August 2004

A challenge for liturgy

Alan Griffiths

The liturgy is one of the primary ways in which the Church communicates God to us. Alan Griffiths, who is parish priest of St Theresa of Lisieux, Ringwood, in the Diocese of Portsmouth, and a writer on liturgy, shows how important are both the place where liturgy is celebrated and the language which it uses. We must attend to these ‘if our liturgy is to communicate anything of the truth, the goodness and the beauty of God’.

Good liturgy strengthens and feeds faith. Bad liturgy erodes it. The bishops of the United States said this a generation ago. The dramatic fall in UK Mass attendance since that time would suggest that there is a lot of bad liturgy about.

Is such a conclusion over-simplistic? I don’t know whether liturgy is any better or worse in other parts of the globe where Catholicism is obviously booming. Anyway, what do ‘good’ and ‘bad’ actually mean? It depends on whom you talk to and what their liturgical agenda is. We seem to argue as endlessly about liturgy as teenagers do about music.

The challenge for the Church is to communicate something of God to the human family: something of God but not any old thing. For the liturgy the challenge is more specific. Since the liturgy is an incarnate, bodily activity, the challenge is to communicate something humanly and bodily good and beautiful, as well as something true, about God.

Many converts first discovered the Catholic faith by going into a church and watching Mass celebrated. Many speak of it as an encounter with the unfamiliar, an experience not patent to analysis nor reducible to any one of its aspects. It was an interweaving of place, activity and people, all of which contributed to the sense of ‘atmosphere’ and enchantment. The Good, the True, the Beautiful, is encountered, if as yet not articulated.

We should resist the temptation to dismiss this as mere aesthetics masquerading as religious experience. It might even be the other way round. Complex though the experience may be, a liturgical theologian would name it as nothing less than the first perceptions of an encounter with the Other.

Nor is this only true of strangers walking into Mass for the first time. For all of us, liturgy is by definition an encounter with the unfamiliar, the Other. Catholics exist spiritually on a sliding scale between two poles of assertion. The primitive assertion may be something like: ‘There’s something special here’ and the more focused might be: ‘I felt the presence of God.’ In fact of course both assertions are primitive. We are all primitives before the transcendent Other.

But also to all of us, whether first-timers or old hands, there is the sense that what communicates itself is not simply the ‘Other’ but also ‘Home’. Converts often say that ‘It was like coming home.’ The awesomeness of ‘God’s presence’ is then experienced as the known place, the place we truly belong, the sacred space where we may walk without fear.

Catholic churches at their best are good at this paradoxical interplay of transcendence and immanence. Some are great numinous spaces, others more modest. But there is no doubt they are buildings for liturgy. They are special. The best of them have impressed the liturgy into their very structure, from the baptismal memory of the holy water stoup to the inevitable forward procession from font to altar. And all around stand the saints; the companions on the journey, guarantors of the eternal Jerusalem.

If the liturgy is challenged to communicate something good, true and beautiful about God, then how should it now meet that challenge? I would like to examine two areas in which liturgy communicates.

1. The setting and performance of the liturgy
It has been said that the principal aesthetic contemporary of the liturgical movement and therefore of the Second Vatican Council which made it a movement of the whole Church, was architectural Modernism. Mies Van Der Rohe’s cry that ‘Less is more’ dominated the design of sacred spaces, in Europe from the end of the First World War, in Britain some years later.

‘Form follows function’ became the design principle of so much church building in the 1950s and after. In the Catholic community this was sometimes confused with cheapness; money was tight. New buildings were unadorned. In older buildings, the sacred space was cleaned out. Familiar shrines disappeared, sometimes overnight. It was as if the ‘holy’ was being relocated and it was difficult to see where.

All this received a massive boost when the Mass was put into English. Somehow its transcendent character gave way before an emerging ‘personalisation’. The metaphor for liturgy was ‘celebration’: the celebrating community was more self-regarding than before. Priests were encouraged to ‘preside’, and instructed to face the people rather than to stand at the head of the people before God.1

The element of personality appeared. This had been absent from liturgy before, not just because of Latin and distance, but more importantly because the spirituality in which priests and faithful worked viewed the Mass as something ‘bigger than us’, an act that transcended time and place, the personality of this priest, the character of this parish.

