Sunday, August 02, 2009

Liturgical English and the Hieratic Tradition

On the blog of one of the flagship parishes of the Anglican use in the Latin rite, Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio, they present to us today the Collect for Sunday, 2nd August from the Book of Divine Worship which reminded me again of the power and potentialities that exist for hieratic liturgical English within liturgical worship:

O Lord, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church, and, because it cannot continue in safety without thy succor, preserve it evermore by thy help and goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Speaking on the hieratic character of the Latin liturgical texts themselves, Christine Morhmann, in her chapter on "General Characteristics of Liturgical Latin" in Liturgical Latin: Its Origin and Character, suggests:
...Latin used in the liturgy displays a sacral style. The basis and starting point of Liturgical Latin is the Early Christian idiom, which, however, through the use of features of style drawn from the Early Roman sacral tradition mingled with biblical stylistic elements, has taken on a strongly hieratic character, widely removed from the Christian colloquial language. In this liturgical Latin the requirements demanded by Hilary for the style of the Christian exegete are realized to the full: Non enim secundum sermonis nostri usum promiscuam in his oportet esse facilitatem: "There is no place here for the loose facility of the colloquial language" (In Ps. 13.1). The advocates of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy who maintain that even in Christian Antiquity the current speech of everyday life, "the Latin of the common man," was employed are far off the mark. Liturgical Latin is not Classical Latin, but neither is it, as is so often said, the Latin which was considered decadent by educated people. The earliest liturgical Latin is a strongly stylized, more or less artificial language... This language was far removed from that of everyday life, a fact which was certainly appreciated, since, at the time, people still retained the sens du sacré.

Of course, what Mohrmann notes about liturgical Latin, we can also find examples of within the context of the Eastern liturgical languages.

It must be noted that none of this is to say anything contrary to Latin. If anything, it bolsters the concept of a sacral language for use within liturgical worship and let us recall too that the retention of Latin was the will and mandate of the Council itself, not to mention successive popes. But so too was the allowance of the vernacular, and given further that it is almost assuredly here to stay, it seems pertinent to consider how that has been manifest, and how it might be better manifest.

Too often the popular assessments of liturgical English, or more generally of the principle of vernacular within the liturgy, have not considered how this has been historically manifest, and has also been (rather understandably) based on our experience with the rather poor, inaccurate, uninspiring and colloquial translations of the old ICEL (not to mention the corresponding expression vernacular liturgical music to date), and not rather in relation to the possibilities of a more inspired and poetic form of liturgical English (as well as such texts set within the tradition of chant and polyphony).

However, just as G.K. Chesterton spoke of Christianity as that which "has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried," similarly I would suggest that liturgical English is not something which has been tried and found wanting; it has rather been tried in a way which is wanting, and a richer and more satisfying approach to it has perhaps been perceived as "difficult" and accordingly not tried.

One wonders, had the vernacular been introduced in a way that was expressed more poetically and majestically, in the vein of the sacred and "other", and had that in turn been joined to the common retention of liturgical Latin including in its corresponding treasury of sacred music, and further, had that treasury been expanded to include vernacular expressions of sacred music that were clearly and distinctly rooted within the idiom of chant and polyphony, how different our experience and reaction might be in relation to the principle of vernacular within the liturgy?

It is a question worthy of sober and sincere reflection rather than mere reaction, and it is one, we should recall, that despite recent decades, may yet still be addressed and pursued as part of a new liturgical movement. Certainly, in the English speaking context, the present day project of the re-translation of the English of the Roman missal is one aspect of this very pursuit of a more adequate and satisfying approach, and for it we can be most thankful. It is my hope that these additional aspects we have been discussing, including as it relates to vernacular forms of sacred music, may likewise be considered and approached in their due course.