Latin and the Language of God

The Epistle of St. Jerome in the Gutenberg Bible

Prayer can be described as conversation with God, but in what language? What if, when God speaks, it sounds like nonsense to us?

Learning to pray, to be with God, to converse with him, is a bit like learning a language. As Dominicans, we take Latin during our first years of studies. At the beginning of the fall semester, when I tried to read any Latin text, I could pick out maybe a few words that looked like English words or a few phrases that were used in the liturgy. I had to take it on authority that any of it made sense, that whoever wrote those symbols on the page was actually trying to communicate something intelligible. Sometimes, in frustration, it was tempting to believe it was all gibberish. I’d complain, “this doesn’t make any sense.”

There are those who assume prayer doesn’t make any sense. It’s easy to see why—people who are praying sit alone, saying nothing, or join in some complicated ceremony of ritual and words that, from the outside, doesn’t appear to mean anything. It’s a strange language. The saints attest that even for those who pray frequently, prayer often feels pointless. Sometimes the questions hit us in our exasperation: “What am I trying to do here, anyways?” In trust, however, we need to “persevere in prayer.”

Back to Latin: Now, having mastered some basic grammar and vocabulary, I’ve discovered a new way to get it wrong. I can usually translate at least half of every sentence. Making a whole bunch of guesses and assumptions, I can then impose an interpretation on a text. Though I only understand some of the sense of the words, I assume I see the whole.

Let’s say we’ve stuck with prayer long enough to begin to see how God uses it to reorient our lives around Him. We can no longer dismiss prayer as pointless or senseless. Still, sometimes that sense isn’t forthcoming to us, as we wish it to be. So the temptation arises to impose our own sense on our lives. We “make meaning” for our lives rather than patiently waiting to see ever more clearly the purpose that God has written into every life.

Any man-made meaning, like a mistranslation, is sure to fail. With Latin, only after working on a sentence for a while, slowly piecing together the grammar, can I really begin to see its meaning. With prayer, through perseverance we can have the sure hope that we will eventually be fluent, able to converse with God in his own Word.

Image: The Epistle of St. Jerome in the Gutenberg Bible

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Br. Philip Nolan, O.P.

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Br. Philip Nolan entered the Order of Preachers in 2015. He is a graduate of Williams College and spent two years living in New York working for First Things. On