On Failing French and Prayer

 This one comes to us from our friend, Cort Gatliff. When my wife, Abby, and […]

Mockingbird / 12.2.16

 This one comes to us from our friend, Cort Gatliff.

When my wife, Abby, and I were dating, she told me not to bother trying to marry her unless I was willing to move to France, where she could perfect her near-fluent command of the French language. Assuming this ultimatum fell into the category of “things idealistic twentysomethings say after two glasses of wine,” I agreed. But just a year into our marriage, she called my bluff. We’re now living in an attic apartment above a pharmacy in a small, grey town in northern France.


Abby, who is teaching English at a primary school here, has had to set up bank accounts, negotiate lease contracts, and navigate the maddening French bureaucracy by herself, while I stand by her side nodding my head and smiling, completely unaware of what’s being said. My monolingualism, which has served me well for 25 years, has quickly become something of a liability.

The French language isn’t completely foreign to me, though. At my Southern all-boys college prep school—think Dead Poets Society but with pickup trucks—I studied French under the tutelage of a charming, if a bit churlish, Frenchman named Reginald. I loved Reginald, and I like to pretend he loved me too. Instead of studying, I passed the time in class by asking him about wine, French women, and the merits of various baguette-baking techniques, which, while enlightening, did not increase my ability to speak the language. “Mr. Gatliff,” he would say in slightly broken English. “You’re a lazy bastard.” He was right: I was, and I still am.

My senior year, I unexpectedly received a letter of acceptance into the French Honor Society. At the induction ceremony, Reginald shook my hand, pulled me in close, whispered, “You make a fool out of this organization,” and then sent me on my way.

I found out we were moving to France months ago, plenty of time to brush up on the language. I downloaded apps, made flashcards, bought used textbooks, and googled “easiest ways to learn French” four or five dozen times. In a moment of desperation, I began surrounding myself with choice wines and cheeses, hoping to become a Francophone through some sort of cultural osmosis. The number of hours I actually spent studying can be counted on three fingers. Once I live there, I told myself, conjugating verb tenses will become second nature. I’ll be conversing with the locals within weeks.

Spoiler alert: bad habits follow you wherever you go, even across the ocean. In these two months, I’ve become an expert in ordering pain au chocolate and café from the bakery down the street, but little else. If a friendly barista tries to carry on a conversation, I do the best I can but sheepishly admit, “Désolé, je ne parle pas français.” When I do pull out notecards to practice vocabulary, it’s not long before I realize the kitchen desperately needs cleaning, and there are work emails that need be sent right that very moment. Even if I put in hours of studying, the progress is minimal. The more I learn the more I discover how little I actually know, which leads to discouragement, shame, and frustration—which leads, of course, to Netflix.

In this, learning a language, I’ve found, is similar to prayer.

I’ve never really liked praying. Am I allowed to say that? I don’t like it because even after years of (admittedly half-assed) practice, I’m still pretty bad at it. In my youth group days, I found comfort in studying scripture, attending church, and volunteering at local ministries—all of the tangible acts that I could dutifully check off my holier-than-thou list, which was lengthy. But prayer, this strange business of having a conversation with God, has always felt just out of reach.

200Some mornings I’ll wake up early to pray, and within minutes I’m asleep again—or worse: on Twitter. At night, same deal. My wife and I will read a prayer aloud together, and halfway through I’ll realize my mind has wandered away like a dull-witted sheep. There are always a million other important things—like updating my Facebook profile photo, for example—jockeying for my attention. Sometimes it feels like I’m simply making small talk with God, trying to prevent a lull in the conversation so as to avoid the awkward silence. I imagine God, after hearing my haphazard attempts at prayer, shaking his head and saying to the angels, “He makes a fool out of this organization.” There are days when all I can manage to blurt out is, I’m not even totally convinced you’re there, but please be with me.

Perhaps that’s enough.

French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil, in her essay Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God, says that our academic pursuits have profound spiritual implications in that they can help us “develop that faculty of attention which, directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer.” The heart of prayer, she suggests, is simply paying attention, “faithfully waiting . . . watching and listening.” That is to say, there may actually be value in memorizing French verb conjugations, even if, like talking to God, the activity feels fruitless at the time.

An app I use for studying sends little passive-aggressive reminders that nag me throughout the week. “Hi Cort! Learning a language requires practice every day.” I generally slide open the notification out of guilt, complete the short exercise, and then continue on with my day having checked something off my to-do list without actually learning anything. So it often goes with prayer. If I do enough, I think, perhaps I’ll have a “spiritual” moment and God will reveal himself.

This law-based posture toward prayer makes us miss out on the beautiful, gracious truth that God is never not revealing himself to us. For “he is not far from any one of us,” Paul says, and “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28). With this in mind, prayer becomes less about seeking after a momentary spiritual high and more about discovering how God is already at work.