\”Look at the birds of the air,\” Father Molloy intoned in his Irish brogue. \”They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet the Lord God feeds them.\” Then he then went on about lilies and King Solomon, and when he had finished reciting he twinkled his blue eyes and said \”Class, I want you to memorize this passage by tomorrow.\” The blood froze in my veins.
At home that evening I got out the New Testament and my paperback Spanish-English dictionary and went to work. I had no idea what the passage was about. I didn\’t know the meaning of sow, reap, gather, or barns. Then came the part about the lilies, which neither toil nor spin, whatever that was, but even Solomon was not arrayed like one of them. Arrayed–was it a good or a bad thing not to be arrayed like a lily?
And then a few lines further down Jesus said, \”Therefore, do not worry…\” (Matthew 6:26-34)
How could I not worry, when I had to memorize that long passage by tomorrow and I didn\’t know most of the words in it? I looked up sow, and reap, and gather. But by the time I got to barns I was confused. I had seen plenty of sowing and reaping in my grandparents\’ farm in Catalonia, but as far as I knew, the birds of the air were a menace around harvest time. They did not wait for the Lord God to feed them, but helped themselves boldly to the grain.
I ground my teeth and soldiered on, looking up word after word, but when I put them all together, the passage still didn\’t make sense. And here it was, almost bedtime, and I hadn\’t even begun to memorize.
\”Therefore, do not worry…\”
At fourteen, newly arrived in the U.S. and possessed only of the few crumbs of English I\’d acquired from a German teacher during my three years in Quito, I worried all the time. I was the first-ever foreign student in a Catholic high school in Birmingham, Alabama, long before the days when English as a second language became an academic subject. I suspect that nobody knew what to do with me.
For my part, my all-consuming goal was to blend in so I could catch my breath and figure out, without letting anyone notice my ignorance, things I\’d never encountered before, like homerooms and assemblies and rallies and football games, and to acquire enough English to survive.
My efforts at camouflage must have worked, because from day one my teachers seemed to assume that I was no different from my classmates. I\’m sure that if I\’d asked for help it would have been given gladly, but I never asked. I believed, given the stern regimes of my schools in Barcelona and later in Quito, that any sign of weakness or ignorance would be pounced upon by the school authorities and I would be cast into the outer darkness, to spend the rest of my days cleaning bathrooms for a living.
If I had only known how comparatively lenient and indulgent American educators were, I would have relaxed, but I didn\’t know, so I anxiously continued to mask my deficiencies. Arriving home in the afternoon, after a day of straining with every fiber to understand what was going on in class, I would retire to bed with a headache. Later I would get up and, dictionary in hand, try to do my homework.
But on the night of my encounter with the birds and the lilies, I finally realized that the dictionary was in fact hampering my efforts to understand. It was slowing me down, interrupting the flow of ideas so that I was missing the gist of the passage. Besides, there were just too many words I didn\’t know. It was impossible to look them all up, let alone remember them. I would simply have to figure out the meanings from the context.
With a sigh, I put the dictionary away and never opened it again. Somehow I winged it, lexicon-less, through the rest of school. At college graduation, my husband-to-be presented me with a hardcover Merriam-Webster Collegiate, but by then I hardly needed it.
It\’s been a late spring in Vermont, and the birds of the air and the lilies of the field are busy making up for lost time. The words in the Matthew passage are no longer a mystery to me. But, having learned to fret early on, it\’s those other words of Jesus that I still struggle with, \”Therefore, do not worry….\”