True eloquence does not consist … in saying great things in a sublime style, but in a simple style; for there is, properly speaking, no such thing as a sublime style, the sublimity lies only in the things; and when they are not so, the language may be turgid, affected, metaphorical but not affecting. -Oliver Goldsmith, Of Eloquence, 1759
Rhetoric is the study of misunderstanding and its remedies. -I.A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1936
For about a year now, I have been attending Sunday services at a church for the deaf in Landover, Maryland. Although I can hear and I came to St. Francis of Assisi as a mother seeking religious education for my deaf child, I was drawn in by the homilies of the two priests who use sign language with this congregation. In my work as a university professor, I study the history of rhetoric, a history in which the deaf are largely ignored. Yet here were deaf preachers who are clearly eloquent. After I sat through a year of such homilies, I began to grasp the idea of deaf eloquence–that is, persuasive and strikingly appropriate language produced for audiences primarily of deaf people.
I interviewed Fr. Joe Bruce, a deaf priest at St. Francis of Assisi, for an article in America magazine. From Fr. Joe, I learned about the Deaf Catholic Archives at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, a large collection on deaf ministries. This January, I made the first of many journeys to come from my home in Silver Spring to the archives. Eventually I hope to write a history of deafness in the Church in America, but deaf vocations to the priesthood are actually a recent phenomenon. There are currently 18 Catholic priests in the world who were deaf as small children (prelingually deaf), and who therefore have language differences that make them part of the deaf communities in their countries. Among this small number, there are deaf priests from South Africa, Uganda, China, New Zealand, Brazil, Cuba, and England. There are 11 in North America, including one in Canada. One grew up Baptist, and another was born to Jewish parents. One, the writer of an amazing autobiography, is the only deaf-blind priest in the world.
What can a scholar of the “art of speaking well” learn from deaf preachers who communicate silently to a deaf congregation? The more I think about this question, the more fascinated I become. Eloquence is more than high style and forceful words. So often rhetorical criticism focuses on the parts of invention, arrangement, delivery, and style that take the sense of hearing for granted. And yet, humans have and can learn through four other senses. What can be learned about the senses of sight, smell, and touch in eloquence by watching the deaf preacher successfully move a deaf audience? Are there theological gleanings to be gathered by pondering deafness in the context of religious communication? And what can this teach all of us about being human?
In the next several posts on this blog, I will be introducing material that I found in the Deaf Catholic Archives. This material includes manuscripts on the idea of God to deaf people, hundred-year-old newspapers for deaf Catholics, and a large collection of 20th-century newsletters and journals for readers in the deaf community. Catholic schools for the deaf are documented in plenty, and sign language for religious purposes is illustrated from its early days in America. Because my first project is to write a book of biographical essays on deaf priests, I will begin by describing some sources relating to these 18 men. Each one has an extraordinary story, and each offers food for thought about the nature of eloquence. I will begin with the first tomorrow: an 1830 biography of Jean-Marie La Fonta, ordained a Father of the Assumption in France in 1921.