Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Language that Soars

I am listening to Choral Evensong from St. Pancras Church, on the BBC weekly series, streaming audio.  How wonderful it was to hear the cantor intone "O Lord, make speed to save us..."  It reminds me of the different ways we use language.  Many are drawn to plain language that communicates in basic vocabulary without complex sentence construction.  I know there is a place for this.  I just don't think the place for this is the liturgy.  The language of the liturgy is not primarily to communicate clearly but to elevate this communication to the highest level of poetry, to the sublime and elegant -- a way of communicating that is seldom heard in America except on the BBC or perhaps a particularly moving political speech.  I can still hear the sonorous sounds of Reagan's eulogy of the Columbia astronauts (Peggy Noonan's promise mixed with the poetic gift of John McGee's High Flight).

Sadly, there is too little language that moves us upward and too much that is eminently forgettable when it comes to the worship of the Lord's House.  I am not speaking of something contrived (unless we deliberately seek to confuse and confound) but the ability to turn a phrase into a moment of grandeur that stays with you.  We all recall the phrasing of the classic collects (O God from whom all good things come..., for example).  This noble and elegant prose seems almost poetic in the way the phrases lift our attention and move us -- not in competition with what they say but saying what is said with the best of our gifts.  We can all bless the likes of Thomas Cranmer, hymn translators like Catherine Winkworth, and of hymn writers old and new (Martin Franzmann comes to my mind especially).

I lament the loss of languages gift with respect to Bible translations, much of contemporary hymnody and church song, nearly all of the home grown liturgy, and the prayers of the Church.  It is pedestrian language -- boring to the speaker and to the hearer.  Devoid of the elegance deserved by the words that speak of the Word made flesh, we are left with a flat tongue that says what it means but empty and mundane in the way it says it.

When I pray the Te Deum from TLH I am reminded of the power of language and of the great loss when we fail to use its gift well in service to the Lord and His House.  With each succeeding hymnal we lose more and more of the power of this language.  I am NOT speaking of thees and thous but of the ability to put together phrase and paragraph in a way that draws you in and leaves its mark upon your mind and heart.

Perhaps the sermon must speak more on the level of clear and concise communication but even there I feel like we fail to use one of the greater tools of the preacher when our language remains so, well, one dimensional.  I recall a Pastor whose sermons were woven as a rich tapestry of literature and Scripture, of message and oratory -- not affected but honest, from a mind well read and well schooled in Scripture.  I could listen for ages.  Alas, some within his parish though less of this and he was forced to speak more in the realm of ordinary speech.  I understand even though I was disappointed.

But in the language of the liturgy and prayer, let us speak with a noble tongue to elevate the level of our discourse to match its subject in Jesus Christ.

Franzmann's hymn O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth uses the full range of gift and language to sing the message of Scripture in a song both new and elegant, whose style endures.

LSB 834 O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth

1 O God, O Lord of heav’n and earth,
    Thy living finger never wrote
    That life should be an aimless mote,
A deathward drift from futile birth.
    Thy Word meant life triumphant hurled  Through every cranny of thy world
    In splendor through Thy broken world.
Since light awoke and life began,
Thou hast desired Thy life for man.

2 Our fatal will to equal Thee,
    Our rebel will wrought death and night.
    We seized and used in prideful spite
Thy wondrous gift of liberty.
    We housed us in this house of doom,
    Where death had royal scope and room,
Until Thy servant, Prince of Peace,
Breached all its walls for our release.

3 Thou camest to our hall of death,
    O Christ, to breathe our poisoned air,
    To drink for us the dark despair
That strangled our reluctant breath.
    How beautiful the feet that trod
    The road that leads us back to God!
How beautiful the feet that ran
To bring the great good news to man!

4 O Spirit, who didst once restore
    Thy Church that [she] might be again
    The bringer of good news to men,
Breathe on Thy cloven Church once more,
    That in these gray and latter days
    There may be those whose life is praise,
Each life a high doxology
To Father, Son, and unto Thee.


Rev. Luke T. Zimmerman said...

One minor point...I believe the versicle in Evensong is "O God, make speed to save us." But yes, the use of language has devolved.

Pastor Peters said...

Sorry, I simply must pay more attention to the word my spell checker uses when I misspell the word I intended... thanks for the catch...

Janis Williams said...

Fr. Peters,

I agree about language. It is sad to see the decline in commom speech since I was in college (medieval age).

As for the sermon. Preach the Word in words fitting. If we in the pews don't understand, it is encumbent upon us to ask for clarification and explanation. If Almighty God deserves our best music and song, He certainly deserves our best words.

Besides, it might improve some of our vocabularies!

GC said...

one question, Pr. Peters:

Do you think it might be appropriate to preach in _real_ poetry?

For example, if one were capable of writing an entire sermon in the style of Isaiah's poetic proclamation, would it be good?

I've wondered this because, on one hand if it was good enough for the Holy Spirit to inspire Isaiah's preaching, shouldn't it be good enough for us?
On the other hand, it's not clear that many people (the brightest exegetes included) understand the poetry, especially when heard just once. I myself often have to read it forty or fifty times to feel like I get it (and sometimes I still resort to commentary, which may or may not even help!).

Anyhow, I think this really highlights the question about poetic speech from the pulpit.


Dr.D said...

You mentioned listening to Evensong on the BBC. I should mention that you can also get some magnificent Evensong recordings from St. Thomas Church NYC on the web. Just go to their web site and look under music. I like theirs even better than the ones the BBC puts on.