The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Language and Liturgy

We Egyptians do not use words, but sounds.....

- from the Corpus Hermeticum

How do you express the ineffable? This is one of the main problems facing modern man as he confronts the liturgies of the past. How much do we change, and how much do we leave alone? How much are we supposed to understand, and how much is veiled in a mystery that cannot be grasped? Liturgy has changed in the past, why not again? This has indeed been the excuse of all liturgical reformers from any number of Christian confessions. Clarity, simplicity, and contemporary language are to be desired in all attempts at liturgical reform. Modern people are too smart to be patronized by a sacred language. They need to "know what's going on."

I have been in the front seat watching attempts to translate the Byzantine liturgy into modern English, and it is a headache. Right off the bat, one realizes that all of the Greek poetic play on words is gone, many of the terms no longer make sense, and the prose is far from high quality in the English translation. If you kept it in Greek or Slavonic, you wouldn't understand it, but put it into English, and it just sounds exotic and at worst non-sensical. So how do you get around the problem? Do you keep it in the "prayer wheel"mentality of reciting the prayers just because they are there, or do you do your best to write a theological treatise of the prayers that all can understand?

Let us take a more radical opinion to shed light on the subject. Gregory Shaw, in his book on Iamblichus that we have been studying, cites Claire Preaux on this question: "The attitude of religious communities with regard to translation is conditioned by the degree of rationality that they admit in the relations between man and the divine." (p. 181)

Gregory Shaw continues:

"For Iamblichus, however, to deny the value of the god's audible expression would dismiss the energeia of the god, and in principle it would deny the value of the entire sensible cosmos as the energeia of the Demiurge. The names of the gods were individual theophanies in the same way that the cosmos was the universal theophany, and since both preceded man's conceptual understanding Iamblichus says that they should not be changed according to conceptual criteria.... The sacred names were "bodies" of the gods that should not be violated by translation." - p. 182

and again Shaw writes:

"Since the ascent of the soul was integrally tied to the descent of the gods in cosmogenesis, when the soul chanted the names and vowels associated with the gods, it entered their energeia. Because the names were divinizing the soul ascended, yet insofar as the soul chanted the names, it descended with them into the sensible world..... Since the soul itself could never grasp or initiate theurgy, the incantation, strictly speaking, was accomplished by the god, yet it freed the soul by allowing it to actively experience what it could never conceptually understand." - p. 187 , my emphasis.

All well and good, you might say, but how does this neo-Platonic pagan gobbly-gook apply to Christian liturgy? First, we must say that the idea of a sacred language was also shared by the early Christian writer Origen, when he wrote in his Contra Celsum that Hebrew was a sacred language, "not concerned with ordinary, created things, but with a certain mysterious divine science that is related to the Creator of the universe." Perhaps this is why the Septuagint translation of the Psalms was so servile to the Hebrew and at times incomprehensible: the translators did not just want to convey an idea, but rather give the reader a real impression of the original Hebrew text deemed sacred in itself, even if it meant sacrificing comprehensibility. This is even more the case when they translated the Septuagint Psalter into Old Slavonic when the Slavs converted to Byzantine Christianity, and was even more revered even though it was a translation of a translation.

We moderns, however, can ask if there is any foundation to all of this. Is the sign something in itself that must be revered, or is the "content" that which is most important? Is there another theological foundation to all this? If not, does this mean we need to switch back to Hebrew as a liturgical language?

The way to resolve this problem is to consider the Hebrew/Christian concept of memory. Ours is a thoroughly historical religion. From the traditional Passover feast to the remembering of the saints in apostolic liturgies, much of how we worship has to do not just with a vertical communion with God (worshiper to God directly), but also a horizontal communion with the Body of Christ over time and space. When we worship with the same prayers as our ancestors, there is something profound that is passed on to us that I would contend we do not fully understand. The rhythms and cadences of Latin, Greek, Old Slavonic, or Elizabethan English form us in a way that merely telling us a theological truth could never do. There is a history to these prayers, and Christianity is a Faith of history. In a sense, as long as we do not exaggerate the point, they do have a power of their own, a power that begins to work on us even before we understand them, either as children or as converts to the Faith.

No matter what the traditional manner of worship, no matter how authentic, ancient, or new it may seem, we are confronted with a transmission from our elders who did know more than we know now. Change may be desirable or even necessary in some cases, but those cases should be kept to a minimum lest we destroy the traditional sound, the music of the words of worship.

(to be continued...)


At 4:20 AM, Blogger Young fogey emeritus said...

One of my favourite points to make is traditionalism is not about Latin. That's a scare tactic from the other side who know full well that the rank and file don't want to go back to 'a tongue not understanded of the people'.

Thanks for the info on Greek word-play in the Byzantine Rite. That may be lost on me but I find the prayers of that rite in English comprehensible enough, beautiful and theologically sound as a pound. Exotic? Sometimes but that's not a bad thing. If they don't always fit in with 21st-century Western cultures the problem is with those cultures, not with the prayers! (I also know Slavonic and Russian.)

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