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Language of the Church

March 25, 2012

Since moving to Chicago I’ve been attending mass at a church that does the Extraordinary Form, i.e. the Latin mass (though since the Novus Ordo can be in Latin too that’s a somewhat deceptive name). The main advantage to this is that I don’t have to listen to the awful hymns that dominate most NO masses I’ve attended. Instead everything is in Latin, except the homily, and, occasionally, the closing hymn (I suppose because it takes place after the Mass has technically ended?).

I definitely prefer for the music to be in Latin. Today the choir chanted “Adoro te devote” during Communion (youtube video here, though I don’t necessarily endorse the visuals, just the audio, which for some reason repeats itself–it’s actually only five minutes long; lyrics in Latin and English translation here). Not everyone knows that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote it, along with several other major hymns (including “O salutaris hostia” and “Tantum ergo”). “Adoro te devote” may be my favorite though. Two more excellent Aquinas facts: at the end of his life he said “all that I have written seems like straw”; and he’s patron saint for protection against thunderstorms. These should, though probably won’t, make him more acceptable to those aesthetically-minded Catholics who see scholastic theology as too systematic.

I haven’t quite made up my mind about everything being in Latin. Sometimes it makes it easier to not pay attention–if I don’t understand the words they’re saying, why listen to them? Sometimes, though, it almost makes it easier to pay attention.

Here’s what I find fascinating–it’s not as if I just don’t understand them. I just barely don’t understand them. Latin is close enough to English that I know what most of the words mean, and I often can see how they fit together without knowing the grammar, since grammar matters more for putting words together than for understanding them once they are together (take out all the grammatical markers in a complex sentence and it probably makes sense, but it would be difficult to write that way). I can find significance in what I hear, but I have to seek it out; otherwise it remains opaque, a sequence (not a series) of incomprehensible chanted syllables.

Another complication enters with the fact that I don’t own a Latin missal. Each day I pick up at the front of the church a booklet with the fixed prayers in Latin/English facing-page translation and a piece of paper with the readings for the day in English. I have Latin and English for most of what I hear; only English for some of it; and nothing at all for certain parts. What I said above applies most purely to when I have both, at which times I usually look at the Latin and only glance at the English for guidance. With only English it takes more effort to match up what I hear with what I see, and probably too much effort is spent translating. Even with nothing I usually have a good idea of what they’re saying, since e.g. the Preface for Lent isn’t too different from the Preface for the Holy Trinity, which is in the booklet, but the Latin goes by too fast for me to decipher it.

Of course the connection between sound and sense becomes boggled whenever I listen to music in another language. But with, say, Wagner, the meaning of the words drops out and all I’m left with is the voice, charged with emotion. With Gregorian chant the voice drops out and all I’m left with is the words, charged with meaning. When I figure out what’s being said, the meaning is just there. It’s as if I’ve moved from sound to meaning without even the possibility of sensing a cringe-worthy rhetorical infelicity.

Some people–I’m thinking here of Stanley Cavell, with his focus on speaking in one’s own voice–probably look at this and find it inhuman. I’d rather think of it as the community speaking with one voice and so removing the need to focus on voice at all. If I knew more about music I would try to read what Cavell has written about opera and think about it in relation to chant; it would probably be a way of finding out just how deep by agreements and disagreements with him go.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2012 12:49 pm

    I wish we had more options for Latin Mass here in Montreal. I definitely prefer the more traditional services – there’s an Anglican High Church near our house that’s, in some ways, more traditional than a couple of the nearby Catholic churches, which have all embraced the guitar-sing-along-let’s-bring-the-kids-to-the-altar-to-interpretive-dance-the-Our-Father (ick)

  2. April 1, 2012 6:39 pm

    I know what you mean. I’ve been fairly lucky in not living near truly awful parishes, but I’ve seen a few when traveling.

    (I went to a rather average parish up until college (though less guitar-y than some I’ve seen, and increasingly dominated by the kind of bad music distinctive to bilingual parishes), but since then my options have been surprisingly high quality: in undergrad an ordinary-form mass with every song sung in Latin by Cistercian monks, and now the extraordinary form. )

  3. April 3, 2012 5:33 pm

    Cistercian monks, no less! I’d love to experience that, especially as I have a Cistercian monk as a character in my last novel.

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