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Posted September 20, 2012

Book: The Voice of the Church at Prayer: Reflections on Liturgy and Language
Author: Uwe Michael Lang
Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA. 2012. Pp 206

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Pope Benedict XVI has made the liturgy a central theme of his pontificate, and he has paid special attention to the vitally important role of language in prayer. This historical and theological study of the changing role of Latin in divine worship sheds light on some of the Holy Father's concerns and some of his recent decisions. The Second Vatican Council allowed for extended use of the vernacular at Mass, but maintained that Latin deserved pride of place in the Roman rite. The outcome, however, was that the Latin prayers of the Mass were replaced with modern translations. What was the reason for the Council's decision and why is there now a desire for greater use of Latin in Catholic worship? Why have some post-conciliar English translations of the prayers of the mass been thoroughly revised? Fr. Lang answers these questions by first analyzing the nature of sacred language. He traces the beginnings of Christian prayer to the Scriptures and the Greek spoken at the time of the apostles. Next he recounts the slow and gradual development of Latin into the sacred language of the Western Church and its continuing use throughout the Middle Ages. Finally, he addresses the rise of modern languages and the ongoing question of whether the participation of the laity at Mass is either helped or hindered by the use of Latin.

An Excerpt from the Book:

The idea of a "sacred language" is essential for understanding liturgical language, especially (though not exclusively) in the Latin tradition. In order to approach this subject, we need to recall that languages exist, not in a vacuum, but in the context of a structured system that is determined by a variety of factors (social, cultural, psychological, and so on). The language used in the Church's solemn public worship has obviously developed under certain specific conditions and circumstances that need to be considered to understand its particular characteristics.

It will be expedient to follow the argument of Christine Mohrmann, which is based on the theory developed by Ferdinand de Saussure and other exponents of the Geneva school of linguistics, that language should be seen not only as a means of social communication in ordinary life, but also a medium of expression of persons in a comprehensive sense. Human speech is not just a utilitarian instrument that serves to communicate facts and should do so in the most simple and efficient manner; it also provides the form of expressing and interpreting the rich and subtle workings of the human mind, including the arts, philosophy, and religion.

Language is also the medium in which we express religious thoughts and experiences. We are conscious of the transcendence of the divine and, at the same time, of its presence --- a presence that is both real and incomprehensible. There are extreme forms of expressing this experience: "speaking in tongues" and "mystical silence". Speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, is a phenomenon familiar to us from Saint Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians and has had an astonishing revival in the last hundred years in the charismatic movements; it is also known in other religious traditions, for example, the Oracle of Delphi. Glossolalia makes human communication impossible; the person who speaks "in tongues" can be understood only with the help of an interpreter. Saint Paul clearly had reservations about glossolalia and prefers "prophecy", because this is in the service of charity and builds up the Church. In "mystical silence", human communication is excluded as well, as in the Apostle's experience of "being caught up to the third heaven", when he "heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter."

"Sacred language" does not go as far as glossolalia and mystical silence in excluding human communication completely, or at least in attempting to do so. However, it reduces the element of comprehensibility in favor of other elements, notably that of expression. Mohrmann proposes to see in sacred language, and in particular in its vocabulary, a specific way of organizing religious experience. She also argues that every form of belief in the supernatural, in the existence of a transcendent being, leads necessarily to adopting a form of sacred language in worship --- just as a consistent secularism leads to rejecting any form of it.

Sacred language is the medium of expression, not just of individuals, but of a community living according to certain traditions. Its linguistic forms are handed down from generation to generation; they are often deliberately "stylized" and removed from contemporary language. There exists a similar phenomenon in the field of literature. Homerishe Kunstspracted, the stylized language of the Homeric epos with its consciously archaic and colorful word forms. The language of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which is also found in Hesiod and in later poetic inscriptions, was never a spoken language used in everyday life.

With Mohrmann, we can name three characteristics of sacred or, as she also says, "hieratic" language:

1. Sacred language is stable; it shows tenacity in holding on to archaic linguistic forms. In the Pagan Roman tradition, this characteristic was so pronounced that for centuries prayers were used when their meaning was not even understood by the priests who recited them. A similar phenomenon seems to have arisen in the early Middle Ages, when command of Latin had become so poor that prayer texts were transmitted in a form that made them hardly intelligible and distorted their sense.

2. Foreign elements are introduced in order to associate with ancient religious tradition; a case in point is the Hebrew biblical vocabulary in the Latin use of Christians. Augustine makes pertinent observations on this in his De doctrina christiana: "In some cases, although they could be translated, the original form is preserved for the sake of its solemn authority, such as amen and alleluia. Other words "are said to be incapable of being translated into another language. . .this is especially true of interjections, which signify emotion, rather than an element of clearly conceived meaning", as examples he provides osanna and raca, the expression of anger mentioned in Matthew 5:22.

3. Sacred language uses rhetorical figures that are typical of oral style, such as parallelism and antithesis, rhythmic clausulae, rhyme, and alliteration.

Table of Contents:

1. The language of Holy Scripture

2. Sacred language

3. Rhetoric of salvation

4. From late antiquity to the middle ages

5. Saint Thomas Aquinas on liturgy and language

6. Liturgical Latin and the vernacular in the modern age