In my second year of college Spanish, after a few days of learning how to conjugate verbs in various tenses arcane to English speakers, my instructor entered the room. She was a thin wisp of a woman who wore silk scarves and glasses perched on her nose, but she had a steely determination to teach us proper Spanish. Wordlessly, she started passing out papers from the thick sheaf she’d carried in with her.
“Here you go,” she said.
I tried to read it, then realized I couldn’t. I was staring at a thick, stapled stack of paper written entirely in Spanish. I looked at my classmates, they looked at me, and we all shrugged and waited.
“You have no homework in your textbook tonight,” our professor announced. “But I want you to finish this story and answer some comprehension questions by the end of the week. That’s all.”
That’s all, I thought, eyeing the woman who had been born and raised in Argentina and who spoke fluent English, Spanish and French. But the thought of being freed from the nightmare of verb conjugation was appealing enough that I didn’t complain, and no one else did, either.
Still, the homework was hard. Nightly I huddled up with my sheaf of papers and a Spanish-English dictionary, then muddled my way through. I had to stop every other sentence to look up a new word or a verb conjugation I didn’t know, though our professor had at least been kind enough to annotate strange idioms or folk phrases for us.
It wasn’t long before I discovered the stories she’d given us weren’t from any textbook at all – they were actual Spanish short stories or chapters of novels. I read works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, poems by Pablo Neruda, bits of Don Quixote or other classics.
And I complained. Loudly.
“I’m not learning anything,” I muttered to my mother. “You know what would be helpful? A vocabulary list or something I could memorize. Some instructions about how to conjugate this verb in the past tense.” The arduous process of translation word by word felt like nothing more than a busy-work exercise, and I dismissed it as that.
But, unlike many of my classmates, I completed the work. And toward the end of the term, when our instructor passed out a test in class, I eyed it with suspicion. We’ve done barely any work in the textbook. What—
“Try,” she encouraged us. “Not for a grade. Just try and see.”
As long as it wasn’t for a grade, I wasn’t worried. I picked up my pencil, prepared to fail utterly—and then paused.
I could read the entire test in Spanish: every sentence, every paragraph. Even words I hadn’t actually studied in the textbook looked familiar. My brain conjugated the verbs automatically. I finished in a half hour and handed it in. Later, when it came back with an A, I stopped by her office. “That was amazing,” I said. “I didn’t even feel like I was learning by translating all those stories, but…”
“You learn when you do,” she said with a little satisfied smile. “To learn about, to say constantly, I am, I was, I will be to conjugate the verbs, it’s good, but it’s not the actual reading, speaking, doing…”
She wasn’t wrong. To this day, after years of learning Spanish all the way through the completion of my doctoral program, I attribute my success in the language to her: to the arduous act of doing which taught me itself the intricacies of a language I thought I would learn by study alone.
Christianity in some respects isn’t different.
The older I get, the more drawn I am to the realization that Christianity is a lived faith, something that must be embodied, physically done. Christianity is not something you can keep only in your head. You can study it, you can read theology until you turn blue, you can read the Bible from cover to cover, but we ultimately begin to resemble Christ in our doing: hands that feed or serve or wash or love, a mouth that prays, a body that kneels. We learn through this. We grow in faith through this.
I think a lot of us make the mistake of assuming that knowledge prompts practice. I know I do. I love reading books about God and studying the Bible. And some of us who live in our heads like to think that everything we know will prompt us to get to the doing. But sometimes the knowledge is in the doing.
We are learning something vital about service, about faith, about God, when we go to visit the sick. We have communion with Christ when we serve in the ways He asked us to, when we obey, when we enact what Scripture tells us about. It’s important to read and to learn about God, of course, in the same way that it’s important for Spanish speakers to understand the preterite tense. But it’s also true that there is a sort of learning gained through immersion, through translation, that cannot be found outside it.
This is found in Communion, too, isn’t it? God wants us to do something: there is a vitally important element of learning and relationship when we participate in the act of food and drink and the commemoration of Christ’s brokenness and sacrifice. The act itself is meaningful, an expression of faith and acknowledgement that is different than simply reading about the crucifixion or understanding it intellectually.
There are days that I don’t feel like doing. I would sometimes much rather read about the nature of God’s love and thoroughly understand it, would much rather study how the expression of how God’s love should work itself out in my life, than actually go practice it. One feels natural to me; the other doesn’t always. But when I walk into the action anyway—when I make the gesture or pick up the phone or spend the time or give of my resources—it eventually begins to feel familiar. And after a long enough time of it, much like with Spanish – after having awkwardly picked up my pencil and translated my way through a short story, through a poem – I find that I have been altered in ways I did not anticipate and cannot fully understand.
God has much to teach. We’ll miss some of it if we insist that there is only one way to learn. I’m a student and a cerebral person at heart, but ultimately some of what Christ wants to teach us – and some of the ways He wants to change us – can only be learned in the doing of what was asked.
It really is that simple.