All metaphysical community depends on the ability of men to understand one another. At the beginning I should urge examining in all seriousness that ancient belief that a divine element is present in language. The feeling that to have power of language is to have control over things is deeply embedded in the human mind. … To discover what a thing is ‘called’ according to some system is the essential step in knowing, and to say that all education is learning to name rightly, as Adam named the animals, would assert an underlying truth.
—Richard Weaver, ‘The Power of the Word,’ Language Is Sermonic
Hieroglyphic figures shone from ancient papyrus—shone not with light but with an intense blackness that seemed about to suck out his soul through his eyes. And the meanings of the figures darted forcefully into his mind, as they would have done even to someone who couldn’t read the primeval Egyptian script, for they were written here in the world’s youth by the god Thoth, the father and spirit of language itself.
—Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates
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The beginning of the Gospel of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels (composed ca. 700).
The language in which a liturgy is conducted is, I think, the chief determiner of its character. A language has its own rhythm and music—barbarous or classical, unadorned or lavish, clear or subtle—and the rite itself will inevitably be perceived as much as a vehicle of that language, or still more, than as an independent thing which makes use of the language. It is the principle of incarnation: not the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but the taking of the manhood into God; that is, the essential reality that underlies the liturgy does not change, but every particular human context in which the liturgy can exist is made a fitting window into the substance of Deity.
The Roman Rite, whether we speak of the Novus Ordo or the Extraordinary Form,1 is perhaps most characterized by simplicity. It is, if you will, a very efficient Mass. This suits the character of Latin: a highly orderly language with a distinctive and fairly limited sound inventory, whose elegances come more from precision and clarity than those of English. Its inflections allow for more grammatically complex sentences than English, but even these seem to me to be terse rather than intricate. A Roman liturgy, whether celebrated in Latin or not, tends to retain this tendency toward simple, almost unadorned forms, as if to zero in on the fact of the rite. I think this is an extremely good quality in a Mass: it’s easier to recover from distraction in a simple, emphatically objective context, and it can help cut through some of the silly complications we humans are prone to, bringing us back to the fundamental instructions: Hear; look; receive; adore; love.
I do think, though, that this character makes it preferable that Roman Masses should be celebrated in Latin rather than the vernacular. The people should know what the words mean, of course; bulletins and missals were supplying that need before Vatican II, and can still do so. But I think part of the reason that the Novus Ordo often feels a little strange and awkward in English (apart from the tragic decision to use the New American Bible as the standard translation for the liturgy, instead of literally any other version) is that it’s a form of English that is liturgical in meaning, but does not make use of most of the ritual tropes that a native English speaker is expecting to hear. The new translation introduced in 2011 is an improvement, but I still think Latin would be more harmonious with the character of the rite.
Conversely, the more complicated, irregular Greek language lends itself to, and has probably shaped, the involved and variegated Byzantine liturgies of both Orthodox and Catholic Christians in the East. I’ve only attended one liturgy from the Byzantine tradition (an Orthros and Divine Liturgy2 at a Greek Orthodox cathedral), but the impression I get from my limited knowledge is that the accent for the Greek-speaking tradition is one of mysticism. The hiding of the sanctuary behind the iconostasis,3 the invocations of the invisible angels, the frequently non-linear floor plans, the hypnotic litanies: all direct the worshipper towards participation in a different plane of existence, the heavenly.4
The language of the Anglican Use is, of course, English, and specifically the ‘classical’ English of the seventeenth century. The King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, along with the plays of Shakespeare, have defined English usage and elegance more than any other sources, before or since. It’s noteworthy that, although the language has changed markedly in pronunciation, vocabulary, and even grammar since the Stuart era, we not only continue to study and use these sources of our mother tongue, but continue to understand much that would otherwise be obsolete: phrases like till death do us part or Adam knew his wife Eve, the pronoun thou, and archaic meanings of still-current words like divide and comfort and pale.
The mark of the English spiritual tradition, I think, could be summed up in the word courtesy; i.e., the deportment proper to a royal court. This can be seen in how elaborate this tradition generally is in its ritual, and not only in the Anglican Use Mass, whose prayers and rites, though more fixed, are grander and more involved than those of the Novus Ordo or even the Tridentine; the Sarum Use, from which the Anglican Use is distantly descended (through the Book of Common Prayer), was one of the most complex liturgies in Europe in the Middle Ages,5 including a procession to cense every altar in the church before the beginning of the Mass and a long series of prayers and antiphons at the rood screen.6
But complexity of ritual just as such is meaningless, like the eerily repellent ceremonials of Gormenghast. The rich profusion of ritual in the Anglican Use is designed to help us feel what is in fact the case: that in the Mass, we are in the presence of the supreme Majesty, the dignity and beauty of which all other dignities and beauties are reflections, the light from behind the sun.7 And the language, more even than the vessels or the vestments or the gestures or the architecture, is the means of this.
The Anointing of Queen Alexandra, Laurits Tuxen, 1902.