Our religious culture at the time tended not to be too cognisant of the body, or of the subliminal potential of ritual. We were told that ‘the changes’ would have only minimal effect. They were, we were told, merely physical. The Mass remained the same.

That contention was true, provided that your reading of it was primarily essentialist and unrelated to how it was celebrated. The changes were indeed necessary, but everyone greatly underestimated their significance and therefore lacked the ability to do them properly. Something was lost in Catholic worship. You had to shut your eyes and ears to the chatter to get the meaning. This was not how it was meant to be.

The appeal of places like Taizé suggested that environment and performance were powerful communicators. The Taizé liturgical ‘style’ offered informative contrasts with what tended to prevail in the post-Vatican II parish church. First of all, the design of the church of the Reconciliation effected a built parable of entry into the mystery: from a narrow vestibule you entered a side aisle, then you descended into a great indirectly lit space, with a few tiny and richly coloured windows in corners. Points of high colour were icons and the famous Taizé cross, all highlighted by flickering candles. The two foci of lectern and table were creatively lit. It was an environment that was profoundly prayerful, whether you were part of the packed morning and evening prayers or just there late at night on your own.

Worship ‘happened’ in the middle, the community itself was surrounded by the throngs of people who came. You heard voices but did not necessarily see who was speaking. There was no liturgical ‘personality cult’. Above all, the so-called ‘Taizé chants’ – perhaps the greatest liturgical invention of the latter half of the twentieth century – forged a truly common prayer, as well as being the community’s most enduring export.

Where so many Catholic churches had taken the principle of ‘noble simplicity’ enunciated by Vatican II’s Liturgy Constitu-tion2 to mean mere simplification, or something restricted to a superficial ‘style’, Taizé show-ed it for what it really was: a spirituality of contemplation, deeply grounded in the liturgy itself. It communicated powerfully values of silence, stillness and reflection.

I have participated in a number of so-called ‘alternative worship’ assemblies in the last few years. My sense of the best of these is that they too have got the measure of ‘noble simplicity’ as spirituality rather than style. The thing that has struck me most about both Taizé and these other groups is that they share some of the dynamics and ‘atmospherics’ of what is (inaccurately) known as ‘traditional’ liturgy whose loss people seem to feel most keenly. These amount to those qualities of stillness and contemplation, which both expose and feed our spiritual hungers.

My question to contemporary liturgy is how it will communicate this spirituality of ‘noble simplicity’. What is most needed is an agenda that really trains people to pray liturgically, whether as ministers or congregants. By that I mean to pray with the union of heart, mind and body, in a manner formed by the principles of worship and supported by an appropriate environment. So in addition to other things, we need a radical rethinking of the church buildings we use.

2. The language of the liturgy
Language is a major feature of liturgy. It defines the ritual action that liturgy is. In its naming of God, the Other is disclosed as present. But what is liturgical language doing? This is the basic question that has to be asked before we start thinking about the quality or character of the texts employed. What is liturgical prayer? To whom does it speak and for whom does it speak, how does it speak? And what does it convey?

Our liturgical prayers frequently ask that God ‘help us’ do something. I wonder about the seeming complacency of this. Our texts use a very limited vocabulary to name the liturgical act. I am uneasy about that too. Am I really speaking texts that name our utter dependence upon God and grace? Do we share in prayers that speak of costly discipleship, that hint at inconceivable glory and mystery?

At the other extreme, I wonder about the language of imperial antiquity, so prevalent throughout the Roman liturgy and exemplified, for instance, in the Latin of Eucharistic Prayer 1. Those who favour it claim that it is the most appropriate speech to address and communicate the majesty of God. I have my doubts about this, too.

