4 September 2015

Christine Mohrmann (2)

I am repeating some earlier articles about Christine Mohrmann, the great Dutch academic expositor of the language of worship, whose work was deliberately and outrageously ignored by those who got their hands on Catholic worship in the decade after the Council. These posts have their original comments appended.

 "Father Mars, I pray thee that thou wouldst forbid defend-against avert diseases seen and unseen dearth and ravage calamities and disorders". " I beseech solicit and seek favour of thee that thou desert this people and state and leave the sacred defined spaces and their city and go away from these ...". The first was a prayer for the lustration of fields used in ancient Rome centuries before the age of the Caesars; the second the text of a prayer by which the Romans attempted to persuade the Gods of an enemy city to desert it. Here are the original texts; and I ask those who do not understand Latin to spot at least the parallelism, the wealth of words, the alliteration, the rhyme, the lawyer-like precision. "Pater Mars, precor uti tu morbos visos invisosque vidueritatem vastitudinemque calamitates intemperiasque prohibessis defendas averruncesque". "precor veneror veniamque a vobis peto ut vos hunc populum civitatemque deseratis loca templa sacra urbemque eorum relinquatis absque his abeatis ...".

These pieces of archaic Latin were used by the great Christine Mohrmann (the towering intellect of liturgical scholarship in the generation before the Council whom the Conciliar generation ignored or chose to forget) to explain the nature of the Latin of the Canon of the Mass. She has in mind, to offer but one example, the words of the Quam oblationem: benedictam adscriptam ratam rationabilem acceptabilemque [blessed written-up ratified reasonable and acceptable]. What she is demonstrating is that there is nothing vernacular about such language, nothing simple and clear, nothing that the-man-on-the-top-of-a-Clapham-omnibus could understand.

Mohrmann argues that Christian liturgical Latin is a hieratic dialect deliberately created in the image of the liturgical Latin of pagan Rome centuries before Christ. The rhythmically balanced flow of words, the juridical precision, the monumental verbosity, combine with scrupulosity towards the Gods.

Forget the idea that when the Roman Church replaced its Greek liturgy with the Latin, it was trying to be more understanded of the people and comprehensible by the man in the street. It was trying to do exactly the opposite. It was trying to be dignified and obscure.

Continues ...

13 comments:

Independent said...

Was Thomas Cranmer with his stately English trying to do something like that? Dignified and at times obscure?

Michael McDonough said...

I'm nearly 60, and have always wondered just what was being said in the Quam oblationem. Just knowing the "sense" of the words doesn't really help. Thanks for clarifying this idea.

It brings up a question though. To your knowledge, was this "trying to be dignified and obscure" a characteristic of a known moment in Roman/Latin culture when there was an attempt to "recapture" the linguistic glories of the past?

Patricius said...

Independant, no Cranmer was trying to strip the Liturgy of anything that smacked of mystery. He understood the Liturgy with a cunning understanding, and despised it.

Steve said...

In my experience, whether or not anything in the Liturgy "smacks of mystery" depends far, far more on how it is celebrated than on its content per se.

I have seen just about everything from the BCP to the modern Roman mass (a) done worshipfully and (b) murdered.

Independent said...

Patricius - thank you ,but I would welcome some evidence and examples. "The Book of Divine Worship" sanctioned by John Paul II makes full use of Cranmer's English.

Hierodeacon said...

"Independent" – to answer you six years later – I think it is true that Cranmer was not writing in a deliberately archaizing English; however he and Coverdale and good King James's men did, even perhaps despite themselves, write English whose beauty and dignity have rarely been matched since. The parallel with the Latin discussed in this article is that, after a few centuries, Cranmer's English *did* become archaic, and yet Christian communities held on to it nonetheless; and they valued it, in large part *because* it was archaic, and therefore had a certain quality appropriate for liturgical prayer. And this intuition, as far as I know, went unchallenged all the way up to the late 20th century: even the mid-century Revised Standard Version held on to it in part. The rejection of Tudor English for liturgical prayer came about at one of the worst epochs of liturgical history and Christian piety worldwide.

Andreas said...

viduertas, viduertatis (f) - acc: viduertatem

John Vasc said...

Words do matter. And religious and poetic rhetoric lie very close together, I'm convinced.
Many Roman Collects seem to be influenced not only by ancient Roman language, but by poetic techniques found in the Hebrew psalms (eg alliteration, parallelism, chiasmus and palindromic structures). When I was a boy in the 1960s I'm ashamed to say I thought the Collects of the old Mass lacking in directness, even rather bland: utterly mistaken of course.
And had I but known back then that these taken-for-granted gems were about to be 'englished' along the lines of: 'Father, you are super-nice, make us truly nice too so that we can all be really nice together. That would be very nice indeed.'
What banal clich├ęs they were, disgracefully mistranslated, shallow, and above all, monstrously bumptious.
How wonderful it is when the celebrant intones the old Latin Collects from the inside, with that rhetorical understanding that presumably gradually faded from the educated mind some time ca.1800 - around the year 10 AG (After Gibbon.)

Savonarola said...

I imagine everyone would want the language of worship to be dignified, but is there not a danger that if it is too remote from ordinary speech God himself, the object of our worship, will become remote? And the more remote he is the more fearful and alienating he tends to become. Western Christian liturgy has majored on the transcendence of God in its forms and styles of worship and design of church buildings, but has perhaps not been so good at enabling people to know the presentness of God. Maybe this balance needs to be redressed. If God is only obscure mystery, people will naturally think, What does he have to do with us and why should we bother with him?

. said...

But surely, Father, there is a great difference between the use of a less vernacular linguistic register, and the use of a different language all together?

Many of us, to take a parallel example, would struggle to fully comprehend some passages in the BCP, but we would still fare better than if the same passage had been in French, regardless of the extent of our education.

Ivan said...

Father, can we find anywhere an explanation on the benedictam adscriptam...? I remember hearing on one of your speeches directed to a certain group of Benedictines (if I am not mistaken) where you tackled the adscriptam (and how beautiful that is!).

Savonarola said...

In demonstrating that our traditional liturgical language is based on that of prayer to pagan gods, did Christine Mohrmann ever question whether this was a good model for Christian prayer? Much Catholic prayer and devotion seems to be aimed at buttering up God in order to gain his favours and in this way remains thoroughly pagan, but maybe those who "got their hands on" Catholic worship thought this was an aspect of tradition that we need to move on from.

Savonarola said...

In demonstrating that our traditional liturgical language is based on that of prayer to pagan gods, did Christine Mohrmann ever question whether this was a good model for Christian prayer? Much Catholic prayer and devotion seems to be aimed at buttering up God in order to gain his favours and in this way remains thoroughly pagan, but maybe those who "got their hands on" Catholic worship thought this was an aspect of tradition that we need to move on from.