Friday, July 10, 2020

Reflections on Liturgical Language

Lost in Translation #7

Cicero Denounces Catiline, by Caesare Maccari, 1889

The other day I stumbled upon an old article by a priest critiquing the 2011 English edition of the Roman Missal. He used three criteria: exclusion, catechesis, and poor theology. (In case you were wondering, the orations of the Roman Rite “border on the heretical” because with their talk of merit they regularly contradict “our fully signed up [1999] agreement with the World Lutheran Federation on justification by faith and grace”!)

But it was the author’s argument about “exclusion” that caught my eye:
Only people of a certain background and a relatively high level of education can make any sense of [the new translation]. In your ordinary congregation, many are excluded: the young, people whose first language is not English, people whose education stopped after primary school or early in secondary school. Also excluded, as far as the responses go, are people who attend church only for baptisms, weddings and funerals. It has pushed some people finally to stop attending Mass at all.
I would love to see the good father’s empirical evidence of his final claim, and I hardly think that the entire worship of the Catholic Church should be specifically tailored to those who “attend church only for baptisms, weddings and funerals.” But what struck me most of all by the argument is the implicit assumption that elevated language is exclusive. Is it so?

In her 1938 study Rhetoric in the Sunday Collects of the Roman Missal, Mary Haessley writes that the three purposes of classical rhetoric--teaching, delighting, and persuading--are on full display in the Church’s liturgical prayer:
…all these devices of the art of language are necessary for us, for they enable us: (1) to grasp clearly the lessons embodied in the Prayers (docere); (2) to make these lessons more acceptable to us through the charm of diction and structure, in a word, through their appeal to our aesthetic sense (delectare); (3) to persuade us (movere) to mold our conduct in accordance with the principles of faith set forth in the Prayers. This explains why rhetoric is, and must be, found in the liturgy: it is to dispose us to pray “ut oportet,” as we ought to pray. (5)
And it is often through making diction and structure somewhat complex that that “charm” is produced. The complexity may, of course, engender some initial frustration, but that is intentional, for a little frustration goads the reader or listener to push on and figure it out. And when it is figured out, there is an “Aha!” moment that brings a delight greater than that which comes from understanding something easy. If adults only used baby talk, it might be effective, but it would not be delightful. “What is sought with some difficulty,” St. Augustine writes in On Christian Doctrine, “is attained with more pleasure.” And what is attained with more pleasure, we might add, has a deeper impact on our souls. The rhetorical goal of delighting is intimately bound up with the goal of persuading, of “molding our conduct.” And since one of the purposes of sacred liturgy is the formation of souls, liturgical composers are wise not to neglect this connection.

Used properly, then, elevated language does not exclude but extends to all an invitation to understanding, just as the dense imagery of poetry is not meant to rebuff but to awaken in the reader a deeper meaning. And just as poetry is not for the few (even if few today, alas, pay it any attention), neither is liturgical prayer, which by its very nature is solemn, public, rhetorical. There is something condescending about thinking of either poetry or sonorous public discourse as the purview of the elite.

Of course, if the entire liturgy were nothing but fancy rhetoric, it could become overwhelming. But the beauty of the Roman Rite (and the other apostolic liturgies) is its linguistic diversity. The Scriptural passages that comprise the Propers tend to be simple in diction and structure--with the possible exception of the Epistles of the rhetorically-gift Saint Paul. The Offertory Prayers, composed in the Middle Ages, betray a medieval love of elegant precision. And the Canon and Orations (Collect, Secret, and Postcommunion) are examples of courtly rhetoric at its finest. The Church employs an array of linguistic tools in an effort to catch and form souls.

But to follow a “lowest common denominator” approach and flatten all language during the most important and solemn act that man can make is both mystagogical suicide and a sin against the great gift of the tongue with which God has endowed us. It is also to deny the so-called uneducated an experience of beauty on the grounds that they are “too dumb” to appreciate it. That, to me, is the ultimate exclusion.

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