Wednesday, July 11, 2007

On the Use of a Hieratic Liturgical English

[This is an essay that I wrote just over one year ago, but which I've never published before. As so much news and commentary these days is about the MP, I thought some people would enjoy something not directly about the MP. I apologize for the length.]

by Shawn Tribe

It seems important in any discussion of liturgical English to preface it with the following remarks: the use of Latin as a liturgical language is something that ought to be preserved in the Latin rite. This is not my personal opinion only, but also that of the Church which declared at the Second Vatican Council that Latin ought to be retained in the Latin rites. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which our tradition and the treasury of chant and polyphony written for the Latin language. Moreover, to speak of preservation we must be referring to something true and real and not something without significant actualization. To preserve Latin in the Roman liturgy means making use of Latin in the course of ordinary parish worship, as a normative course of action, to the extent that it is again familiar and routine in the best sense of the word.

That being said, this piece is not about Latin, rather it is about English; specifically, liturgical English. It seems to be a given that the use of the vernacular in the Latin rite is a fait accompli. There are varying responses to this, but ultimately I would purport that this is a liturgical development which is not lamentable of its own accord. There are some manifest spiritual benefits (if not also perils) to be found in the use of English within the liturgy, particularly for certain changeable parts such as the readings. Such a development in the present day Roman liturgy seems to genuinely manifest a legitimate development which is demonstrably for the spiritual benefit of the faithful.

There have, however, been lamentable occurrences which have surrounded the advent of English in the Roman rite since the time of the Council. Perhaps this, more than anything, is what has left a sour taste in the mouths of many with regards the issue of the liturgy and the vernacular. These lamentations are two-fold. On the one hand, there has been the wholesale replacement of Latin in the Roman liturgy. This was never intended by the Church and further is not desirable as the spiritual and cultural costs are too great. Second, we have been subjected to an impoverished English translation of the Roman missal – an impoverishment which is thankfully being corrected in our own day with a new, more faithful English translation of the modern Roman Missal underway.

There is, however, a second subset to the issue of translation that doesn't pertain just to the question of whether a translation is literal or “dynamic” (as it currently is), but also to the type or style of English that is employed. In the English language there are antiquated and modern forms of words that could be employed to the same purpose. We are speaking here of course of what has been called by some “hieratic English” or, in other words, an English which retains certain antiquated forms such as “art”, “thy”, “thou”, “thee” and so forth. Clearly in the new English translation of the Roman Missal that is underway, they have opted to not use this form, however a discussion of the principle yet seems worthwhile. So then, what of the possibility of using this form of English in our liturgy instead of the modern form? Some may be tempted to write this off as romantic, even unrealistic, but we should recall that even in our present English edition of the modern Roman missal the Our Father is still found in such English: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Recall as well that many of our memorized prayers, such as those of the Rosary, also retain this usage. Thus it should not be seen as completely outside the pale given that it does still have some currency even in our present day Catholic liturgy and devotions. Insofar as that is the case, there is no reason why the question could not be asked: why not the use this form of English for the translations of the Roman Missal itself? It seems to me that in the present debates and production of a newly re-translated Roman Missal an opportunity has thus been missed, not only by the bishops, but most especially by those seeking to aid in the reform of the reform.

In all likelihood this missed opportunity would not have found its time in the present, so we shouldn't lament it too much. Witness the fact that even producing a literal translation in modern English created great opposition from a certain quarters who complained that even this was too formal, too “Anglicized” and, of all things, even too sacred. It seems contrary to all common sense, let alone a Catholic sense, to believe that the English used in a sacred, formal setting such as the sacred liturgy could be too formal or too sacred. However, this seems to flow from a principle -- adopted also in the domain of sacred art, architecture, music and so on -- that for the Church to reach people it must in effect identify itself with common street culture; it must become common in the sense of everyday familiarity. This is viewed as “pastoral liturgy” -- though it seems to make vast presumptions about what reaches people, as though that which is outside the everyday is incapable of being comprehended or effective; a fairly substantial assumption. In short, its a very narrow view of what it means to be pastoral. There are numerous other problems with this principle, not the least of which its implementation is practically impossible given the wide subcultural variations to be found in secular society, and given how much in a state of flux pop culture is by nature. But more importantly, it is not desirable for it brings the liturgy and the Church down to the level of the ordinary and mundane. Our churches must be a thing set apart; that which feeds the thirst of the human soul for the transcendent and eternal and inspires us to strive for our true good which is God. This is accomplished in part by the unique language, art, architecture and ceremonial of the Church, all of which give us a glimpse of heaven on earth and make us aware of the passing nature of this world and extraordinary supernatural realities that go on within the liturgy. The ornamentation of church buildings, vestments, music and liturgical language all help affect this.

