[Disclaimer: the lack of accent marks in all French words that follow is not to be blamed on anyone but Miss Marcel. She's lazy, that's all there is to it, or she'd figure out how to insert them . . .]
I must confess my own attempts to learn French look a lot like Sally's. Not that I'm as motivated by controversy as she is; I'm more a fan of conversation - or Conversations, to speak exactement. Still, "forget it" sums up nicely (precisement, that is) my reaction to the hard work, the rolling up of sleeves, the mental elbow grease (did you even know your brain had elbows?) that might be involved in learning French the Grown-Up Way.
And yet, and yet . . . as many times as I throw in the towel when it comes to learning French (any way), Jesus, Therese, and Marcel (not to mention la Sainte Vierge, ma mere Cherie), come upon me sans towel and hand it back. I'm like Therese's child at the foot of the stairs, only I get tired and decide I'll try napping full length on the floor rather than continuously lifting my tired little foot. Don't worry; no one leaves me on the floor for very long, and the poodle keeps me from being lonely!
Do you know Therese's image of the child at the bottom of the stairs? She compares us to the little one who keeps raising a foot to climb up because Mama is somewhere on the second floor . . . but we're so little, our sweet foot can't even reach that first step! Nonetheless, we cry out continuously, "Mama! Mama! Mama!" as we raise our foot again and again, all the while getting nowhere. Soon enough we're scooped up, taken into Mama's arms and carried to the second floor; or perhaps cuddled and snuggled right where we are.
This is Infinite Tenderness at work, or, in other words, the Limitless Delicacy and Compassion of God, who loves us beyond telling.
When I say "beyond telling," I mean that literally, and yet whether it's Isaiah, John the Evangelist, St. Augustine, John of the Cross, or Therese, Marcel, and Miss Marcel - which of us can actually help using whatever language is at hand (poetic, theological, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Vietnamese, or Valley Girl) to sing His praises?
St. Therese wrote to her sister Marie of the Sacred Heart (in a passage from what's now known as "Manuscript B" in Story of a Soul), "I am going to stammer some words even though I feel it is quite impossible for the human tongue to express things that the human heart can hardly understand."
A couple of pages later she says, "I feel how powerless I am to express in human language the secrets of heaven, and after writing page upon page I find that I have not yet begun. There are so many horizons, so many nuances of infinite variety that only the palette of the Celestial Painter will be able to furnish me after the night of this life with the colors capable of depicting the marvels He reveals to the eye of my soul."
I have a suspicion that once she got to Heaven, hugged Jesus a while, and then said, "Okay, let's get to work!", once He set her up with the palette and colors she'd been longing for, Therese found she was still unable to express to us on earth ALL she wanted to say. How could she do what even Jesus cannot? Listen to the Celestial Painter Himself lamenting to Marcel:
"The words I am addressing to you here are far from expressing all the love that I bear for souls. I do not know what human language to employ to translate the full intimacy of this love. The intimate words that I address as well to other souls, I borrow from the language that people ordinarily use to express their feelings. If I used the intimate language that is more suitable for me to use when speaking to you, you would understand nothing. Indeed, my child, humanly speaking, my words are the expression of the deepest love; but I, I regard them as being only a simple glance of my love. My child, I do not know what words to use to succeed in making you understand more." (Conversations, 39)
This might be all well and good if we could bring ourselves to say, "Oh, wow, Jesus loves us so much - even more than He can express!" and leave it at that, but a problem immediately arises:
When you love someone, you want to know everything.
In the words of our brother St. Thomas Aquinas, "The lover is not content with a superficial knowledge of the beloved, but strives to know from the inside all particular things that belong to the beloved, so as to penetrate to his inmost being."
Or again, as our brother St. John of the Cross put it: "This is the property of love: to seek out all the good things of the Beloved."
How do we get to know Jesus, then? If all human language falls short of expressing His love for us, how can we seek out every nook and cranny of His Personality, His virtues, His sweet Self?
Our Love gives us a clue when He tells Marcel that He uses many apostles to carry His message, so that there will be one for every type of person. When I discovered Marcel, I discovered the apostle meant for me (and many other little souls), the one Jesus called the "second Therese" because (among other resemblances to his sister) Marcel is so little that he's a perfect object of and vehicle for God's merciful love.
