Friday, December 28, 2007

English & Latin

Check this out, from the blog Whispers in the Loggia. It is the King's College Choir singing "Once in Royal David's City." Very beautiful, indeed. Pay attention on here when the little timer at the bottom gets to 3:40, you will see it focus in on this kid who keeps looking into the camera and away from his music sheets. At 3:49 exactly, an anonymous hand reaches out from behind him, grabs him by the shoulder and kind of turns his head back to his music. It's quite amusing. One thing about English: for as much as I love Latin, I don't want anyone to think that I despise English music. On the contrary, some of the most beautiful hymns that have ever been penned have been written in the English tongue, especially around Christmas time.

But, whereas with Latin we have lost the usage of the language in its entirety, in English we have a stranger phenomenon. While English is obviously used liturgically, since it is the vernacular and that's what everybody uses now, we have experienced a great dumming down of the way in which English is used, both in the prayers we pray liturgically and in the hymns that are sung. I've said it before, that if we are bound and determined to use vernacular in our worship, let's at least use good vernacular.

I don't think this was originally a Catholic song, but check out the words to this old English hymn "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing" by Robert Robertson and John Wyeth (c. 1759). Notice the mastery of the language and compare it to the banal English songs we use today [you can listen to the tune here]:

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,Tune my heart to sing Thy grace; Streams of mercy, never ceasing,Call for songs of loudest praise.Teach me some melodious sonnet, Sung by flaming tongues above. Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it, Mount of Thy redeeming love.

Sorrowing I shall be in spirit, Till released from flesh and sin, Yet from what I do inherit, Here Thy praises I’ll begin; Here I raise my Ebenezer [meaning a sign of victory, a reference to 1 Sam. 7:12]; Here by Thy great help I’ve come; And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, Safely to arrive at home.

Jesus sought me when a stranger,Wandering from the fold of God; He, to rescue me from danger, Interposed His precious blood; How His kindness yet pursues me, Mortal tongue can never tell, Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose meI cannot proclaim it well.

O to grace how great a debtor, Daily I’m constrained to be! Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to Thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.

O that day when freed from sinning, I shall see Thy lovely face; Clothed then in blood washed linen How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace; Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,Take my ransomed soul away; Send thine angels now to carry Me to realms of endless day.

Now, look at some of these beautiful lines: "Teach me some melodious sonnet, Sung by flaming tongues above. Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it, Mount of Thy redeeming love" (v.1). What song-writer for GIA would use the phrase "melodious sonnet" in their composition? That would seem to high-falutin' for their liking.

In verse 3 it says, "Jesus sought me when a stranger,Wandering from the fold of God; He, to rescue me from danger, Interposed His precious blood." What a beautiful image! When was the last time you heard somebody use the word "interposed"?

Verse 4 has my favorite line, where is says, "O to grace how great a debtor, Daily I’m constrained to be! Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to Thee." How wonderful to conceive of God's love as a fetter that binds the heart to the Divine Goodness!

What is my point here? My point is this: not only have we lost the use of the Church's traditional language of Latin, which in itself is a big enough battle to fight, but even the use of our own language has been dummed down, simplified and idiotized (is that a real word?) until it is incapable of expressing adequately the divine realities that we are trying to write, sing or pray about. Besides the obvious danger in discarding our liturgical language, there is a subtle danger in dumming down our own laguage, because the less intricate it becomes, the less precise, and the less able we are to say what we mean, and all sorts of ambiguities and problems become manifest. Compare these two prayers. The first is from the Gradual for today (Feast of the Holy Innocents) from the 1962 Missal:

Our soul hath been delivered as a sparrow out of the snare of the fowler. The snare is broken, and we are delivered. Our help is in the name of the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.

Very nice. Now, look at the Psalm-prayer for today's daytime prayer, from the modern Liturgy of the Hours:

Lord, we are citizens of this earth and ask to be made citizens of heaven by your free gift. Help us to run in the way of your commandments and to set our hearts on you alone.

Maybe it is just me; maybe I am being a bit too picky, but do you see a difference in the way things are worded, in what is emphasized in each example? And what's the idea calling us "citizens of this earth"? Sounds like European Union propaganda to me. Last I checked, Hebrews 13:14 said, "Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come."

One more example. In the 1962 Missal, for today we have this English translation of the hymn Salvete, flores Martyrum (All hail, Flowers of Martyrdom!):

Flowers of martyrdom, all hail! Smitten by the tyrant foe on life's threshold, as the gale strews the roses ere they blow. First to bleed for Christ, sweet lambs! What a simple death ye died! Sporting with your wreaths and palms at the very altar side. Honor, glory, virtue, merit be to Thee, O Virgin's Son! With the Father, and the Spirit while eternal ages run. Amen.

Now, compare it to the hymn that would be sung for today's morning prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, a text by James Quinn, SJ:

Father, Lord of earth and heaven, King to whom all gifts belong, give Your greatest Gift, your Spirit, God the holy, God the strong. Stay among us, God the Father, stay among us, God the Son, stay among us, Holy Spirit: dwell within us, make us one.

Whatever the intention is, can you perceive the loss of vibrancy and expressiveness in the English language in these two examples? It is all intentional (though I'm sure much has to do with simple lack of talent). Let's make sure that while we are defending Latin from the front door, we don't let them sneak in and ruin English from the back door. There are liturgists and theologians out there who would have us all praying and talking like this if they could: "We Church. God good. Tolerance double-plus good. Intolerance double-plus ungood." Linsguistic sophistication is the tangible measure of which we are able to express ideas verbally, and thus what we are able to say about our ideas. It must be preserved at all costs.

2 comments:

Adrienne said...

Linsguistic sophistication is the tangible measure of which we are able to express ideas verbally, and thus what we are able to say about our ideas. It must be preserved at all costs.

Yes, yes, yes!!!

pdt said...

Thank you for posting this link. When I was a young chorister in Ohio, it was bringing out Once in Royal David's City that really told me Christmas was nigh.

Aside from a magnificent soloist at the opening, who one might note is devoid of showboating, I am struck by the confidence of this choir. They have a treble solo, a verse in place, and yet another verse processing - and then introduce the organ accompaniment in perfectly true pitch. It is so good to know that there are places in the world that still do this.

My favorite moment, btw, is at the 1:36 notation. That's when our erstwhile soloist has to squirm through the crowd to get his place in the procession. Back to reality, friend!