Festivals/Seasons & Holy Days

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Ministers Letter


Sister Helen Julian, Minister General of the First Order Sisters, writes:

Dear Friends,

I’m writing during my Christmas break from ordination studies at Ripon College Cuddesdon, just outside Oxford.  My course is only a year long, so I’ve been very busy this first term, trying to fit everything in.  The days go past in a whirl of mission and ministry, liturgy, bible, patristics, worship, eating – and Hebrew.  Learning another language has proved to be one of the most challenging but also one of the most satisfying parts of the course.

We’re a small group, so there’s no hiding place when it’s my turn to read the next word or translate the next item of homework.  But there’s also a lot of laughter.  We’re using a very venerable grammar as our text, so we learn how to say ‘thy horse’ rather than ‘your’.  We wondered when we were ever going to need to say ‘she-ass’ (an example of an irregular feminine noun).  And our introduction to the wonders of the ‘furtive Pathah’, caused great hilarity, as we imagined this little vowel symbol lurking in the linguistic undergrowth.

Of course the point of learning the language is to be able to read the Old Testament in the original, and although we’re only just reaching the point of reading actual texts, I can already see how knowing some vocabulary and some grammar makes sense of a lot of variations in translation.  It’s also increasing my respect for biblical scholars.  Finding the right way to express alien idioms can be really difficult; and becoming aware of how easily the whole meaning of a Hebrew word can be changed by the precise placement of a dot or a line has given me a deeper respect for those who take on the task of translation.

But I’ve also been reflecting on the actual experience of learning.  I’ve drawn from earlier learnings, such as the martial art I practiced for a number of years.  There, learning to fall was absolutely essential and those who didn’t get the hang of it rarely persevered – in Hebrew learning the alphabet proved to be a similar very basic skill, without which nothing else was going to work.  In both, making a commitment to turning up to the classes regularly, and engaging, doing whatever was necessary to learn, has been really important.  Just wanting to learn wasn’t enough – the desire had to be given practical expression.  I’ve been thinking how this insight might apply to other parts of my discipleship.

I’ve also been thinking ahead to future ministry.  There are two strands of Hebrew at college – intensive, and light.  I’m doing the intensive course, and thriving on the challenge.  Others are taking the light course and learning at a pace which suits them better.  In the church, in our communities, do we sometimes try to make everything ‘light’ for fear of putting people off?  It’s right to offer gentle introductions, but it may also be right to offer something more demanding.  Some people need to be stretched and may be put off by something which seems over simple or too slow.

More widely still, I’m wondering what this experience might have to say about how we learn to listen more attentively to those whose ‘language’ of faith is very different to our own – not in terms of being an actual foreign language, but in having different assumptions, different understandings of key concepts, different ways of expressing what’s central.  With a foreign language speaker we know we have to be aware of these dimensions, but perhaps we need also to have that awareness when engaging with those of different Christian traditions, and with those of other faiths.  If we can give time and effort to this, we may sometimes find we actually agree despite apparent disagreement.  And where we don’t, we would at least be debating real differences and not talking past one another, divided by an apparently common language, which in reality needed some careful translation.

Meanwhile, back to the imperfect regular verb ….

Pax et bonum,

Helen Julian CSF