Understanding

I’ve been enjoying studying Spanish for the past couple of months, and I’m progressing pretty well at the beginner level of the program I’m using. I know a fair number of words now, but when I hear a few sentences of Spanish spoken at a normal speed using those words, I’m completely lost. I understand the meanings of the individual words, but I am nowhere near any real understanding of Spanish, even using simple words. Thinking about that today got me pondering “understanding.” How often do I mistake dictionary definitions for understanding?

In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle describes how when she read Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, “I was determined to understand it. I read intelligently, with a dictionary beside me, stopping to look up the scientific words which were not familiar to me. And I bogged down. So I put aside the dictionary and read as though I were reading a story, and quickly I got drawn into the book…and understood it far better, at a deeper level, than if I had stuck with the dictionary.” (p. 36)

I’ve been birding for years now and can easily identify most of the common bird species in our area by sight and many of them by their songs. I know some of these species well enough to sketch them without even looking at them. But while I’ve slowed down and been taking retreat time this past week, I’ve been sketching the various Downy Woodpeckers that come to our feeders, and discovering little differences in their plumage, so that now I can distinguish three different females and three different males, each unique. Before, I knew what a Downy Woodpecker was, but now I’m coming to know them as individuals, and I’m guessing that as I observe them further, I’ll discern differences in their behavior. It may not be particularly profound to know individual woodpeckers, but pondering that makes me think of understanding people. Do I content myself with knowing facts about people I “know,” or do I seek to understand them and who they really are?

When I was homeschooling my children, I wanted to teach them French, but wasn’t sure of the best approach, so I called my high school French teacher, Mr. John Creary, for whom I had a great deal of respect and with whom I had stayed in contact. I thought Mr. Creary might suggest either a particular curriculum, or some more general approach to teaching French. Instead, he said, “French is language, and the purpose of language is communication. The most important communication is with God, so make sure you teach your children to know and communicate with God before you teach them French.” How often do I settle for a comfortable level of comprehension, missing deeper understanding that builds relationships with people, and more importantly, with God?

“Give me understanding, that I may live.”
Psalm 119:144

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