Language is a bridge, not a barrier

For Kathryn Ophardt, learning the nuances of Spanish opened her to an exploration of self, God and her relationships with those around her.

Photo by Lincoln on Unsplash

Learning language has become a spiritual practice in my life. It didn’t start out that way; but over the past 12 years of learning Spanish, and after living in Costa Rica and Mexico, I have come to approach language learning as more than memorization, and as more of a spiritual practice. From pura vida culture to the subjunctive mood, the Spanish language has broadened my worldview and transformed how I relate to myself, to my neighbor and to God.

I started learning Spanish in high school, where it was like a mental puzzle I was trying to piece together. It was full of verb charts and quizzes whose clear parameters held right and wrong answers, as I guessed whether a given context warranted ser or estar — both of which mean “to be” in English. As a high school student, I thought having two words for a state of being seemed like an unnecessary complication. In my Anglo worldview, I understood existence as either “you are” or “you aren’t.” Yet as Spanish soaked past my brain into the rest of my heart, body and spirit, I found the nuances of being in Spanish had philosophical and spiritual implications.

The Spanish verb ser refers to more permanent forms of being, such as identity, nationality and physical characteristics. By contrast, estar refers to more temporary forms of being, such as emotional state, location and condition. This dichotomy is the difference between saying “Yo estoy feliz,” meaning “I am happy [right now],” and “Yo soy una persona feliz,” meaning “I am a happy person [all the time].”

What began as a high school guessing game has become a spiritual practice of considering who I am (ser) versus how I am (estar). As a teenager and young adult, I felt liberated to have this way to explore the temporary and permanent facets of my being, my existence. When I went through heartache, grief and loneliness that felt all-consuming, the Spanish language reminded me they were temporary, because it gave me a linguistic structure to support and liberate my experience of pain. Mi corazón está roto: my heart is broken [temporarily]. Estoy de duelo: I am grieving [right now]. Estoy sola: I am alone [for now]. This epiphany helped me to better understand myself and to be better able to accompany the people around me as they explore their own temporary and permanent beings.

I had the joy of teaching Spanish as a spiritual practice in a church as part of my seminary field education. At the beginning of each class, we read a verse of the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish. The first line of the prayer is “Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre.” This translates to “Our Father, who is in heaven [at this time], holy be your name [always].” Reading this familiar prayer in a neighbor’s language revealed to me something new about the living Word. It revealed to me that God moves. God is in heaven, and God is on earth. God doesn’t have to be one place or the other. As we celebrate the Incarnation, we celebrate how God has walked with us in heaven and on earth, even as Christ incarnate gave us these words to pray. Yet wherever we meet God, we affirm God is always holy. Holiness is a defining characteristic for God.

When we read the Christmas story, we remember how the holy family crossed boundaries and sought refuge in a foreign land. They accepted hospitality from strangers and faced the vulnerability of travel. God has always been in motion: between heaven and earth, between Bethlehem and Egypt, between my life and yours. God bridges the boundaries between place, time and language. I believe God is inviting us to build bridges in our communities today. Though I often hear people complain about the so-called language barrier, I believe language is a bridge between people.

I have encountered many churches that offer English as a Second Language classes to immigrants in their communities. This invitation supports and empowers people in our predominantly English-speaking society. Yet, I also see a missed opportunity: providing other language classes for the English speakers. I have a vision of offering English as a Second Language classes and Spanish as a Second Language classes at the same time, plus a shared conversation table for all the language learners, so each person can meet their neighbors in one another’s languages. This is an opportunity to know the living Word in many languages because God speaks every language. To know God, self and other in a neighbor’s language is a gift. This is a vision of mutuality, of hospitality and of language as a bridge, not a barrier.