Friday, April 27, 2007

Commas Visible and Invisible

I thought I'd take this opportunity to combine two of my pet peeves (you knew I had to have some!--ok, many!!!) into one post.

When I worked at a certain parish in a certain place, I had a certain cantor who fancied herself an expert on, well, almost anything that came up in conversation. It will not be a surprise, then, to know that she held very strong opinions on music. If she didn't like the tempo of a hymn, she'd fight me the whole way through. If she didn't like the way I phrased the hymn, she'd do it her way anyway, no matter how ludicrous that might be.

The phrasing. This particular cantor held the philosophy that where there is a comma, one should breathe, and where there is no comma, one should not breathe, no matter what. So, for instance, she'd try to get me to interpret Lobe den Herrn so that she could sing thusly: "Praise to the Lord, (breath) the Almighty, (breath) the King of creation." Absurd. Also, one would not breathe at the ends of musical phrases if there were no comma in the text--as if the congregation would sing it that way.

Now, there are differing philosophies on breathing as it relates to punctuation, and the point of this post is not to denigrate those various approaches. Nevertheless, it seems as if certain ideas, if carried out to the extreme, become patently ridiculous, most particularly the idea that one should only breathe at commas and periods (and colons and semi-colons). At a certain point, this kind of technique ultimately becomes a substitute for genuine musicianship.

Enter my voice teacher at the time, a lovely, mild-mannered lady with an angelic voice who always seemed to have the perfect elixir for my stormy temperament. One day we were working on something--I don't remember anymore what it was, exactly--and she told me to take a breath in a less-than-intuitive place. While I liked the idea very much, I was surprised by it and shared with her my story about the above cantor (the same cantor who claimed that I knew nothing about singing and needed to take voice lessons). My voice teacher replied, "Well, Mike, God made all commas, visible and invisible."

What a wonderful response! Now, from that line alone you can probably tell that she's an Episcopalian. I mean, no Catholic would use that phrase, right? They've never heard it.

But they'll be hearing it soon. The new proposed translation of the Roman Missal has rendered this phrase from the Creed correctly, saying that God made all things, visible and invisible. This is quite different from "seen and unseen." I, sitting here at my desk, am unseen, but I am most certainly not invisible. (My eating habits help to ensure this.)

What will we be gaining from this small but most important change? Certainly a contemplation of the other-worldly will enter into the minds of many. "Seen and unseen" is so terrestrial, so rational, so bland. "Visible and invisible," however, calls us to ponder all the great mysteries behind the fascinating creation of the universe, and we, like St. Augustine, can stand in complete wonder and awe before it.

A friend of mine, a fellow contributor to this blog who urged me to write about this, said the other day, "English can be an incredibly vivid language unless you're afraid you're going to say something." Now, thanks to this new translation, two new words will be saying a lot.

And more people will get the joke that "God made all commas, visible and invisible."

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: