By Michelle Francl-Donnay

In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. – Jn. 1:1

We had an hour at Tokyo Station to find lunch, pick up dinner to eat later, and the right platform for our train. It was not enough. After a 20-minute hike across the station to the food court, lugging my 25-pound backpack, it became clear that a sit-down lunch was not to be. I ducked into a small grocery store to see what I could find to round out the bag of castellas I’d bought at a local street market in the morning.

After two weeks in Japan, much of it spent in rural and monastic settings, eating simple vegetarian food – and a lot of rice – a yogurt and Diet Coke sounded great. I eagerly searched for the refrigerated case, and was confronted once again by what had been my biggest struggle on the trip. In Japan, I am functionally illiterate.

I know what yogurt cartons look like (at least in the United States), and I while could recognize the pictures of fruit on the side, I could not even sound out the labels. I grabbed what I hoped was a mango yogurt, checked out and dashed back through the station to catch my train. Settled in my seat at last, I pulled off the top of the carton, only to discover I’d bought mango sauce, not yogurt. Sigh.

I spend much of my life immersed in the written word, reading and writing. To be deprived of the ability to read the signs – literally – left me feeling impoverished in ways I had never experienced. Not even when I was a graduate student with bare cupboards and a bank account that hovered around zero, without a car or TV or radio.

I had to rely entirely on my companion who was fluent in Japanese for everything from reading the bus schedule to figuring out what was on the menu in the ferry station automat. Where I slept, how I got there, what I ate, was all in someone else’s hands. I found myself becoming ever more attentive to what was around me, watching people’s faces, aware of intonation and gesture, listening for the few words I understood. Stripped of my own words, I listened far more carefully.

German theologian Johannes Metz notes that our ability to empty ourselves, to be poor in spirit, is not a “vague mysticism” fostered in isolation, but grows in the world, and out of our close relationships with our brothers and sisters. Self-abandonment takes shape in the “radical depths of our human encounters.” I understand my poverty before God all the better for experiencing this poverty of language. I grasp more deeply my utter dependence on God in my dependence of the care of others. I hear the Word more clearly for being mute.

I will return to Japan this fall, taking a group of students as part of a course I am teaching on contemplative traditions. In preparation, I am studying the basic kanji, in order to be able to read the signs well enough to find the ladies room without help. I only hope in learning to read these words, I don’t undermine whatever ability I have to read the signs of God around me. To hear the Word in which I begin and end.

God inspired speech in different tongues to proclaim one faith. May he strengthen your faith and fulfill your hope to see him face to face. Amen. – From the Solemn Blessing on Pentecost

Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: