NEW MEXICO AND ICELAND:
THOUGHTS ON 'ENGLISH ONLY'
am travelling on a bus into New Mexico in the year 2000. Troubled by Australia's move to 'English Only'. Remembering women there crying on my shoulder because they are forbidden the Mass in Italian, being despised and rejected for their language, Dante's language, Michelangelo's language, Galileo's language, now just pizza cooks. The damage that has been done to Native Peoples. Seeing this as trauma abuse . Across the aisle is a Comanche Indian. He tells of how his sons, when in school, had told him they have lost their own language, while having two European ones imposed on them, Spanish and English. He had taught land mining at the School of the Americas in Panama, is deeply loyal to the United States. I think of Princess Diana and of Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony. I remember the Australian Aborigine, struggling to regain meaning, language, culture, worth, in the face of abuse, alcoholism, despair, 'English Only'. I remember their Creator God, having eyes, nose, ears, but no mouth, having already spoken the Word that has created the World.
Aborigine theologians, studying the Bible in its sacred languages of Hebrew and Greek, have noticed what we did not. That the priest king of Canaan's Salem, Melchisadek, in giving the bread and wine of hospitality to Abraham, gives to the invader, the conqueror, the best model for invasion and conquest, where the new peoples learn of the old, sharing in their rite of hospitality centred upon the fruit of the earth and the labour of human hands. In turn, lay Jews enfolded the Canaanite rite into that of the Sabbath Eve, the mother beginning it by blessing the Sabbath lights of olive oil, as Mary would have done, the father the Sabbath bread and wine, as Joseph would have done, the child asking the Passover question about their meanings, Christ then instituting this as our Eucharist, rather than the animal blood sacrifices by male priests done during the nomadic journeys of the Hebrew peoples, carried out in costly ceremonies in the Temple until A.D. 70, and still performed outdoors by Samaritans and by Muslims. Land mines and suicide bombs butcher and shamble the bodies of men, women, children and beasts. But Salem, Shalom, is part of Jerusalem, which means 'Vision of Peace'.
And so I came to Santa Fe, the first settlers' city in the United States, whose name means 'Holy Faith'. With dreams of Willa Cather and Georgia O'Keefe. Breakfast after Mass the first day a Penitente daughter and her mother cooked, a burrito with hot chili sauce, telling me of the miraculous staircase, built with no nails in the chapel of the House of Loretto convent.
The darker railings were added later for safety
Passing the Navaho and Hopi craftspeople. Sante Fe, like Toledo, like Palermo, like Jerusalem, is a city of three cultures, more than three languages, Native American, Penitente, Anglo, their languages, Navaho, Hopi, Spanish, English, now harmoniously co-existing, though the wealth and sexuality of the Protestant Anglos disturbs, so many broken marriages, so many unhappy children. Penitente Spanish is pure, like people talking as if reading from a book, from Cervantes' Don Quixote. In Madrid it is no longer this pure Spanish but words run together, are drawled, unclear. These early settlers fled the Inquisition's Holocaust, being from Spain's Jewish families that go back to when Emperor Alfonso el Sabio's father was the King of the Three Religions, rather than forwards to Their Most Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella. Amongst Penitente art are not only bultos, statues of Christian saints, like Santa Rita, but also of Moses leading his People in the Wilderness.
Jose de Alzibar's painting of Nuestra Senora de Guadelupe, Santa Fe
Then I had my Amish granddaughter, who has red gold hair and the bluest eyes, for the day. So we saw the staircase and the entire chapel, now sadly secularized as a museum. And indeed it is a miracle. A circular staircase but without a centre, spiralling so gracefully with no support, from the nave to the upper choir, of golden wood, a dark and fussy Victorian stair rail added to it later. I told my son the carpenter its story, of a carpenter appearing from nowhere, building this incredible stairway for the nuns, then disappearing into nowhere. Yes, he said, even we carpenters sometimes can build a beautiful thing no one forgets. For it is a legend amongst even carpenters in Philadelphia. Rowan and I then found ourselves at Mass in the Cathedral, at its main altar, with the Penitente school children, the celebrant an Indian priest with hand-embroidered Navaho vestments, long black hair, fastened with silver, a boy and a girl his servers.
St Philip of Jesus, St Rose of Lima, Our Lady of
Guadelupe, St Martin of Porres, St Francis Solano.
St John Neumann, St Elizabeth Seton, St Francis of Assisi, St Frances Cabrini, St Peter Clavier
Bl. Katherine Drexel, St Isaac Jogues, Bl. Kateri
Tekawitha, Bl. Junipero Serra, St Miguel Febres Cordero
Saints of the Americas on Santa Fe Cathedral Altar Screen
We went to see the Spanish Madonna, the oldest one in America, in the oldest part of the Cathedral, and who is dressed in glorious clothes matching each liturgical season.
