When I travel abroad I like to read a novel or some poetry, look at some art, listen to some music, from the country I am about to visit, to give me a bit of a sense of the culture I will be entering. So when I visited Hungary some years ago I duly read a couple of Hungarian novels in preparation!
Whilst there I mentioned the novels I had read and their authors to a Hungarian friend wondering if she had read them and what she thought of them? She looked at me blankly. She clearly had no idea of whom I was talking about! And then the light dawned. ‘Ah’, she said, ‘she you are giving me their names as if they are English.’ Now it was my turn to look blank.
‘In England you are Henry Morgan, but if you were Hungarian we would know you as Morgan Henry’. Hungary is one of the few languages that does this apparently, putting the surname before the Christian name. The implication is that Hungarians tend to think of themselves as part of a group[s] first and as individuals second. We talked for a while about why this was so, and then, knowing that she had spent some years away from Hungary, I asked her if this made any difference to the practice of spiritual direction.
‘Oh yes’, she said, ‘it makes quite a big difference. When a Hungarian comes to talk they always start by talking about the bigger picture of which they are a part: the state of the world, or their country and its politics, before slowly narrowing the conversation down through their local community, their family, and their work and so on, only talking about themselves right at the end of the conversation if there is time. In England you are more likely to do it the other way around.’
She’s right of course. That is what usually happens in England: its what I usually do. We start by talking about what’s been happening to ourselves and maybe, if there is time, we might reflect on the corporate implications right at the end. Not always of course, there are people who come to talk to me who tend to start with the bigger picture, but most of us don’t.
I’ve tried ‘thinking Hungarian’ as a spiritual exercise and its interesting, because if I start with the bigger picture, then my own stuff falls into a quite different perspective. If I start by reflecting on the state of the world then it may take me some time before I get anywhere near to what’s happening in my own life: compared with those faced by people in the Ukraine, or Syria or Palestine, my problems seem relatively trivial. They remain my issues and the matters I’m having to deal with, but I am now viewing them in a somewhat different light.