Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Power of Well Written Words

On Sunday November 27, 2011, the world will change for Roman Catholics who worship in English.  On that day a new translation of the missal replaces the updated but version from the first English translation of the 1970s -- one that failed to capture both the meaning and the elegance of the words in their Latin original.  It will be a sea change for some, a welcome relief to others, and a shift from the rather stark, plain, and somewhat casual form of language we inherited from the tumultuous period of culture and learning in the 1970s.  It will take some time to see what the consequences of these changes are.

Let me illustrate what I mean (the first three are borrowed from Ft. Z at What Does The Prayer Really Say?).

Deus, qui fidelium mentes unius efficis voluntatis,
da populis tuis id amare quod praecipis,
id desiderare quod promittis,
ut, inter mundanas varietates,
ibi nostra fixa sint corda, ubi vera sunt gaudia

Current Translation Used:
help us to seek the values
that will bring us lasting joy
   in this changing world.
In our desire for what you promise
make us one in mind and heart

Literal Translation:
O God, You who make the minds of the faithful to be of one will,
grant unto Your people to love that thing which You command,
to desire that which You promise,
so that, amidst the vicissitudes of this world,
our hearts may there be fixed where true joys are
Now, since most readers are Lutheran, let me put the collects from LSB and ELW in place to compare how language is treated.

O God, form the minds of your faithful people into your one will.  
Make us love what you command and desire what you promise, 
that, amid all the changes of this world, 
our hearts may be fixed where true joy is found, 
your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, 
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, 
one God, now and forever.

O God, 
You make the minds of Your faithful to be of one will. 
Grant that we may love what You have commanded and desire what You promise, 
that among the many changes of this world 
our hearts may be fixed where true joys are found; 
through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, 
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, 
one God, now and forever.

Lutherans went through the same troubled time and first proposed this version of the collect in the ILCW Lectionary way back in 1973:

O God,
form the minds of your faithful people into a single will.
Make us love what you command and 
desire the gifts that you promise,
the source of true joy;
through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. 

And in the interest of accuracy, the first English version of this prayer (1549) says:

Almightie God, 
whiche doest make the myndes of all faythfull men to be of one wil; 
graunt unto thy people, that they maye love the thyng, whiche thou commaundest, 
and desyre, that whiche thou doest promes [promise]; 
that emong the sondery [sundry] and manifold chaunges of the worlde, 
oure heartes maye surely there bee fixed, 
whereas true joyes are to be founde; 
through Christe our Lorde. 

Now my point is this -- language either communicates by lifting the words to their noble purpose or it descends to the barest form, the minimum of communication, that the plainest form of expression say what is said.  In preaching we need a bit of both -- eloquence that calls the heart and mind to ascend and plain expression that allows the hearer to know and take home the application of the Word to daily life through the lens of Law and Gospel.  But in the liturgy, the language must ascend, capturing the eloquence of our noblest expression while at the same time communicating to us the heavenly gift and grace that God has brought to us in the ordinary of human words, rushing water, simple bread, and taste of wine.

Today I do not want to argue so much or to foment discussion as to allow you to read through the various versions of the collect and see which both communicates well and nobly the prayer of this day.  I am personally thankful that the eloquent language of the collects was preserved with the desire to make them current and modern -- in a timeless way -- in Lutheran Service Book.  You pray them and think upon them, pondering the gift and power of language and how God would have us use His gift best...


Janis Williams said...

Fr. Peters,

Thank God for language and words (which REALLY DO mean something). Thank God for minds capable of understanding the language. Thank God for minds to know the difference between adequate communication,good communication, and "noble" communication.

There is an unwritten "I" before all those Thanks.

Dr.D said...

Cranmer's 1549 translation, with some updated spelling and punctuation, is as good as any and better than most in terms of uplifting language that elevates our hearts and minds to God.