My approach to knowing Jesus better, then, is to keep reading and re-reading His conversations with Marcel, mining the treasure hidden in Marcel's pages, and when the mood strikes me, branching out into other rich veins - namely, Marcel's Autobiography, his Correspondence, his Other Writings. There's plenty here to last me a lifetime, though I see the same lesson borne out once again - it's more than I can digest, yet still never enough!
Which may be the reason I continue to nurture my desire to wake up one morning suddenly knowing French. It hasn't happened yet, but I do have fun messing about with our sister's native language, knowing it brings me a step closer to even more Marcel (the several drafts of his Autobiography that are not "definitive" and thus not in English, though I think Father Boucher translated them into French; I've had a glimpse of them in one of the two Marcel DVDs you can find on amazon.com).
But it's not just me. I feel like Jesus, too, is enticing me with the beauty and romance of the French language. Take our signature prayer, for instance. Some time ago I wrote a post on how Therese, in the last pages of Story of a Soul, calls on Jesus in the words of the Song of Songs. "Draw me, we shall run!" in order to pray for all those she loves, for everyone, really, with the simplicity of a child and without worrying about naming every name or cataloging every need.
When Marcel gave me a French Bible a few weeks back, I was inspired to find that sentence in the Song of Songs. So now we can say it in French, like Therese did ( for our part, quietly, lest a Frenchman hear us and faint dead away, since we haven't yet learned how to pronounce it properly).
Oh, but I've been holding out on you . . . I have good news!
The other night we spent a wonderful evening (with delicious food too) at the home of dear friends who'd invited us and two other couples to celebrate Our Lady's Birthday.
Lo and behold, one half of one of the other couples KNOWS FRENCH!
Thus it occurred to me in the middle of the dinner party to ask him how to say our signature prayer (in French), and he's such a kind man that he not only told me how to say it (which knowledge lasted - in me - about the length of time it took for his correctly pronounced French words to travel into my right ear, cross my not too large brain, and tumble out my left ear), but since he was patient as well as kind, he then helped me to write it down phonetically.
I'll save our prayer and its French pronunciation for the end of our post, because what came next was funny, and I wouldn't want you to miss it.
My French Canadian American friend (for such were his qualifications) asked me, "So why do you want to say this in French?"
I told him about Marcel, but then when I remembered (and told him) mid-way through the explanation that Marcel spoke Vietnamese, we were both perplexed. I held back, feeling it wouldn't sound uber intelligent (that's German; I'm practically multi-lingual, really, but French is harder to pronounce and doesn't have a taxi service named after it) to blurt out, "I want to pray in the language of my brother Marcel." It especially wouldn't have sounded smart since we'd just established that Marcel spoke Vietnamese! Believe it or not (and it's not too hard to believe), by this point I couldn't remember why I wanted to be able to pray in French.
I needn't have been concerned to sound ultra sophisticated.
A little later, my friend began speaking Vietnamese (not that I know Vietnamese, but it sounded Asian), which prompted his wife to interrupt.
"Why are you speaking Chinese?" she asked.
"I'm not. I'm speaking Vietnamese," he said to her with a straight face and a bit of a patronizing air, indicating she was quite dopey to confuse the two languages.
At this point, gullible though I am, I was pretty sure he was faking it. But his wife, her face even straighter than his, replied:
"Oh. I knew you knew Chinese, but I didn't know you know Vietnamese."
We asked how he might possibly know Chinese. He told us his knowledge of Chinese had first surfaced when he spent time with a relative's Chinese husband.
"The man claimed to know Chinese," he said, "so I spoke Chinese to him, but he couldn't understand a word I said." He shook his head as if he still couldn't believe the guy's hubris. "But you know, I don't think he knew Chinese, because I couldn't understand a word he said either!"
You can see why my explanation of why I needed to learn French was easily forgotten. Although I did very much appreciate that my polyglot friend (that means friend shaped like a polygon and knowing lots of languages) consoled me for my inability to learn French without studying and encouraged me to continue to hope for infused knowledge.