I think we need to question the popular notion that speaking prayer is ‘speaking to God’. Mystical theology would contest the notion that God can be ‘spoken to’ at all, in the same way as we address each other. The relationship is not direct, but analogical. It might be better to say that we speak ‘before’ God, ‘before the presence’ of the One who is so totally the Other that ‘speaking to’ is not just an attempt to avoid analogy, but misleading, because it falsifies the perception of our relationship with the divine.

The theology of liturgy also would have reservations about the notion of ‘speaking to God’. If we address ourselves ‘to’ the Father, we have to remember that we do so ‘through’ the Son and ‘in’ the Holy Spirit. Liturgical prayer, in other words, is an entry into the Threefold Mystery. The Anglican theologian Janet Morley puts this elegantly in her Collect for Trinity Sunday:3

O God our mystery,
you bring us to life,
call us to freedom,
and move between us with love.
May we so participate
in the dance of your trinity,
that our lives may resonate with you, now and for ever, Amen.

Lastly, our theological understanding of what we call ‘grace’ will mean that we cannot speak naively ‘to’ God without the realisation that to be able to pray, to be disposed to speak, is itself gift. If there is a dialogue going, it is not we who began it. It began when God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (Gen 2:7) and called people into relationship with him.

So the idea that we ‘speak to God’ needs to be refined, delivered from naiveté. We speak ‘before’ God. We participate in the prayer and worship of Christ, by the operation of the Holy Spirit. All of that seems to me to suggest that we should do this with a certain deference and formality, since we do it in a sacred space, by which I mean precisely ‘the dance of your trinity’ named in Morley’s prayer.

However, such formality should not be a theatrical mask, something ‘put on’. It should no more take the form of linguistic or literary abasement than of physical grovelling. Nor can it merely mimic a language employed in another culture, from another time and place. Like the space we inhabit when we worship, the language of the liturgy needs to name both the transcendent and the immanent, the holy and the familial.

The publication by The Tablet of the complete text of the draft translation of the Order of Mass shows us how future liturgical texts might speak.4

It seems that they will be more literary, with more relative clauses and complicated syntax. The recent Vatican Instruction Liturgiam Authenticam 5 lays down new rules about translation. The general drift of this document seems to be that our liturgical translations must be word-for-word ‘copies’ of the Latin. Readers of a certain age who learned Latin at school may remember the crib known as Kelly’s Keys To The Classics – the word-for-word translation of literary masterworks that we kept hidden beneath the desk. While ‘Kelly’ might have helped us decipher the mysteries of word order, it offered no help towards appreciation or understanding.

I know of no serious translator in the worlds of literature or (more significantly, for it is translation for speaking) drama, who would subscribe to the doctrine of word-for-word equivalence. Such equivalence does not exist, for words are not univocal integers or digits, but allusive, adumbrating symbols. Nor do they function on their own, but in a context: the phrase, sentence or period.

Critics of the Missal translations currently in use maintain that the dimension of ‘reverence’ for the ‘unfamiliar’, the Other, is not sufficiently expressed in the language employed. It is the vocabulary of familiarity rather than of distance that is used. I would agree with that. On the other hand, however, I find it hard to understand how English can easily capture the elaborate style of supplication evident for example in the Roman Canon. What we see in the draft of the Canon when you put it into English is a luxuriance of address excessive even in the Court of Le Roi Soleil:

Most merciful Father,
we therefore humbly pray and implore you ...

... we pray, O God,
deign to make this offering in every way
blessed …

The problem with this style of address is that it is using words that do not express reverence. It has ceased to be Latin, it is not English. Although individually these words may be held to ‘English’ the Latin terms (supplices rogamus ac petimus, and digneris) when strung together they sound distinctly arch or ironic.

Why don’t the translators put aside the dictionary and listen to the English language? What I hear in ‘implore’ is a word that does not suggest sympathy and a ‘listening ear’ on the part of the addressee, still less humble abasement before awesome and dread majesty. I hear a word suggesting desperation on the part of the appellant, in face of the addressee’s proven unwillingness to listen. ‘Deign’, too, is problematic, as it has overwhelmingly sarcastic associations in UK English.

