Sunday, 7 March 2010

Language can be as transcendent as silence

Humour me. By the time the March winds are blowing, I am so pining for heat, sunshine, and warm breezes that I feel that it's already been winter for ten months, and that my brain may never thaw. I therefore am capable of heading posts in a fashion that is so weird that, with a little luck, someone may take it for profound. :-)

Very recently, I attended an excellent presentation related to liturgies for Holy Week. I particularly enjoyed explanations of symbols and references which I had not previously grasped. I believe I'm not alone in that certain passages of scripture or liturgical texts, glorious though they are, can become so familiar to us that it's striking when we suddenly see a meaning we did not recognise in our first hundred reflections.

What struck me with awe (and this may be surprising, since it is a text and setting with which I have extensive familiarity) was a particular choral setting of the Reproaches for Good Friday. The text, in itself, is hugely powerful - the more since it brings to mind Yahweh's various laments of this sort in prophetic books which long pre-date the crucifixion. Yet the text in this setting had a special meaning for me, because, though most was in English, the beginnings of each section included the Trisagion (Holy God, Holy Strong One, Holy Immortal Once, have mercy upon us), in alternating Latin and Greek.

It is difficult to express this, particularly because, for all my tendency (sometimes excessive!) towards analysing, I cannot express certain elements of prayer any more than I could describe music - it can only be experienced. I especially loved the inclusion of the ancient tongues because it wraps me in a sense of the timeless and universal quality of our worship. Obviously, nothing keeps God from being timeless (some of you might prefer 'everlasting,' but, appropriate though quibbling in that area may be for the 'old feast' of Thomas Aquinas, I shall refrain), and the Church is unquestionably universal - even if one has the bad luck to be in a church where the 11th commandment is 'everyone must sing everything' (therefore language must not advance beyond what the children of three might use, and music must accommodate the tone deaf and those with a range of three tones). In my case (however much I struggled with my essential New Testament Greek, and though my Latin, which has accents reminiscent of Pius XII rather than Caesar, would make classical scholars grimace), the inclusion of the Greek and Latin captures "do this in memory of me" (and so forth!) spanning two millenia and an entire globe.

I'm afraid that I don't understand Hebrew or Aramaic - so let it not be thought that I do not have a strong sense of Judaism as Christianity's mother religion. But Israel indeed was a light to the nations - and it is amazing that, within a few centuries of Jesus' resurrection, pockets of Christian communities, mostly amidst a majority population which remained pagan, were joining in common worship - in the languages of the Empire. Most Christians, then as now, were Gentiles. Forgive me for recycling one of my common reflections, but I always pictured, when Jesus is being tempted with the kingdoms of the world, that Satan was scoffing, "Who do you think is going to accept this Trinity business - the Greeks?! And you certainly can't think your message will ever pull any weight in Rome!"

When I am praying privately, I often recite the creed, or Lord's Prayer, or a psalm, in Latin. (Greek would be just too painful... too bad I was over 40 before I even learnt that alphabet, though I often do throw in a Kyrie Eleison here and there.) My love for the English language can hardly be topped, yet I also need a sense of the transcendent - the timeless, classic languages remind me of what is changeless (poor analogy, I know... changeless because they are dead... but I warned you that my mind is frozen).

Alert that loose associations are ahead: I suppose it could be argued, and well, that use of classical languages, or even of archaic English (though anyone who went to school till age 14 should be able to get through modern English, whether from the time of the first Elizabeth or the second), can give a sense of the transcendent without the immanent. There could be, as well, a sense that a language one uses only at prayer isolates worship - which should, in some way, be a part of every aspect of our lives - as if it existed only in church. But I do think that some use of the 'archaic' (take your choice) is valuable.

Naturally, I also believe that those who either chuck or ruin magnificent musical compositions (the latter by 'dumbing them down'... and when I use English that is that dreadful, my ire is strong) should be executed on the same scaffold with those who murder the Queen's English. :)

On yet another note - new translations, provided they are faithful to the original texts, can be very valuable. But they must be in a version faithful to proper use of the vernacular - not slang (which often is outdated by the time it's printed - and which can vary from town to town and one generation to another). I'll grant you that, for all that I think it is close to perfection in language, even I giggle at some phrases from the King James Bible (considering what certain words now mean.) Nonetheless, nothing from the 1600s sounds as dated as slangy texts written within the past 10 years!

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