"I can see," he said, "that your good will is not lacking."
Though the food was fabulous and the friendship delightful, I think that compliment about my good will was the high point of my evening. Hope springs eternal, and in the face of such human gentleness and understanding, what can we not hope for from God?
Only much later did I remember why I want to learn French. Home again, I saw my French Bible. Yes, that was it. Marcel gave me the French Bible a few weeks ago, I found Therese's wonderful prayer in the Song of Songs, and since she'd prayed it in French, I thought we might too, etc., etc.
There's another reason I want to learn French, though, a reason which occurred to me in conjunction with one more complaint Therese made about her inability to express the fullness of her experience of God's love. She wrote to her cousin Marie Guerin:
"Sometimes I seek another word to express 'Love,' but in this land of exile the word which begins and ends (as St. Augustine says) is quite incapable of rendering the vibrations of the soul; we must then adhere to this simple and only word: "TO LOVE."
The really nutty thing is that I think Therese may have changed her mind on that one, because with the help of Marcel's French Bible and the French dictionary she gave me, I've discovered a whole range of meanings of love which translate into a deeper insight into our Beloved.
You see, when I was looking at the beginning of the Song of Songs in French, I came across "Car ta tendresse vaut mieux que la vin." That means, it turns out, "Because your love is better than wine." And if you know people who love wine as much as some of my people do, you'll realize what high praise that is!
What struck me especially, though, was the word "tendresse."
One reason for my undiminished hope to "learn" French without putting any discipline into its acquisition is the wondrous gift of cognates. These are words in French that look and maybe sound like (and translate into) very similar English words.
Did I mention I've been listening to French Canadian radio lately? I don't know if it's helping me learn French, but I enjoy it. I feel closer to Therese, and it's tons of fun when the commentators laugh at some joke that could've been a depressing observation, for all I knew, until they giggled at each other's cleverness. All right, then, I say, and join in the laughter.
If you've been listening to the same French Canadian station, I need to point out that "Chicago" is not what I mean by a cognate. Did you hear that one? The other day our new French speaking Canadian friends were rattling on with their nasal intonations and their rolled r's, when suddenly I heard in the midst of the stream of French-sounding (but otherwise unintelligible) French, "Chicago." In the next sentence, the commentator repeated it: "Chicago," pronounced just like I'd pronounce it. I realized right then that I knew more French than I've been giving myself credit for, but let me reiterate that "Chicago" is not what we mean by a cognate.
A cognate is more like "infinie" - which is simply "infinite" in English.
You can see, then, that when I read in the Song of Songs, "tendresse," I had this little cognate moment. Doesn't it look a lot like "tenderness"?
Ah, but tenderness is a word that Therese used when she spoke and prayed in English! Well no, actually, I should say it's a word she used when Fr. John Clarke so generously translated her French into my English. But immediately I wondered: When Therese said "tenderness" in English (a la Fr. John Clarke), was it actually "tendresse" in French?
I needed to check our sister's "Acte d'offrande a l'amour misericordieux," so I looked in the back of my Histoire d'une Ame (which my amazing mom brought me back from amazing France when she'd been to amazing Lisieux some 17 years ago - I remember the year because she asked St. Therese to give me a baby, and my baby will be 16 in a couple of weeks. He was due on Therese's feast, as though she wanted to make sure we knew he was her gift, though his after-the-fact birthday turned out to be Padre Pio's day, a week later).
And so, opening yet another relatively (to me) unreadable French book (only unreadable so far; I repeat that I aspire to be like the Spanish nun who miraculously knew French when she, with good will, opened this same book), I found that sure enough, the case was just as I'd cognated.
In the "Act proper" the last few paragraphs at the end of the prayer, Therese requests (when she's speaking English), "Consume me unceasingly, allowing the flood tides of infinite tenderness shut up within You to overflow into my soul . . ."
Can you guess the French for "infinite tenderness"?
Sure as shootin, it's "tendresse infinie"!