English is, in a quasi-technical sense, a barbarous language; that is, one not derived from the Mediterranean families, especially Greek and Latin. (Barbarism in this sense has nothing to do with a lack of goodness or intelligence; it is the lack of a specific tradition, something like polish.) It has a rich array of possible sounds, particularly vowel sounds,8 and allows nearly all sounds in nearly all positions. Perhaps most importantly, its general sound and especially its poetry rely chiefly upon stress rather than upon syllable length, inevitably giving English a rougher, more ‘Gothic’ feel, as contrasted with the stateliness and (appropriately) ‘Romanesque’ atmosphere of Latin.
Hence, I think an English-language liturgy will always strive towards a certain kind of ornament and melody. Deliberate ambiguities, rhymes and chimes, and a greater profusion of poetic language (spurred in some ways by our more demanding grammar, which requires more words and more independent clauses to convey the same volume of information as Latin) are all in-keeping with the woven, almost labyrinthine character of English.
Further, I believe that ‘classical’ English, with its archaisms, its stylizations, its harking back to the sea-crashing sound of Anglo-Saxon through ten centuries of French and Latin overlay, helps tie the liturgy into our bodies. It digs at the deep roots of memory and entwines itself with unconscious passions, in a way that contemporary or Latinized English can’t. The virtue of the Anglican Use is that it works with the English language in this way, availing itself of the perennial tug toward the phraseology and atmosphere of the seventeenth century.
And despite the polish we associate with the elegant, if unpredictable, courts of the Tudors and the Stuarts, there is a sense in which the ‘barbarism’ of the language and the courtesy of the rite belong together. The Roman world was defined by the Republic, even when that definition only told you how far the Empire had strayed from the Republic; its manners were the manners of a society that at its rare best was, and at its worst pretended to be, egalitarian and constitutional. The English-speaking world has always been defined by kings,9 and the glory that can halo a monarch will always surpass the glory that tries to attach itself to an abstraction like the state. One can kneel gracefully to a king, but one can hardly kneel gracefully to a handbook of constitutional procedures. Thus ‘barbaric’ societies will always be more courteous than sophisticated ones; they perceive the beauty of the personal, the willful, even the whimsical. Correspondingly, I think, English will always be less a language of the forum than a language of the castle.
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1The Novus Ordo is the Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI after the close of the Second Vatican Council. The Extraordinary Form, so called in contrast to the Novus Ordo or Ordinary Form, is what is often informally called the traditional Latin Mass or Tridentine Mass, which was the liturgy used by Roman Catholics from 1570 (after the conclusion of the Council of Trent) until 1969.
2The Orthros is roughly equivalent to Matins in the Roman tradition, while the Divine Liturgy basically equates with the Mass in importance and function (allowing for significant differences in the ritual).
3An iconostasis is a wall decorated with icons that separates the sanctuary (the site of the altar) from the rest of the church; they are a standard feature of Eastern church architecture. An iconostasis parallels the veil of the Temple, which separated the Ark of the Covenant from the remainder of the sanctuary, as the sanctuary was separated from the outer courts of the Temple.
4I am even less qualified to speak about any other traditions among the Church’s rites: the Coptic, Slavonic, Armenian, Syriac, and so forth. I expect each one of them has its own spiritual style—it’d be quite odd if they didn’t, really—but I know little more about most of them than their names.
5Although the Anglican service was influenced by the Sarum Use, it was an independent service and replaced its predecessor. Queen Mary I restored the Sarum Use in 1553, when she reunited the Church of England with the Catholic Church, but six years later, Mary was dead and Elizabeth abolished it in favor of the service outlined in the Book of Common Prayer.
6Rarely seen today even in Anglican churches, a rood screen was a partition, typically made of wood, that stood between the sanctuary and the nave of a church, surmounted by a rood (a crucifix with images of St John and the Mother of God flanking it). It usually featured open tracery, which allowed the congregation to see into the sanctuary (in contrast to an iconostasis); they often featured sculptures or woven depictions of the saints. Many beautiful rood screens were destroyed during the English Reformation, and the liturgical reforms of the Council of Trent resulted in many Catholic rood screens also being removed.
7I gather from a passing reference in Arthurian Torso that this phrase was coined by Charles Williams. It certainly sounds like him.
8The polite fiction that there are five or at most seven vowels in English (a, e, i, o, u, and w and y if the writer is in a generous mood), bears approximately no relationship to the actual sounds of English, and is really just a pretext to use the Roman alphabet, to which our language is in fact rather ill-adapted—one of the many reasons our spelling system is a famous nightmare. Any given dialect of English probably has at least ten vowels, and with diphthongs half a dozen more.
9The United States is only a partial exception. The Revolution was at first a rebellion against Parliament rather than against King George, and Alexander Hamilton believed we should set up our own king rather than adopt a purely democratic-republican government. The fact that we continue to be fascinated by the Royal Family suggests that our culture is, even now, strongly if subconsciously attached to monarchy in some way.