Compare that sort of talk with this, another collect6 written by Janet Morley:

God, our healer,
whose mercy is like a refining fire,
touch us with your judgement
and confront us with your tenderness;
that, being comforted by you,
we may reach out to a troubled world,
through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Of course I am not comparing like with like, as that is not a translation of a fifth-century Latin text. However, it will serve as an example of a diction that is reverential but entirely free of servility. This distinction appears to have been non-existent in the minds of those who wrote Liturgiam Authenticam. We surely cannot want the language of the Mass reduced to that of pantomime. While it is true that the Canon speaks in a different way from the other eucharistic prayers (a fact obscured by its 1973 translation) this word-for-word approach will not express that difference any more adequately than did its predecessor.

Liturgiam Authenticam is concerned that doctrine be accurately conveyed in the translation. But what sort of doctrine is being conveyed, and of what sort of God will the translation speak? The following phrase in the draft translation of Eucharistic Prayer 3 will serve as a case study. Currently, the English text of the prayer says:

Look with favour on your Church’s offering, and see the Victim whose death has reconciled us to yourself.

The new draft proposes:

Look, we pray, on the offering of your Church, and recognising the Victim
by whose sacrificial death you have chosen to be appeased ...

Appeased? Neville Chamberlain ‘appeased’ Hitler. Apart from the unhappy associations of that word in the UK, there is the more dubious theological notion that God wants blood to make him less wrathful.

This is serious. Generations of Christians have been grounded in (and often ground down by) a narrative of atonement that tells of an angry God who has to be approached on one’s knees (at the very least) and placated with the language of the terrorised, in hope that this God will ‘vouchsafe’ or ‘deign’ to incline himself mercifully to the humble supplications of his undeserving creatures, etc. Those who have left the practice of the faith in response to such images of God will not be eager to return.

Though the draft of the Order of Mass has good and welcome things in it,7 its attempt to stick closely to the Latin syntax frequently renders it ponderous. In passing, one may also observe that the draft allows its attempt to convey the sense of the original to be waylaid by issues of a political nature.8 Whether all this conveys something good, true and beautiful about God needs careful thought.

The liturgy communicates by ‘signs perceptible to the senses’.9 These signs have the awesome duty of mediating the real presence of God: Father, Son and Spirit; Creator, Saviour and Sanctifier. This communication is awesome: a command to take off your shoes for you stand on holy ground, the house of God and gate of heaven. It is also intimately gracious, the voice of the one who invites his people to the Supper of the Lamb, the calling of the Shepherd who gives his life for the flock.

It is to the quality of all these signs that we must attend if our liturgy is to communicate anything of the truth, goodness and beauty of God.

1. The case presented by Joseph Ratzinger in his The Spirit of the Liturgy (Eng. tr. John Saward; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), deserves consideration. It is a pity that this issue of where the priest stands when at the altar is now so polarised that even the new General Instruction on the Roman Missal can add that Mass should be said facing the people whenever possible (n.299). Ratzinger emphasises the priest’s heading the Assembly rather than facing them as a ‘Jesus figure’ (NB this is not the same as in persona Christi capitis). The relational dynamics are different.
2. Cf. Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium n.34 in Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979, ICEL and Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1982, p.11.
3. Cf. Janet Morley All Desires Known, published by the Movement for the Ordination of Women, London, 1988, p.19.
4. The Tablet, 22 May 2004.
5. Released by the Holy See in 2001.
6. Cf Morley, All Desires Known, p.9.
7. The draft translation of the Second Eucharistic Prayer in particular is, by and large, a great improvement on the one we currently use. So is much of the Third Eucharistic Prayer. Also the change from And also with you to And with your spirit is to be welcomed as reinforcing the epicletic nature of the exchange.
8. This fact might reasonably be concluded from the proposal to change adstare coram te in Eucharistic Prayer 2 from the current version: ‘to stand in your presence’ to read: ‘to be in your presence’.
9. Sacrosanctum Concilium n.7

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