Then the Museums. Native American Museums, Colonial Spanish Museums, the Georgia O'Keefe Museum. At the O'Keefe Museum one guard fell for Rowan with her red-gold hair, all of four, and spoke to us of his Penitente people and especially of his daughter, whom he so wants to be a priest. Rowan's blue eyes took in everything. Much later I asked her what was the most beautiful thing she saw that day. Being in the Cathedral at Mass, she said. Two years ago, when she was two, in the oldest church in America, she went up to the altar in her mother's arms. This time, in mine, to be blessed. She has never been baptized. Indeed, to truly understand New Mexico, both Indian and Penitente, one has to be at Mass, not merely amongst English-speaking Protestant Anglos copying the South-West 'style'. Catholicism and Spanish is its soul; from Nuestra Senora de Guadelupe's appearance to Juan Diego, this unites its diversity of peoples. Nuestra Senora de Guadelupe being everywhere, with the story of her cloak filled with roses, found to have the miraculous image of her painted on its starry blue. A cloak that matches Rowan's eyes, the roses her hair.
Another day we went to Mass, said in Spanish, at Villa Nueva, out in the country, a village church, and all around its walls the women had embroidered something like the Bayeux Tapestry, the three bands, top and bottom as brief commentary, the centre with the story, sometimes even copying the buildings in the Bayeux Tapestry, all of which Anglo-Saxon women had had to embroider for their Norman (also Viking) conquerors, who destroyed our English language, forbidding it for three hundred years. In these Villa Nueva images the women had shown stories of New Mexico, writing their own history, about their culture, blending it with that of the Gospel, with the needle instead of the pen. Interestingly they had shown horses with far greater love and detail than they had human figures. And these horses were everywhere in this New Mexico landscape, beautiful, part-Arab horses introduced here by the Spaniards. It was a blessing to be in these small churches, in this large cathedral, and to be hearing the Catholic Blessing given in Spanish. Reminding one of women in Australian churches proclaiming the Rosary in Italian. Let us ask who has chosen to declare that Mediterranean Catholic women in America and Australia, from Spain, from Italy, should be denied their languages. Let us ask ourselves why. A people's soul, a people's religion, is in language. Spinoza spoke of vowels as the soul, consonants as the bone and flesh of words. John Whiterig, a medieval Benedictine hermit on the island of Farne, wrote that Christ the Word is crucified for us, his wounds the vowels of that Word. We need not re-crucify the Son of Man, in the so-famous American rhetoric, upon a cross of silver with nails of gold. Once with wood and iron is enough and for ever.
Then the flight to Iceland. My student, working at the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavik, had invited me. A dream I had never dared to believe could be realized. The Árni Magnússon Institute has received back from Denmark its priceless heritage of manuscripts, both the Icelandic Sagas and its Saints' Legends which are also its Bishops' Lives, this task completed this year, in celebration of Iceland's thousand years of Christianity. Years ago I had lectured about these Sagas and a student present then at some of these lectures now taught me far more than I had taught him. I had lectured on Njal Saga, how at its ending Christianity comes and all convert and go to Jerusalem, Jorsalaborg, on pilgrimage, an entire paradigm shift from bloodfeud vengeance to peace. I had lectured on Egil Saga. I had not known of the plethora of Christian texts they had also produced. I had explained to American students that we should study Iceland as a model for America, a democracy and republic founded in the early Middle Ages, which still speaks the purest form of our original, now mongrelized, English language, shattered at the Norman Conquest, but which was Icelandic, Old Norse, before its Frenchification, the Normans themselves of this same Viking stock but who, in having sired bastard children by rape on French mothers speaking Romance, their progeny grew up speaking their mother tongue with all the abuse trauma of such violence embedded in their language, their brain chemistry.
These Normans, barely converted to Christendom, in turn marauded over all Europe, conquering Sicily, conquering even Jerusalem briefly for Christendom, and were singing the stirring propagandistic Song of Roland at the Battle of Hastings, 'Pagans are wrong and Christians are right', when conquering Christian Anglo-Saxon England, pirating for themselves the history of Charlemagne, which was likewise not their own. That poem's earliest extant version is at Oxford, its oral formulae written down in Anglo-Norman French. By a monk. Just as was Beowulf , the Viking epic, set in Sweden and Denmark, written down by an Anglo-Saxon monk who perhaps had heard it sung to the harp in the English Danelaw. For England was not only conquered by Normans, it was also conquered by Danes, and Anglo-Saxons previously had conquered the Celtic inhabitants, prohibiting their British language, now only spoken in Wales and Brittany and related to that in Ireland and Scotland. Strangely the hero of The Song of Roland is from Brittany. That region would also give back to Anglo-Saxon and Norman England their lost history of the British King Arthur. The counterpart to Beowulf and The Song of Roland is the Bayeux Tapestry, embroidered by Anglo-Saxon noblewomen for their Norman Conquerors; not history sung by Taillefer and Turoldus in Norman French orally to the harp, but penned and written in Latin letters with the needle by literate conquered English women.
