This blog originally appeared as an article in The Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Vol. 21, No. 4, Christmas 2012).
HEY WERE BLESSED MONTHS. I remember them with great fondness, and, even now, I am mesmerized by my experiences during that serendipitous span. Their formative value could surely never have been foreseen. I was a young, American adult living in a backwater German village, about two hours from the nearest Hauptbahnhof. Having been raised in the Delaware Valley, I spoke a rather tawdry brand of Philadelphian English. My education had included four years of elementary school Spanish, four years of high school German, and a couple semesters of college Koine Greek. All of that served in no wise to prepare me for the task of dwelling in Deutschland.
Frankfurt was easy to navigate. There were many cognates in the signage, and I remembered a handful of useful phrases from high school. Most of the time, it was easy enough to ask a question in my native tongue anyway. That sense of security was short-lived, however, since I soon drove into the lovely, if unfamiliar, Teutonic countryside.
The village where I was living had been founded in AD 591. (From the looks of the thatched roofs, I actually wondered if some could be original!) The sparse inhabitants were plain, hearty people—mostly farmers and smiths. They were schooled only by their families and neighbors and by the land, so English was about as useful as a porcelain hammer. Nor were my meager German language skills of any value, since I quickly discovered their manner of speaking to be far less textbook German than my peculiar brand of speaking is standard English.
In those first weeks, I was relentlessly reminded that I was not at home. It was utterly impossible for me to forget—even temporarily—that I had been transported to live in another world. The situation was uncomfortable, disconcerting, and a bit frightening. I was apprehensive at first, and things quickly devolved. I was decidedly alone. Only two options seemed viable for survival: either give up and go home, or put out into the deep. The transatlantic flight wasn’t cheap, so I chose the latter.
I started frequenting the few stores in the village in search of linguistic practice. I would greet every man, woman, or child I encountered in the hopes of expanding my vocabulary. I went to get my hair cut twice a month instead of once, simply in search of dialogue.
I found that I had to listen not only to their voices, but to the sum total of their aural, physical, and emotional communication. Their posture, gestures, and features became essential tools of interpretation for me. My sensitivities naturally grew heightened, so as not to miss the smallest verbal or non-verbal cue. By doing so, I began to be able to understand them. In time, I even became capable of basic responses.
Even as my facility grew, though, the sense of other-worldliness never left. It was ever-present to my mind and heart that I was not in my native home, and yet this foreign place gave me the curious impression of not being truly foreign. It presented itself, rather, as simply another type of home. This was at once an inscrutable conundrum and a delightful state of affairs.
Upon landing in Frankfurt, I had been twenty-two and confident. Upon returning to the USA, I was still twenty-two but fire-tried. I had experienced the grand confrontation of disparate cultures. It didn’t kill me; in fact, it made me stronger. The struggle stretched me. I became, paradoxically, more communicative.
Language became, for me, a glorious vehicle by which to encounter another person. It became a channel not only for communication, but also for communion. Every villager I met made me more and more acutely aware of the tremendous mystery of the human person. I became insatiable, and their mystery began to be revealed. In unexpected ways, the nature and meaning of life and personhood were discovered to me through the simple stock of that ancient hamlet.
None of this would ever have happened, of course, if I had stayed in the comfort of my home or even the terminal at Philadelphia International. If it were not for the struggle, I would never have known the benefit. I would never have learned that another type of home exists. It required putting out into the deep.
They were, indeed, blessed months. They demanded humility and charity; they fostered subtlety and vulnerability; they inspired patience and love.
And that’s how I came to love Latin liturgy.