At fourteen months, the baby is talking, and I’m fairly certain it’s real words he’s trying to say. Some of his utterances are clearer than others. I suppose I must admit that the clearest, at this point, are not words at all, but quite expressive sounds.
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We stroll down the grocery aisle, and he can scarcely contain himself: “Mmmmm! Mmmmmm!” The boy knows his food, that’s for sure.
He knows his dogs, too. “Woof! Woof!” says the baby upon seeing one, or even hearing it from afar.
But the words are coming, and quickly too. And since some of them are almost indistinguishable, it helps to have some visual cues, which most of the time, he very helpfully provides.
One of his brothers is named David, and his attempts to say it sound much like his more confident references to his father. But when it’s five o’clock and a car door slams, and Joseph races to the front door squealing, “Da-da!” we know exactly who he’s talking about.
If he’s got the phone to his ear and says “ha” we know he’s trying to say “hi.” If he’s looking warily at the oven or an electrical outlet and pronounces the same syllable, we can be sure (or hope) it’s “hot” that’s on his mind.
Since he’s still a baby, he spends a lot of time babbling, especially concentrating on those syllables that babies like so much. So he can race around the house murmuring “ba-ba-ba-bee” to himself all day long, and it means nothing except practice, but if he sees a picture of one of his own kind, he perks up, points, and the nonsense syllables take on a new meaning: “ba-bee.”
But best of all is that simplest, earliest of baby sounds, that “ma-ma-ma-ma” which he quite often cuts to two syllables now and offers me as the sweetest reward for all of our long nights together: a head laid on my shoulder or arms wrapped around my leg with a pat, and a soft, “Ma-ma.”
I know exactly what he means.
The baby speaks, but the meaning of his words only become really clear through his actions.
We adults speak, too. For example, we utter a great many words in prayer. We recite verses, we affirm creeds, we offer syllables to heaven. We explain, when asked, who we are, we Catholic Christians, baptized and believing, people of something called faith.
When people hear us use such words, do they know what we mean?
And if they are uncertain, what actions do they see to clarify?
We speak of love. Of mercy. Of forgiveness. We speak of all these things and more. We say, in easy answers to surveys and idle questions that we are Christians.
Is there any way for people to understand the meanings of these words as we speak them?
Is the love which we claim to bear the world any different from the mild feelings of good will that any decent human being harbors towards others?
What of our mercy and forgiveness? Jesus speaks of a father who welcomes a wandering son home without even hearing his excuses. He tells of the master of a vineyard who pays all his laborers the same wage, no matter what hour they began their work. The religiously-oriented of his time maintained that it was risky and sinful for the godly to associate with those outside the Law, and to help them in anyway was even worse, for it strengthened the hand of the sinner. In the name of mercy, Jesus did both, brazenly.
When the world hears the modern Christian say these words mercy, forgiveness, love to what meaning do his actions point? Is it the passionate, open joyful mercy of Jesus in the Gospels, or is it merely the sense that the world gives of mercy only for the deserving, of forgiveness offered conditionally, of love for those with whom we’re comfortable?
The world is full of Christians. The land is filled with buildings upon which is etched that name. You and I go regularly to those buildings, like clockwork, every week, where we speak, sing, proclaim, and pray.
It’s worth asking. What meanings do our actions give to the words we say?
Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributor to the Living Faith quarterly devotional. This article first appeared in Our Sunday Visitor and is reprinted here with permission of the author.