Iceland is awesome. From the very first waking in the morning there and washing one's face in hot water from the faucet smelling of sulphur, come directly from geothermal hot springs, to my student's comment that in not one of the Sagas is there any mention of these geothermal wonders. No description of geysirs, nor of volcanoes, nor of magma meeting glacier, nothing; only in one miracle of St Thorlakur is there one mention, of the healing by him of a woman whose feet are terribly burned by a geysir. Though these wonders are all spectacular, both infernal and miraculous. One is taken to see Geysir, the tremendous waterfall of Gullfoss, the Golden Falls, glimpsing, too, the shimmering blue green light of a glacier, the sight of a volcano and the flight of a raven. I was shown where the last Catholic bishop was beheaded by the Danes at the Reformation within sight of volcanic Mount Hekla, at Skalholt. Then to Thingvellyr, and its beetling crags, where, in A.D. 1000, the Althing, the Icelandic Republican Parliament, held for a millenia outdoors, had chosen to convert to Christ. I seemed scornful when I spoke of 'ponies', using the word of these horses less than fourteen hands high, as in the Shetlands. Icelandic horses are as amazing as are ones in New Mexico, and often of the same colours. My student explained to me that when the Vikings came the island was covered with forests, but they brought about ecological disaster, destroying all the woods, until now trees are only in graveyards and gardens of homes. And that they did this, too, in Greenland and Wineland, always wanting to live like aristocrats, eating meat instead of fish. I remembered the Florentines doing the same, denuding Monte Ceceri of trees to build their city until Victorian Englishmen reforested its quarried galleries. I gave them a book on Benozzi Gozzoli's frescoes in the Medici Palace's Chapel, showing that ecological disaster.
I was giving lectures, the first, on SISMEL, Certosa del Galluzzo, in Florence, to the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavik, there, asking that great cultures be shared and appreciated internationally; then staying at Skalholt, the former Iceland Cathedral School that produced so many learned manuscripts, and talking there on Women Pilgrims and the Jubilee, asking that they tell me of the Iceland woman pilgrim Guthrithyr ; next returning to Reykjavik and lecturing, the third one, at the University on Dante and the Jubilee of 1300 . In Reykjavik I was staying in the book-filled house of the great scholar, Jónas Kristjánsson, and he and his wife and his son finally gave me all the information I sought about Guthrithyr, who went from Iceland to Greenland to Wineland, giving birth there to the first European Christian on American shores, her son, named Snorri, then returning to Iceland, next, widowed, journeying to Rome on pilgrimage, returning home to her son and becoming a nun and anchoress and from whom several bishops descended. Long before Christopher Columbus discovered America. We talked too of how the Irish had preceded the Vikings on Iceland, pagan Vikings discovering there the bells, books, and croziers of celibate Irish monk pilgrims. Who may also have reached Wineland before 1000 A.D.
Fourteenth-Century Jonsbok, Arni Magnusson Institute, Reykjavik, Iceland
Somehow, in visiting New Mexico and speaking with Indians and Penitente there, and in visiting Iceland, and in speaking with Icelanders, so soon after speaking with Irish medieval scholars visiting America, I was learning more about the original settlement of North America, in New Spain by Jews speaking Spanish, in Newfoundland by Icelanders speaking the purest form of this language, English, that I write in, and who captured Irish as slaves and have their genetic coding, than I could ever find in official American documents written in English. Sometimes the truest history, the purest language is preserved only at the margin, on the peripheries, not at cosmopolitan, mongrel centres. This English in which I write is not pure. Should we all be forced to learn Icelandic, the purest form extant of our language, and forbidden all other languages? On Iceland the greeting given to men and women, who are differentiated grammatically in that greeting is, 'Bless you!' In these stories, at the margins, we find Christianity, we find women. In this small, sparsely inhabited island I saw the President of Poland, the former President of Iceland, a much-loved woman, and I met with Lutheran and Catholic Bishops, scholars and night watchmen, all deeply alive and appreciative of Icelandic culture. I was shown with such pride these smoke-begrimed, beautiful manuscripts, preserved in homes until the Danes took them away and forbade the Icelandic language in schools and in official documents, and which are now returned to them.
