Sunday, June 26, 2011

The New Roman Missal and Restoration of Metaphor

On April 25th at the Midwest Theological Forum in Valparaiso, Indiana, Bishop James Conley (Denver) delivered a speech concerning on the forthcoming New Translation of the Roman Missal, which will be launched officially on the First Sunday of Advent of this year. Bishop Conley has much to say concerning the importance of the new translation in restoring themes and metaphors that were obscured or eliminated in the translation currently in place. He makes several good points:
There is a banal, pedestrian quality to much of the language in our current liturgy. The weakness in the language gets in the way and prevents us from experiencing the sublime spiritual and doctrinal ideas woven into the fabric of the liturgy.
The translators had well-meaning pastoral intentions. They wanted to make the liturgy intelligible and relevant to modern Catholics. To that end, they employed a translation principle they called “dynamic equivalence.”

In practice, this led them to produce an English translation that in many places is essentially a didactic paraphrase of the Latin. In the process, the language of our Eucharistic worship — so rich in scriptural allusion, poetic metaphor and rhythmic repetition — came to be flattened out and dumbed down.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Canberra, Australia has observed that our current translation “consistently bleaches out metaphor, which does scant justice to the highly metaphoric discourse” of the liturgy.

This describes the problem well.

Archbishop Coleridge, by the way, is a translator by training. He headed the committee of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) that produced the new translation we will begin using in Advent. He has pointed out serious theological difficulties with our current translations, including problems related to ecclesiology and the theology of grace.

The key point here is that the words we pray matter. What we pray makes a difference in what we believe. Our prayer has implications for how we grasp the saving truths that are communicated to us through the liturgy.

For instance, our current translation almost always favors abstract nouns to translate physical metaphors for God. If the Latin prayer refers to the “face” of God, “face” will be translated in abstract conceptual terms, such as “presence.” References to God’s “right hand” will be translated as God’s “power.” This word choice has deep theological implications. The point of the Son of God becoming flesh is that God now has a human face — the face of Jesus. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Whoever sees him sees the Father. Yet if in our worship we speak of God only in abstract terms, then effectively we are undermining our faith in the Incarnation.
Indeed. I fully expect that the new translation will produce very interesting results. My hope is that parish priests and administrators will use the opportunity to teach about the beautiful theology unlocked by the new translation rather than let people fall into confusion and alienation.

So what is the real problem with the current translation? Essentially it is less mystical and far too didactic. Bishop Conley continues:
I think the root problem with the translations we have now is that the translators seriously misunderstood the nature of the divine liturgy. Our current translations treat the liturgy basically as a tool for doing catechesis. That’s why our prayers so often sound utilitarian and didactic; often they have a kind of lowest-common-denominator type of feel. That’s because the translators were trying to make the “message” of the Mass accessible to the widest possible audience. But Christ did not give us the liturgy to be a message-delivery system. Of course, we pray what we believe, and what we pray shapes what we believe. Lex orandi, lex credendi. But the liturgy is not meant to “teach” in the same way that a catechism teaches, or even in the same way that a homily teaches.
Precisely. What then is the purpose of liturgy?
On this point, the words of the great liturgical pioneer, Father Romano Guardini, are worth hearing again: The liturgy wishes to teach, but not by means of an artificial system of aim-conscious educational influences. It simply creates an entire spiritual world in which the soul can live according to the requirements of its nature. …. The liturgy creates a universe brimming with fruitful spiritual life, and allows the soul to wander about in it at will and to develop itself there. …. The liturgy has no purpose, or at least, it cannot be considered from the standpoint of purpose. It is not a means which is adapted to attain a certain end — it is an end in itself. This is the authentic spirit of the liturgy.

As Guardini says, the liturgy aims to create a new world for believers to dwell in. A sanctified world where the dividing lines between the human and the divine are erased. Guardini’s vision is beautiful: “The liturgy creates a universe brimming with fruitful spiritual life.”
This is why the words we use are important, and why the new translation is an essential step in authentic liturgical reform.
The new translation of the Mass restores this sense of the liturgy as transcendent and transformative. It restores the sacramentality to our liturgical language. The new translation reflects the reality that our worship here joins in the worship of heaven. The new edition of the Missal seeks to restore the ancient sense of our participation in the cosmic liturgy.
Conley mentions several examples of this, but I particular favor the one concerning the epiclesis in Eucharistic Prayer II
Currently we pray:
Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
The new translation restores the repetitive language and the biblical metaphor found in the Latin text:
Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Restoring the Latin here gives us a much richer prayer. It also stresses that the liturgy is not our work, but the work of God, who sends down his Spirit from heaven. The key word is “dewfall,” rore in the Latin. It is a poetic metaphor that is filled with Scriptural significance. Of course, the allusion here is to how God fed his chosen people with manna that he sent down from heaven with the morning dew. We are also meant to associate this with Christ calling the Eucharist the true manna, the true “bread which comes down from heaven".
Read the whole speech. It definitely seems there is a resistance to the mystical and incomprehensible in today's world, particularly in the West. If you've ever participated at an Eastern Orthodox or Eastern Catholic liturgy, you see right away just how different the approach is to the mystical and ineffable. Eastern liturgy captures this very well. In the West, folks expect to be able to see and comprehend everything they experience and have great difficulty embracing mystery... those things that aren't easily grasped or are impossible to comprehend.

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