It is in this sense that a case can especially be made for the use of hieratic English in the liturgy -- where English will be used that is, for we should never forget that Latin must regain its rightful place in the Roman liturgy. Hieratic English is comparable to what Latin was in the early Church – for as Fr. Uwe Michael Lang has pointed out in his research, the liturgical Latin of those times was also highly stylized and certainly not “common vernacular.” In the case of liturgical Latin, as well a proposed hieratic liturgical English, these are now only used within particular contexts that are outside everyday forms of communication. They are set apart and being set apart from day to day use is precisely what is most beneficial about them for liturgical use insofar as they are consistent with the liturgy's own sense of “otherness.”

The argument will sometimes be made, however, that these forms are no longer comprehensible as this is not the common language of the people. Thus, they would charge, the liturgy becomes elitist. However, even Latin, a language no longer the mother tongue of anyone, can be exceedingly comprehensible by sheer repetitive familiarity, particularly when those prayers are memorized as chants, or as spoken texts and prayed from one's missal. One indeed may not understand Latin grammar, however one can know quite well what one is praying (and to whom) when singing the Credo or Sanctus for example.

As for hieratic English, in the English speaking world it is a part of our cultural patrimony. Whether a protestant with his “KJV” bible, a Catholic with the Douay-Rheims or the traditional English wording of the Our Father, the ten commandments or the prayers of the Rosary, this type of English has not disappeared from our cultural awareness or pockets of our spiritual practice and constitutes a formal type of English that is today most primarily culturally associated with religion and solemnity. As such it is not a language that is without understanding or even familiarity. People do not need to know how to translate “thee”, “thou” and “art”; they intuitively know and recognize their meaning -- and these are the sorts of words we are primarily looking at with regard to the liturgy. If there are other words that are less familiar (words such as “vouchsafe”, or older spellings such as “shew” for instance) these could be examined on a case by case basis to determine their propriety for liturgical use. This ought to further eliminate any such objection.

So far these objections are the sort that might come from the so-called “progressivist” school, but there is another quarter from whence opposition might come and that is certain subsets of the traditionalist movement. The reason for this is not because they do not appreciate the beauty of this form of language – though some might oppose the vernacular as a general principle which is a whole other discussion – but because the use of hieratic liturgical English is strongly associated with Anglicanism. Indeed, Anglicans love to speak of the poetic liturgical translations of the likes of Coverdale and Cramner and they have done an admittedly beautiful job of employing the English language in a liturgical setting, both as spoken word, chanted text and sung polyphony. As such, some traditionalists can perhaps feel a sense suspicion that the adoption of such language is somehow acquiescing to the spirit of Anglicanism, or more generally, of Protestantism.

This is not really the case however. While credit and recognition can be given to the beauty of traditional Anglican liturgical texts and sacred music, neither Cramner nor the Anglican communion own hieratic English. Rather, hieratic English is a product of linguistic history and is part of the inheritance of all English-speaking peoples, employed traditionally (though not in exactly the same ways) by English Catholics and Protestants alike in the ways mentioned earlier. Neither it, nor the vernacular in the liturgy generally, is the distinct baggage of protestantism and so those who might be so tempted, should not be so quick to toss them aside. Rather it would seem more constructive to pursue a thoroughly Catholic approach to liturgical English that is suited to the Catholic spirit of the liturgy – rather than leaving the issue predominantly to the progressivist school.

There has been a long tradition in the Church of taking those useful things which might have even had their origins in pagan antiquity and re-shaping them so as to serve the Catholic Faith. This allowed the preservation of certain cultural customs which weren't inimical to Divine Law, but within a whole new context and understanding – the Christian cosmology. In other cases, the adoption was less cultural and more out of simple recognition that there was intrinsic merit to some product of a non-Christian culture -- a good example would be the philosophy of Aristotle later perfected by his Christian counter-parts so as to bring his work into accord with Divine Revelation. What we can see from these examples is that the Church has made a habit of identifying those things that are good true and beautiful, and then uses them, reforming them if necessary, in such a way as to serve the Faith and for the benefit of the faithful.

