Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Liturgy & Bad Language

During the transitory years of youth, which seem to have a languor of isolation and distance from the harshness of parents' bothersome lives, children are rarely distinguished from each other based on ability. That comes with high school or university education. Until then anyone at a school may be much more or less capable than any other pupil. In the menagerie of third grade or eighth grade perhaps a less bookish student calls a more bookish student a "smarty pants" for using a polysyllabic word. In high school well placed use of a verb, other than some conjugation of "to be," is met with a similarly derisive animadversion of "showing off." By college one walks a tight rope between good writing and "purple prose."

The right use of the right words expresses a thought, an idea in dimension and depth that simple descriptions and synonyms cannot relate. It is much the same difference between reading Shakespeare's plays on the page for years and finally finding the time to see Hamlet on stage in a proper theater, when "To be or not to be" ceases to be the words of a student in a tweed jacket and becomes the reflection of a suicidal depressive. The art of real wordsmithing so enchants that imitators come flocking in, hoping to learn the art while replicating the works of the originals like Sorbonne students who copy pieces in the Louvre. The inevitable outcome is something flat, two dimensional. It is better than modern art, or language, to be sure, but it leaves the lingering feeling of fakery, of not quite being the "real deal." Essays in the New Yorker possess greater literary quality than their brotherly hit pieces in the New York Times, but inevitably they are both meant to convey the same narrow, drivel on the left that the Wall Street Journal peddles on the right.

And yet we need good language. Bad language—"they" used to say—reflected a poor education, and it does. Ignored, and more worthy of concern, is the lasting influence of bad language on each succeeding generation. Thoughts come to inquisitive minds only to be thwarted by an inability to get them out, or at least to get them out well, much like a young commis chef in a fine restaurant who knows a sauce is off, but does not know how the sauce is made or how to add acidity. Basic feelings like "good," "bad," "happy," and "angry" become the only expressions of complex personal ideas. Either someone satisfies himself with a lesser word choice or he learns an unspoken lesson not to go down that hole in the future. A good chef would tell his commis what to change; a bad one may just tell him to add some salt and move on.

For all of living memory Christianity's language of liturgy has become every bit as dulled down, minced, and made "bad" as spoken language. Liturgy is the language of Christianity because it is the greatest prayer of Christianity and a Christian, the pagan Romans said, is one who prays. The fullness of the Church's liturgical tradition provides for every breadth of desire of the soul, the need for the Transcendent, the urgency of repentance, the wish to suffer with Christ and rejoice with the Apostles, to ruminate alone, or to make peace with one's neighbor; in a phrase, it moves any which way the Spirit wills.

This year at Tenebrae I remembered something Laszo Dobszay wrote in his Bugnini Liturgy, namely that the traditional Holy Week services did not recall any one point in Christ's Passion, but rather that each day the entire Passion, albeit with different points of emphasis. The Mandatum brings the faithful to the upper room and the Mass, with its interpolations in the Canon, point to the institution of Holy Eucharist as Our Lord entered into His suffering. What is Tenebrae if not a glimpse into Gethsemane?
Amicus meus osculi me trádidit signo: Quem osculátus fúero, ipse est, tenete eum: hoc malum fecit signum, qui per ósculum adimplévit homicidium. Infelix prætermísit prétium sánguinis, et in fine láqueo se suspéndit. Bonum erat ei, si natus non fuísset homo ille. Infelix prætermísit prétium sánguinis, et in fine láqueo se suspéndit.
Losing parts of the liturgy such as this constitute a reduction in liturgical language that exceeds whatever may be recovered in textual restorations. In the case of Tenebrae, the Church visits Christ during His agony in the garden by sharing his impending sense of suffering, by putting words of innocence and accusations of betrayal into the responses, and in leaving the temple in utter blackness. The reduction of this aspect of the Passion, both by moving the time of the service in the 1955 reform and the elimination of the Office altogether the following decade, does not ignore these aspects of the Passion as much as, like reduced language, it fails to articulate them properly. Instead the faithful are treated to a narrated text on Good Friday, read from three separate ambos, that most clueless people in the pews liken to a play that replaces the Gospel.

Likewise, the compression of the Roman liturgy into the Mass and nothing but the texts of Mass assume that people will find all the inspiration they need in the relevant readings from the revised lectionary, lessons that will be read in the course of a minute or two. At some points of the year the dramatic ceremonies imposed on the Mass form a unique spiritual vocabulary for articulating those seasonal mysteries, however, throughout most of the year the Mass serves the purpose of solemnizing a feast. The Mass was never meant to be the solitary means of entering into the Divine mysteries.

In spoken languages certain features or even entire languages themselves obsolesce while new characteristics or families of speech replace them. The withering of Latin, for instance, as a poetic language in post-Renaissance England made room for Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, and the rest of the Anglophonic tradition. The same has held true of the liturgy traditionally: readings, feasts, musical styles, or urban practices fall out of use over the course of centuries because piety has headed in a new direction. What has transpired in the last century is something altogether different. Much like the "bad language" in our vernacular, our prayer language has devolved to the point where we can say very little and think only in the most crude, obvious of terms. The desire for the fuller spiritual language of the past comes with the accompanying "purple prose" stigma of written tongues, yet there is no telling a full story without it. "Chirpy" polyphony from Monteverdi is part of that purple prose, but Victoria's setting of the aforementioned Amicus meus is a weave of language for the spirit akin to what the Bard did for the stage.

Generations of bad language have left us in an atomistic society with little to say about anything save ourselves. It would be hard to deny that the current state of the liturgy is much the same affair. And yet is not the old liturgy the re-education we need?

As an aside, my new laptop has arrived so technology troubles should be over and blogging should return to normal.... I hope.....

1 comment:

  1. Amen.

    Call ABS an anti semite but he thinks the revolutionaries who slaughtered the Sacrificial Prayers of the Offertory and replaced them with the meal prayers of those who deny Jesus is the Messias is poof positive the Lil' Licit Liturgy is just what it is intended to be - a meal shared with friends in a convivial relaxed atmosphere.

    There is no doubt that ABS is atavistic but he still thinks it is defensible to prefer the beautiful prayers of those who believe Jesus Christ is the Messias over the prayers of those who do not think Jesus is the Messias.