recent National Reconciliation Week, where the theme was “Be a voice for generations, but projected forward to a lasting and peaceful future, where everyone has a respected voice in important decisions that affect each other’s lives. This has even greater resonance for Australia as we approach the coming referendum on the Voice.

Fr Eka Tanaya SJ (front row, 2nd from left) at the Jesuit Education Australia Combined Boards retreat at Sevenhill. Photo: Jennie Hickey.

The issue of climate change has also become more urgent in every sphere of life. Natural disasters have caused millions of people to be displaced, due to immediate dangers to lives and also due to resource scarcity caused by flooding, fires and intensified storms. In 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that wars, armed conflicts, fear of persecution coupled with human rights violations have also exacerbated the global refugee crisis, doubling the number of people affected to almost 90 million in just the last decade.

In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis called us to hear “both the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth.” These issues we face are complex and often difficult to comprehend, let alone to solve. They may also feel foreign to many of us, but they echo with a certain familiarity. To understand them better, we need a unique language skill, the language of Love, the language of God. It is a language which we can continue to learn as individuals, as a school community and as one human race.

This has become a reality, made possible by the arrival of the Holy Spirit. We have been given this great gift, a wonderful language skill, which can translate God into kind words and loving deeds of various kinds. If the language rule applies, then perhaps we would rather use it than lose it.

The original version of this article by Fr Eka Tanaya SJ was published in a recent edition of ‘Viewpoint’, the online newsletter of Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview, after the feast of Pentecost.

Feature photo by Austin Wegener on Unsplash.