A good example of the promise and beauty of a hieratic liturgical English put into a Catholic liturgical context can be found in The Book of Divine Worship (BDW) used by the Anglican Use in the Latin rite communities. In many cases the Book of Divine Worship is the perfect liturgical text for comparing the manifest differences in traditional versus contemporary English liturgical language as many of the rites, including the Holy Eucharist, are present in both forms.

Let us compare, from the Psalter found in the BDW, two parts of the the psalm, Judica Me Deus – the psalm which also is found at the beginning of the classical Roman liturgy. First, in contemporary translation:

Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me
and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling;

That I may go to the altar of God, to the God of my joy and gladness;
and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God, my God.

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
And why are you so disquieted within me?

Now in the traditional English translation:

O send out thy light and thy truth, that they may lead me
and bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy dwelling:

And that I may go unto the altar of God, even unto the God of my joy and gladness;
and upon the harp will I give thanks unto thee, O God, my God.

Why art thou so heavy, O my soul?
And why art thou so disquieted within me?

In both cases, the actual texts describe something of profound beauty. While the first translation still has a beauty about it, because of the beauty of the text and its sentiments itself, the hieratic version offers a certain kind of poetry and elegance with an almost musical quality about it. Further, as mentioned earlier, it is arguable that the language by cultural and spiritual association has a certain timeless appeal to it and a sacred sense, and yet remains completely comprehensible at the same time to our otherwise modern ears.

On an architectural level, it may perhaps be comparable to two identical antique homes. One has all of its basic structure there but the other additionally has its original decorative woodwork and metalwork. In short, while both are perfectly functional homes, the latter has the additional benefit of the beautiful ornaments which best accent and operate in sync with the original design intention and sets it apart from the other home. One becomes less 'pedestrian' and purely functionalist than the other. Likewise, while contemporary English fills the basic function, the hieratic English offers that ornamentation which makes it all the more appealing, spiritually satisfying and puts it more evidently in sync with the text's sacred nature. The Book of Divine Worship is filled with examples such as these, including an inspiring translation of the Roman Canon.

Another text which can be used to see the promise of such a translation is The English Missal – an Anglo-Catholic product that was out of print for a very long time, but which has recently been put back into print by SCM Press. The English Missal is essentially a traditional English translation of the pre-conciliar Missale Romanum. From that text:

“Come, O thou Fount of holiness, almighty, eternal God and bless this sacrifice, made ready for thy holy name.” (Veni, sanctificator onmipotens)

“May this incense, which thou hast blessed, ascend unto thee, O Lord: and may thy mercy descend upon us.” (Incensum istud a te benedictum)

“I will wash my hands in innocency, O Lord: and so I will go to thine altar: That I may shew the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all thy wondrous works.” (Lavabo)

The English Missal presents itself as an interesting resource and case-study, showing forth the possibility of even the most traditionally Latin of liturgical texts as done in beautified, poetic English.

Similar as a resource are two editions of The Monastic Diurnal, one published by St. Michael's Abbey Press and one by the Lancelot Andrewes Press. Perhaps the best example to give from the latter breviary is that of the Magnificat. In our modern English Roman breviary this has been translated as follows:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour
for he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed.
The Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.

In the hieratic English translation employed by The Monastic Diurnal (Lancelot Andrewes Press edition) we read by comparison:

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his name.

In this particular case we are dealing with two issues. One, the style of English, but second, the method of translation employed by the original ICEL commission. To be fair, the first translation is not the best example of a modern translation of this text for that reason. Still, despite this the point still stands I think about the manifest differences between 'common' English and hieratic English.

Another example, a collect for the Feast of St. Bede:

“O God, who by the learning of Blessed Bede, thy Confessor and Doctor, hast made thy Church illustrious: mercifully grant unto thy servants that we may ever be illuminated by his wisdom and aided by his merits.”


Arguably, hieratic English language has become not only a more formal English, but also a more sacred form of the English language. Thus it is a quite effective vehicle by which to communicate the sacred. One could thus suggest that if we are to have vernacular in the liturgy, the use of a more 'antiquated' form of vernacular as this is not only more edifying, but even more in keeping with the Catholic tradition and spirit of the liturgy which seems to have historically shied away from the over-familiarity of the common vernacular of the day.

Resources cited:

The Book of Divine Worship, published by the Newman House Press. $29.00 USD. Available from Our Lady of the Atonement Parish, San Antonio, Texas.

The English Missal, published by SCM-Canterbury Press. Approx. $70.00 USD.

The Monastic Diurnal, published by St. Michael's Abbey Press. $70.00 USD.

The Monastic Diurnal, published by Lancelot Andrewes Press. $55.00 USD.

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