Saturday, January 16, 2016

Koinonia 1: Paroles de Dieu

I recently had the opportunity to attend my first “Koinonia” retreat here at the University of Illinois. “Koinonia” is Greek for “community” and a key aspect of the retreat is for the participants to feel God’s unconditional and boundless love for them through the community that is created before, during and after the actual weekend of the retreat.

I love retreats. In high school I tagged along on every class’s confirmation retreat because I liked my own so much and because there were no other retreats offered. As the years pass, though, I tend to expect more from every retreat I attend. Some deeper theological insight into my faith, some knowledge I didn’t have before, some emotional revelation during adoration, some intellectual puzzle finally solved. I’m not sure if I received any of these things on this retreat, except maybe the knowledge of some new Greek words. Reflecting on what made the weekend so special, then, I resolved that it was the fact that I was in that specific place at that specific time with those specific people.

The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure once made the distinction between langue and parole. Langue is the system of a language—its grammar, its rules, how it works. For example: the knowledge that adjectives describe nouns. Parole is a single act of speech: unique, in time, unrepeatable. For example: I tell my little sister “Happy Birthday!” at 9:47 am on the morning of her sixteenth birthday. This is the (admittedly nerdy) distinction that came to my mind as I thought about my experience of the retreat. Basically, I know that the Eucharist is the body of Christ. Transubstantiation etc. But what I didn’t know was the longing for the companionship with Jesus offered by Communion that a friend felt while going through a difficult time while she was still finishing RCIA (classes to become Catholic).

Being on team for one of the upcoming retreats has reinforced for me the importance of every individual on a Koinonia retreat. Since our first meetings were pretty close to finals, I got a little weary of the many icebreakers and getting-to-know-you games, which seemed to take up so much time. But getting to know people really is half the point of the whole endeavor, at least as far as I’ve understood it. Getting to know real people and how they live the sometimes seemingly abstract truths of the faith in their daily lives.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, an early Christian bishop and martyr, referred to himself in his Epistle to the Romans[1] as an “intelligible utterance of God,” which the commentary explains as “an expression of the Gospel; a manifestation of the divine purpose.”   Interestingly, utterance is the word often used to translate Saussure’s parole into English.[2] Catholicism is (happily, in my opinion) a very systematic religion. Studying the theory of this system can be the occupation of a lifetime, and can be quite fascinating for theology aficionados. But staying at this level, which is necessary but, like grammar class, preparatory in nature, would be like studying a foreign language as langue all your life, without ever actually using it as parole. An individual human life is the concrete expression of the theories which form the grammar of our faith, Christ being the most perfect expression of all. In this sense, we are all words of God, spoken unrepeatably into history, and coming to know each other in community is one of the most profound means of studying and contemplating the One Word—good to keep in mind during the next awkward icebreaker!

[1] Translation by Maxwell Staniforth in Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers. Penguin Classics, 1968.
[2] Phillips, John and Chrissie Tan. "Langue and Parole". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 08 February 2005. [, accessed 16 January 2016.]

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