Sunday, May 15, 2005

Ritual language ...

Last week, I ended my Editor’s Choice review of Neil Olson’s The Icon by quoting a passage in which the main character comes to an understanding of the value of ritual language. He is praying in Greek, and “the Greek served him as he imagined Latin did others, giving the words mystery and power, and creating a sense of ritual that removed the individual from the process.” I then suggested that that those who advocate the Roman Catholic Church’s “numbingly banal vernacular Mass” take note.
This elicited only two email responses, one puzzled, the other approving.
My dim view of the English version of what is officially known as the Novus Ordo Populi is reinforced every Sunday at Mass. It reaches maximum intensity during the responsorial psalm. In the missal used at my parish church, the music for all of these has been composed by someone named Owen Alstott, who is my candidate for the worst composer who has ever lived. His psalm settings are so bland and devoid of character that it’s hard to believe they were actually composed by a human being. And today — on what used to be Pentecost Sunday but is now called the “solemnity” of Pentecost (how is that an improvement?) — I noticed that Alstott is also the fellow responsible for appropriating Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” tune for use as a hymn in the Catholic Church. May God forgive him. I certainly can't.
But my point isn’t about music. It’s about language. Anyone who has read the Book of Common Prayer knows that English can be quite serviceable as a ritual language. But the English translation of the Novus Ordo is simply awful — inaccurate and tin-eared. Credo continues to mean I believe, not we believe. Et cum spiritu tuo still means and with your spirit, not and also with you. And take that phrase alone — "and also with you." Can you get more banal than that? The entire Mass has been translated into the worst journalese — because “liturgists” think that’s the way to get things across to the poor “common people” in the pews.
I have news for them. The King James Bible has been read by countless numbers of relatively unschooled people for centuries. They didn’t have any problem with it or its formal language, which I rather suspect they regarded as appropriate under the circumstances. Plenty of noted authors have understood this as well. Which is why we have titles like The Sun Also Rises, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden. Which is also the real reason why the Bible should be taught in public schools: because it’s well-nigh impossible to understand large chunks of English literature without being acquainted with the Authorized Version.

6 comments:

  1. I was waiting for that comment of yours to provoke a firestorm!

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  2. Having been for many years (though no longer) a pew-warmer in the Episcopal Church, I am somewhat familiar with Episcopal-Anglican liturgical language and its changes. I still cherish the sounds and the meanings of the words in the King James Version and in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but there is nothing intrinsically superior to them because they are older. If that were so, the Bible never would have been translated into Latin, much less "vulgar" languages (and there was great uproar when it was, as you know). The fact is, I learned when an active Anglican, that "archaic" language is a real barrier to people's understanding of the religious message(s) and to what is going on in the liturgy. We have so moved on in the world, both in the West and elsewhere, that some, perhaps many, people have no concept of something once so simple, and so central to the Christian story, as a shepherd and his fold. The problem, I think, is not "modernized" language, but the quality and sensitivity of the modernization. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth -- how many can relate to that phrase anymore? -- when the Episcopal Church brought in a new prayer book in the 1970s, but I thought it was actually quite well done, given ample opportunity to make it much worse.
    Sincerely,
    Willis Wayde

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  3. Actually, not so long ago, I attended a funeral Mass at an Episcopalian church and was surprised to find how similar it was to the Catholic Mass I try to attend daily. The principal difference was the language of the Episcopalian Mass was notably more elegant -- or so it sounded to me.
    But I wonder about this business of the "archaic" language being a barrier. If it is for the Bible, then it must also be for Milton and Shakespeare. Shall we modernize them also? Or should we just have people hunker down, do some work, and widen their linguistic horizons and enrich their lives a bit.

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  4. We should not modernize Shakespeare or Milton. (Though I admit being grateful for modern versions of Chaucer, to use as a trot to help my understanding of Middle English.) But the brutal reality is that relatively few people are going to read Shakespeare or Milton, no matter how hard we try to get them to hunker down and widen their linguistic horizons. Far more people are going to go to church, and if they are to feel welcomed, and if they are to understand what is going on, they should not have to stumble over words and expressions that are all but foreign to them. I do not believe this is pandering to the lowest common denominator. I believe it is the opposite: It is removing a threatening barrier; if you feel "out of it," you'll say the hell with it. In the Army they told us if you want troops to understand it, you'd better keep it simple, avoiding convoluted language of big words and passive voice. In the case of religious services, simple need not mean inelegant.
    Sincerely,
    Willis Wayde

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  5. A good point, Willis, since those who go to church usually don't do so just to smell the incense. Maybe if the music were more attended to, people would find themselves willing to measure up to the language. What can be more beautiful than a Mass by Josquin Des Prez? And Bach's B-minor Mass may be the greatest piece of music ever written.

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  6. Actually, Henry Van Dyke got to the Ninth long before Alstott did, with "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee". It was originally written for the Presbyterians, but Catholics have also picked it up. I rather like that hymn, actually, though like you I don't care for Alstott's clumsier use of the same tune for the Pentecost Sequence.

    The chant setting of that sequence that appears in the same OCP missals is rather nice, though. I sang it in English this year (the translation's not bad). Next year we may well do it in Latin. I don't remember offhand who's responsible for the chant setting.

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