New Mexico was isolated, without priests, for more than a century. Likewise Iceland, having no more wood for building ships. Thirteenth century Icelandic culture is European. But in the fourteenth century contact with Europe is lost. The Black Death arrived fifty years later than to the rest of Europe. There is no knowlege of St Birgitta on this island. Unique amongst Scandinavian countries. Though Guthrithyr is remembered. The Iceland of the Sagas is the Iceland of today, one can find from reading Halldór Laxness' Independent People. It doesn't matter being lost, but to lose one's language, one's stories, that does matter, and is trauma. Similarly, Jews and Chinese can come to America, continue their own literacy and their own religion, and assimilate into the professional classes, from having the two languages. My American student, who earlier taught Beowulf and 'The Dream of the Rood ' in China, who now speaks and even lectures in Icelandic, is now up north, helping with the Lambing. Like a new David.
Philip Roughton on Iceland
The Jubilee is here. Where in May the sun sets at eleven at night and rises at three in the morning. Where in winter there is no sun at all. The Jubilee is European after being Asian, it is American after being European. It is universal. It is throughout the whole Creation. At Pentecost all languages were understood. Do not force others to only know your own language. The deaf cannot learn to speak if forbidden to sign, if forbidden a natural language as base for conceptualization. An Emperor wanted to know what language babies would speak if divorced from all language. Hebrew, he thought. The babies in the experiment all died. To rob a language from a person, a people, is to kill their soul. The Holocaust was both genocide and the attempt to destroy Hebrew, the sacred tongue of the Bible, to kill the people and the sacred language they read. Where 'English Only' is written into law, slavery is being carried out. Ask who is being forbidden their own language and ask what work it is they do. Are they reading Dante? Or are they merely pizza cooks? I shall never forget the elation in an entire cathedral in Melbourne, when at a bishop's consecration, the Lesson was read beautifully by a cripple in Maltese, and the joy in his face. and how it rocked as all together sang the Litany to 'Waltzing Matilda'. To learn a language from another is love. Each language is easier than the last one learned, the more the merrier. If your own language is taken from you you cannot learn another. You can be bestialized, made to work at low wages, and be taken, like sheep, to the slaughter. Plato described slave-owning Sparta, not free Athens, when he wrote the Republic with its myth of metals, the King of Gold, the Nobles of Silver, the slaves of iron, the Silver lords keeping down the iron helots, captured in battles, with illiteracy, with language loss, with culture loss. Ask why it is Catholic immigrants who are denied their own language, Spanish, Italian, Polish, just as already the English had robbed the Irish of theirs. Languages, colourless, shapeless as air, having no reality except sound and, when written, sight, yet opening doors. Languages are people's souls and are most precious.
Learn all the languages you can,
be all that you can be. Share in the olive, the wine, the
bread of others' culture. Avoid butchery. Listen to their
tales, their stories, their sagas. Treasure each other. The
smile and 'Grazie', of a Gypsy and her child to whom you give
your small change is the most beautiful thing you will see and
that you will hear, that day, in Florence. A Roma mother and a
priest from Kerala discovered over my table that they shared
the same word for 'bread'. Do not acquiesce ever to Holocaust.
The 'Other' is most purely your self. 'Bless you!'
Dr Adama Samassékou, President of the African
Academy of Languages (ACALAN), spoke most eloquently, in
Russian, in French, in English, at the UNESCO conference in St
Petersburg, May 2005, of the fundamental human right to one's
mother tongue. He claimed that discrimination and prejudice
starts from denying that language to an individual. I spoke
with him (and with Dr Françoise Rivière, Professor at the
Sorbonne), of the need for indigenous peoples, nomadic
peoples, displaced peoples, to retain and treasure their own
languages, then from that as base to acquire further
languages. And I told him I would send him this essay.
Willa Cather. Death Comes for the Archbishop. New York: Random House, 1993. ISBN 0-679-60050-7
Halldór Laxness, Independent People. Trans. J.A. Thompson. New York: Vintage, 1997. ISBN 0-679-7692-4
Njal Saga, Egil Saga, etc. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics.
Rainbow Spirit Elders. Rainbow Spirit Theology: Towards an Australian Aboriginal Theology. Blackburn, Victoria: Harper Collins Australia, 1997.
Thomas J. Steele, S.J., Santos and Saints: The Religious Folk Art of Hispanic New Mexico. Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1982. ISBN 0-941270-12-2.
For Philip Roughton's translation of Halldor
Laxness' Iceland's Bell, ISBN 1400034256,
search with Google.
From the UNESCO Website:
Language is no doubt the greatest creation of the human mind and each individual language testifies in a unique way to the linguistic faculty of mankind. Languages are not only extremely adequate tools of communication, they also reflect a view of the world: they are vehicles of value systems and of cultural expressions and they constitute a determining factor in the identity of groups and individuals. Languages form an essential part of the living heritage of humanity.
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