Ephphatha — Be Opened!

This blog post offers some of my initial observations on religious sacraments in sign language. It is the conclusion to my paper for the American Academy of Religion. Part I was in my last blog post.


The Roman Catholic Mass in American Sign Language, Part II

The Catholic Church teaches that its sacraments are visible signs of invisible grace, a tangible means through which God communicates spiritual gifts to believers. The dual nature of a sacrament, as both material and spiritual, is roughly comparable to the sacramental use of any sign in worship. The human body, however, is especially relevant to sacramental meaning. In Doctrina Christiana, Augustine divides signs into natural and made signs. Natural signs, apart from any intention to use them as signs, still lead to the knowledge of something else— for example, smoke indicating fire, the footprint of an animal, or the countenance of an angry man. Conventional signs, on the other hand, are signs that people use to show, as well as they can, their feelings, perceptions, or thoughts. As Augustine points out, a human being is also a sign, a sign in the image of God. In the Mass, signs formed with the human body are at one and the same time natural signs and conventional signs, telling the stories of Scripture and performing the rituals of the Church in human-constructed language. This is true for spoken words in a Mass as well, but seeing sign language as the body in action epitomizes the truth of this explanation.

In 20th century rhetorical theory, much is made of the sign and its forms in human communication. Kenneth Burke, arguably the most influential 20th century rhetorical scholar, defined rhetoric as symbolic communication that induces identification in humans, making them consubstantial with each other. When an audience receives religious communication in visual language through a deaf signer, that audience identifies with the deaf body as human in the most complete sense. For Burke, the definition of form in communication is: the evoking and fulfillment of desire. When a deaf audience receives the stories of Scripture in the form of a signing lector, or the sacraments from a deaf priest, that audience more naturally desires union with what the Church represents.

On the second Sunday of Lent, Fr. Joe Bruce, a deaf Jesuit currently at St. Francis Church, gave a homily on Luke 9, where God says from a cloud, “This is my chosen son, listen to him.” Fr. Joe’s style of preaching aligns with the American Deaf traditions of storytelling, dramatic performance, and poetry in sign language. His homilies contain few long stretches of monologue and much interactive dialog. For example, he will call a teenager up and sign-and-speak a one-on-one Socratic dialog, or he will call parishioners by name, asking questions and including them as co-participants in the sermon. This form of homily, requiring immediate engagement from the audience, stands in sharp contrast to a homily at a non-deaf parish; even a spoken homily interpreted in ASL not particularly engaging, because it is second hand.

Fr. Joe usually begins with a story from his own life, a sure way for his audience to identify with him as someone who also grew up with deaf experiences. However, in this homily Fr. Joe focused on a sign that might stand out for the deaf audience: listen. One of the ASL signs places a hand next to the ear, as if to hear better. It is bound to strike some of the people as ironic. He asks the congregation if any of them have decided to do something for Lent – not many raise their hands. Why not take time, he asks, to listen? “This means you listen not only to the words of the person but also to another flesh and blood person.” This is how the English manuscript puts it, but his delivery is much more interactive and present than the static words of a script. It is the person you listen to, not just the words. He gives examples of people who were good listeners: Mary, who listened to angels; Hellen Keller, who could neither hear nor see but listened through touch to her teacher Annie Sullivan; and St. John Vianney, who spent 12 hours a day listening to broken hearts in the confessional. Each time Fr. Joe perceives that his audience knows something about his examples, he asks them for information and confirmation, drawing out their part in the rhetorical reasoning, and giving them a vested interest in the meaning of the homily. When he can tell that the audience feels united in agreement—you might say in belief, for belief is what rhetoric aims to secure—Fr. Joe proceeds with his conclusion: an exhortation to attend to God by listening not just to his words, but to the person who is present to us in the signed readings and to human beings who are the body of Christ in the church. This is how form in persuasion works. As Plato put it in his Phaedrus, the office of good rhetoric is the enchantment of souls in order to move them to truth. Spiritual truths are beyond words, and prophetic writers and speakers have often failed for words and needed tangible signs for help. This is something the deaf know about.

At St. Francis in Landover, there is a stained glass window depicting Jesus healing the deaf man in Mark 7. As you recall, Jesus spits on some dirt, covers his fingers with mud, and sticks them in the man’s ears, saying “Ephphatha!” – be opened. The man is then miraculously able to hear and speak, and goes away proclaiming the good news. This is a troubling passage to parishioners at St. Francis. To be told that Jesus heals deafness and that this is a sign of God’s grace can frustrate or alienate deaf people who remain deaf all their lives. Yet, led by other deaf Christians, the deaf Christian is not afraid to look deeper at the passage. Consider the following story from 1914 in American Annals of the Deaf: a 10-year old girl, daughter of a physician, had been educated orally in mainstream schools, always struggling academically and suffering ridicule from other children. Her cousin, a teacher at Gallaudet, asked her one day, “Why don’t you teach the deaf!” The young woman reflected years later:

He had spoken my “Ephphatha.” From that time on I studied with that one end in view—to be a teacher of the deaf. In the seventh grade I received an ear-trumpet which was a literal “Ephphatha.” … I used this trumpet and with its aid carried off honors in every class, always longing to prove that the deaf were the equals of the hearing. Finally I was sent to the College at Washington, D.C. to fit myself to teach the deaf . . . Eight hundred miles from home, I went that first Sunday to chapel services for the deaf. Services were opened with the Lord’s Prayer given by that master of sign language, Dr. E.M. Gallaudet. . .That day my trumpet was useless. The words of that prayer were rendered in the beautiful sign language, then practically unknown to me. I was the only one of that large gathering unable to understand the familiar prayer and my eyes filled with tears as the magnitude of the task of completing my education and also mastering an entirely new language overwhelmed me. … As I stood there weeping in unutterable loneliness, the grace and beauty of the sign language began to fascinate and to hold me. I raised my eyes to the motto above the platform, “Ephphatha;” the word seemed to speak to me directly as it must have appealed to that deaf man when it came from Christ’s lips. . . “Ephphatha” spoke this new language, and ever since I have cherished the word and sought to master the language of signs… I came to realize the power, the beauty, and the majesty of that sign language as it is used in prayer, in lecture, in Shakespeare readings, in story, and in song. … When all else fails to hold the interest of the deaf, when all other avenues fail to reach their hearts, the sign language speaks their “Ephphatha.”  (Laura Bates, American Annals of the Deaf 1914, pp. 153-4)

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