In early December, the Catholic Herald ran an article in response to one of the Pope’s statements to the Pontifical Academies entitled “Papa Franciscus iuvenes hortatur ut linguam Latinam studeant”. For those of you fortunately unfamiliar with Latin, this means something like “Pope Francis urges young people to study the Latin language.” Well, that’s basically what it means. What I, someone who is not very good at Latin, extracted from this headline was something that looks like it should be a third declension accusative plural; a deponent verb meaning “urge” in the third person singular; and “ut” probably as part of a subjunctive indirect command, but maybe also a result clause. Then I got lost and decided to read the translation.
This nearly always happens to me when I try to read Latin. I simply get lost. The only way I can explain my trouble is to compare my personal experience translating a long Latin sentence to trying to crack a safe while juggling. Jude the Obscure may have found Latin far too little like a code, but I find it far too much like one. I have to remember what every word’s case or tense is, keep in mind what that means it could be doing in the sentence, and try to to find a convenient explanation that fits with all the cases and tenses and still makes sense in the context of the paragraph. Somehow, I can never manage. Before I am even half done, the whole delicate system comes crashing down and I forget not only what the sentence says, but what the paragraph says and where I am and who I am to boot.
In fairness to Pope Francis, he was urging young people to learn Latin in order to get at the lessons of the Latin Fathers, not to get at the lessons of the Latin grammar, so perhaps my inability to master the dative really does not exclude me from whatever enlightenment awaits in Augustine or Jerome. However, through all the charts and frustration, Wheelock and Greenough have perhaps taught me about something as important as the Paters: Holy and proper failure. Pope Francis can hortatur all he wants, and all four of my previous Latin TF’s can try to help me find my way in Caesar, but it simply won’t go. As Winnie the Pooh himself said of jumping like a kangaroo: “Some can and some can’t, and that’s all there is to it.”
I had a teacher in high school who told me that all the evil in the world came from our very human inability to respect our creaturely status. There is nothing ground breaking about the suggestion: Pride is the great sin because it caused man to forget he was a creature and believe he was a god. He willfully abandoned his status, the place he was made to occupy, and went after another. Many Christians, including myself, have a perfunctory understanding of this. Maybe it’s more common among Harvard Christians, I don’t know. We say things like, “I’m not God,” and “I’m not perfect,” but are rarely confronted with either fact. Everything or nearly everything is easy for us, we never face our imperfection, and our humility becomes a habitual matter of definition rather than an active status. We say, “I’m not God,” and go on our merry way, not thinking much about what it is not-Gods do, because we can do anything we set our minds too, right?
Wrong. That’s the hard lesson that Latin had to teach me, and maybe LS1A or CS50 has to teach you. Respecting our creaturely status means more than retaining our humility by remembering what we are not, it involves working out what exactly we are, and what exactly it is we properly do. All too frequently, we only get at this last thing by back-ways, that is, by failing hard and learning what it is we properly don’t. Winnie the Pooh had to recognize that he was a bear, and a stuffed bear at that, and that he was not built to jump. The creature known as a Tess has to realize that it is not at all meant to read Latin. It is proper of my place as a student to try my best, but it is also proper of my place as a creature to recognize my talents, and make peace with the fact that Latin-learning is not one of them. This failure, then, is proper and holy, even if it is not always easy to swallow. It is incumbent on me, however muddled and imperfect of a creature I am, to remember that fitting in to God’s plan for me means not only exercising my talents for His glory and the benefit of others, but recognizing when I don’t have much talent at all. And besides, there’s always Greek.
Tess Fitzsimmons ’19 is a History & Literature and Religion joint concentrator in Lowell House.