I and thou

img_1322If you know a second language, even a little, I highly recommend reading the Bible in it occasionally. Especially if you’ve read and re-read your first-language Bible so much that the words have grown stale, maybe even painfully so. A different language, with different grammatical structure and different vocabulary can make the stories seem new and fresh. And it can give you a glimpse of the cultural assumptions and biases that even the best Bible translations bear.

This morning I’m reading the Gospel of Matthew in my halting French, and then some poems in (even halting-er) German by Rainer Maria Rilke. “Du, Nachbar Gott, wenn ich dich manchesml.” Did you know that in German there is a formal “you” and an informal “you”? The first you use with your elders, professors, or acquaintances. The second is for close friends. This is the one Rilke uses here to address God: “Du.” “Du Nachbar Gott.” “You, neighbor God.”

Did you also know that English used to have a formal and informal “you”? But over time, for various reasons, the informal one fell out of use, till now we almost exclusively use the formal, which is “you.” The informal, which you use with close friends? — “Thou.” “Thou,” is the informal, the intimate address, the way you speak to someone close to you, when you have left the corporate gathering and are back at home with just a few friends. When you have loosened your ties and your belts and are sprawled out on couches, relaxing. “Thou,” is how lovers address each other, as in Edward FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s poem The Rubaiyat:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

“Thou” is the word that the those who produced the King James translation of the Bible chose to use when people address God, as in Psalm 23 when David says,

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

And it is the word that God and God’s angels use when they address people, such as in Matthew 1:20 when the angel says to Joseph,

Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.

It is one of the ironies of the evolution of language that as “thou” fell out of use in English yet remained in the King James Bible, it began to be seen as not just archaic but formal, and even beyond formal — a special way of addressing God that made God seem distant, high up in heaven while we were on earth. The word that used to evoke an image of good friends relaxing together (shown vividly in the last supper, when the disciples were eating together and “the disciple that Jesus loved”, thought to be the author of the Gospel of John, was “leaning on Jesus’ bosom”) — that very word began to evoke a separation between us and God, we here on earth, kneeling on hard pews, begging for scraps from one high above us. Not Rilke’s neighbor God. Not David’s God who is beside him at his meal, anointing his head, filling his cup.

But the German and the French retain that distinction — in French the informal you is “tu”. I had to look up the word “crains” when I read it in La Bible in Matthew 1:20 this morning — “Joseph, descendant de David, ne crains pas” but I discovered not only that it is a conjugation of “craindre”, to fear, but that it is in the informal tense as well. “Joseph, close friend, descendant of David, do not be afraid.” (words in italics are mine)

Martin Buber, an Austrian-Jewish philosopher, wrote that everything in life is either an I-it relationship, distancing the other, or an I-thou (Ich-du), relationship — intimate, without distance between ourselves and the other, mirroring our relationship with the ultimate “thou” which is God.

“Thou, neighbor God,” says Rilke, or, as Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy translate it, “You, God who live next door” —

You, God, who live next door–

If at times, through the long night, I trouble you
with my urgent knocking–
this is why: I hear you breathe so seldom.
I know you’re all alone in that room.
If you should be thirsty, there’s no one
to get you a glass of water.
I wait listening, always. Just give me a sign!
I’m right here.

As it happens, the wall between us
is very thin. Why couldn’t a cry
from one of us
break it down? It would crumble easily

it would barely make a sound.

This morning I’m curled up on my couch with a cup of coffee. I haven’t had a shower yet, and to be honest, I really need one. But I’m not here with a distant God who I have to get dressed up for. I’m here with a close friend, one who knows me intimately, whom I address as “thou.” One who anoints my head, and maybe even leans over and pours me a second cup of coffee, or a glass of water. One who was on the other side of the wall, but the wall was thin, so we spoke the word — “thou” — and broke it down. There is no more wall. There is no more distance. Just I and thou, together.


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3 comments on “I and thou

  1. judithkunst says:

    Well, that final paragraph just did me in! Shivers! Sheesh! I’m used to reading Rilke and getting a charge out of his ability to perfectly express our longing…I’m not used to then having someone say, “Yeah, I acted on that longing. I’m fulfilling it. It’s awesome. You could try it too.” Thanks, Jessica.

    Also, I wondered if you’ve caught Krista Tippett’s interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and Native American. In it she proposes a new pronoun to designate an “it” in the natural world. Her suggestion is “qui,” which has the resonance of the personal in multiple languages, and which would allow you to refer to things that aren’t people but with which you can have a relationship of respect and give and take. Interesting…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. soundtek says:

    this is really, really interesting!


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