Therese is asking for His love (which is better than wine, that same "tendresse") to sweep her off her feet! To stop being pent up within Him because no one will receive it ("He came unto His own, and His own received Him not," as we hear especially at Christmas), and to whoosh like a torrent into her heart. She will satiate His thirst, she and her legion of little souls also ready to accept His infinite love, and He will satiate - dare I say it in the first person plural? - our thirst for Him. He is so good!
But what does our translating dictionary say about this sweet phrase?
"Infinie" - "Infinite, boundless, endless . . . "
And our dear "tendresse"? This is the key that unlocks the door to new vistas and further horizons.
"Tendresse" - "Tenderness, fondness, love, sensibility, kindness, affection, delicacy . . . (and in the plural - and how can what is infinite not be in the plural?) . . . caresses, endearments."
Doesn't that sound like everything Jesus despaired of saying?
Really, He only needed to say it in French!
But since Marcel didn't know French very much better than I do, Jesus in His infinite tenderness, fondness, love, sensibility, kindness, affection, and delicacy spoke in Vietnamese to our little brother.
Ah Love! You are so solicitous!
Still, I can't help but wonder if You aren't waiting for me to grow up and learn French so You can speak to me in this language of tendresse . . . .
But then I remember that it's all a whim of Yours, and thanks to Jack, my best access to you - through Marcel - doesn't require my knowing any French at all. Tendresse infinie is there in every word You say to us through Marcel. In English. On every single page.
Take today for instance. I was kinda worried (having forgotten for a moment that Your tenderness, love, delicacy, and so on and so forth, are infinite) that maybe this desire for infused French was pushing the envelope of Your kindness. Mightn't You begin to lose patience with me? (I am SO grateful for St. Paul's list of the virtues of love. Your patience? That would have to be infinite too!)
What to do? As in any crisis, I now know to turn to Marcel.
(I have not yet resorted to putting his number - say a combo of numbers from Convos - on my son's emergency contact info blanks in forms we fill out for his activities, but we're almost there.)
So this morning when I opened Your infinitely tender Conversations, Marcel was asking You to tell him what "Victim of Love" means. What a perfect passage to begin a day on which I'd be writing about our sister's Act of Oblation to Merciful Love (which she invites us to pray with her), in which she asks You to pour out Your infinite tenderness into our hearts (i.e. let us be Your victims of Love).
You told Marcel:
"They are victims who, through love, offer themselves to Love. These victims leave to Love complete liberty to accomplish His desires in them but of themselves, they do nothing to expend themselves; it is Love, that is to say the Holy Spirit, who acts spontaneously in them . . ."
I'm so relieved you sent a kind French Canadian to assure me that my good will is not lacking! That, in combination with today's passage, amounts to a hall pass (or permission to write about You here rather than pretend to study French like a grown-up elsewhere), and I'll take it!
But speaking of the kindness of French Canadians, it's time (if not far past time) to get down to the phonetic pronunciation of our prayer.
The main trick, as I understand it, is to pretend you're saying it all like you'd say "croissant" if you were French. Nasally. The whole thing through your nose, if you can manage it. A bit of a roll on the "r," and then we've got to watch out for the closing consonants. If followed by an "e" you say the last consonant. No "e," then no last closing sound. And an "n" on the end is going to have quite a nasally quality, and followed by an "s" be not quite fully sounded, But don't worry about anything - we'll spell it all out now.
First, just as written:
Draw me, we shall run!
See, that wasn't hard, was it? Did you get the nasal effect?
Oh drat. That was easy because it was English.
All right then. Courage, children. Here's the French version:
Entraine-moi! nous courrons a ta suite!
And now, with a little help from our polygon of many languages:
(and don't forget to roll the "r"s)
Ahn-train - mwah!
New koo-roe(n) ah tah sweet!
Oh my goodness! We did it! I think that earned us a chocolate lava cake, or some peanuts at least!
But best of all, we made Therese and Marcel laugh! Can you hear them?
Not that it was terribly awful or anything. They think we're awesome; they just like to laugh, that's all.
And if you want a good guffaw, you should hear their American accents! They've run off again, those imps, before we can laugh at them too, but no matter. They'll be back soon, and meanwhile, in English once more just to be sure Jesus understands us:
Draw me, we will run!
We love you, Jesus . . . A LOT!
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