As my one-year master’s degree program in Pamplona, Spain closes, memories of my first days here flood back. I remember with fondness and embarrassment my first attempts to speak and understand Spanish.
One of the tips I found useful was to read in Spanish something I am already familiar with in my own languages. I turned to learning the Spanish versions of the Catholic prayers I’ve memorized from childhood, and to following the Spanish mass with a prayer guide. At first I was distracted from prayer, for instead of focusing my attention to God I was comparing the Our Father to the Padre Nuestro, amazed at my own improving ability to recognize words, conjugations, moods, and sentence structures. Later on, however, even this linguistic exercise turned into meditation. “Padre nuestro” means “our Father”…what does it mean for God to be “our” Father? “Que estas en el cielo”…”estas” is the conjugation for the informal second person pronoun “tu” while “esta” is the conjugation for the formal second person pronoun “usted”…what gives us confidence to we address God with the familiar “tu” instead of the formal “usted”? And so on.
As I learned more Spanish prayers, their beauty blew me over. To this day, I do not believe those who say that Spanish is the best language to talk with God; any language is as good as another for prayer. Still, there seems to be a special “something” about Spanish prayers, about Spanish piety, that I could not identify. Whatever that “something” is, whether it exists or not, it could not be denied that when the Catholic prayers were recited and heard for the first time in many countries (including my own), they were in Spanish. Spanish is also the language of many great saints and mystics. Every time I recited prayers in Spanish, the thought that I was communicating with God with the same words that people like St. Theresa of Avila used thrilled me.
Clearly, learning to pray in another language not only helped me improve the fluency in the language; it also helped improve my prayer life. The way in which learning to pray in another language helped me most is that it taught me how to pray like a child again – like a child learning his prayers for the first time, struggling not to stumble over the words. In my first days of learning the language, I’ve had to use a guidebook to be able to pray in a group. To this day, even if I’ve already memorized the common prayers, I still worry that I might forget a word or a phrase or say it wrongly. So I ask God to teach me the words with which I am to speak to Him – in short, as the apostles asked Our Lord, I ask Him to teach me how to pray. I feel confident that even if I make a mistake, God will understand and smile at me.
In other words, I learned the essence of prayer. Often I have thought that prayer is about impressing God with flowery and original words and profound realizations about the meaning of life. Doubtless, I’ve had moments of prayer like this, but not most of the time. And I learned that this should not dishearten me. God is pleased with the stuttering and lisping prayers of a child who trusts that God Himself will understand what is in the child’s heart. In the words of St. Josemaria Escriva – another Spanish saint – “You say that you don’t know how to pray? Put yourself in the presence of God, and once you have said, ‘Lord, I don’t know how to pray!’ rest assured that you have begun to do so.”