Friday, September 16, 2011



Ronald Rolheiser in The Shattered Lantern offers this citation from a favorite author of mine, Annie Dillard. It’s from her book Holy the Firm, in which she shares with us her quandary about which church to attend.

Nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.
The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong – come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as a certain word which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches today they saunter through liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it at any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom. (p.59)

There's a story about a holy rabbi who used to say goodbye to his wife and family before he started his daily prayer because he sensed that if he got too close to the infinite presence of the Almighty in the course of his prayer he might not survive the experience.

Several times in his book Rolheiser mentions modern man’s loss of such experiences as awe, a sense of the holy or anything beyond the pragmatic limits of time and space. But what frightens me is how so many of us believers ourselves sometimes play right into that mentality by reducing God to an object that we can control through quasi-automatic rituals or the appropriate prayers.

I listen to sincere pious people rattle off the responses at mass as fast as they can, like spiritual machine guns. Do you ever see a priest or minister presiding in church in such a manner as to give the impression that for him the sacred rite is something automatic, rote, and in fact quite under his professional control?The sense of awe is nowhere in evidence at such times.


One of the purposes of the new translations of the mass texts (that will appear on the First Sunday of Advent this November) is to bring more of a sense of reverence and formality back to our worship. Not a bad idea, frankly! Here are just a couple of instances of where a translation can help make the mass feel more reverent:

1. "The Lord be with you - and with your spirit."
Older Catholics remember the priest greeting the people with the Latin "Dominus vobiscum" and the faithful responding "Et cum spiritu tuo." Well, we English speaking people are the only Catholics who have not been responding to the priest with the words, "And with your spirit" (we've been saying, your remember, "And also with you"). It was apparently thought by the original English translators that this would seem a more welcoming and less stuffy response. But as a translation of "Et cum spiritu tuo," "And also with you" misses an important theological point. The idea is not that the faithful respond to the priest's greeting with "And hello to you, too!" Rather their response to the priest's greeting conveys this idea: "May the Lord be with your spirit, the spirit that you received in your ordination to the priesthood that puts you in the special position of presiding over the assembly and celebrating the sacraments." So "And with your spirit" is one more way of pointing up the special nature of what we're doing at mass.

2. "... for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you ...
The priest's words of consecration spoken over the wine will now be more formal. I heard a woman complain recently about this translation: "Why do they use the word chalice? I don't have any chalices on my dining room table." I responded to her "Bingo! You got it! Mass is not Sunday dinner! It's a solemn ritualized meal that has its own special ritual vocabulary!" I'm not sure she was comfortable with my response, but I think she understood what I was saying. Can you see the same point being made with the other new words in the same sentence? "Everlasting" replaces the former "eternal," and "poured out" replaces "shed" because these two new words convey a more formal and ritualized feeling (in addition to being more poetic). Once again, the language is meant to help us recognize that the holy sacrifice of the mass is not just any old get-together, and the language used within the solemn ritual attempts to reflect and enhance that point.

It seems to me that the revised translations offer us priests and other religious teachers a golden opportunity to educate people about the deeper meaning of the various aspects of the mass, and reintroduce the idea of a solemn, formalized ritual. These last three words bring me back to where I started, with Annie Dillard's critique of the way we in the high churches approach God in our rituals. I hope that the new translations may help us to experience a little more of that wonder and awe, humility and reverence that was lost at the time of the Vatican II reforms and reflected in the English translations at the time.

God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then God said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ (Ex.3:4-5)

No comments:

Post a Comment