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In the Beginning Was the Word

The well-ordered human existence, including especially its social dimension, is essentially based on the well-ordered language employed. A well-ordered language here does not primarily mean its formal perfection . . . A language is well ordered when its words express reality with as little distortion and as little omission as possible.
—Josef Pieper

A few months after I was received into the Church, I moved to England. Among the many forms of culture shock I experienced, one of the most difficult was liturgical. I was used to churches bursting at the seams with people and bustling with activities. I was used to Masses that were supported by armies of ministers: eucharistic ministers (as they were called then), music ministers, hospitality ministers. I was used to Masses accompanied by a full rock band complete with drum set and backup singers.

St. John’s in Bath, England, is a lovely old Gothic-revival church next to the Avon river. Sunday Mass brought out a few dozen of the faithful, forlorn in a church that would hold 500. And forlorn were our voices as we joined Father in the processional and recessional hymns—the only music. The church was not heated, so the faithful were all bundled up, seated far from one another—an atmosphere that said cold to me in every possible way.

But as the months went by, as the strangeness of my new surroundings lessened, I realized that I had begun listening to the prayers of the Mass—at first because there was nothing else to do, and then because I had fallen in love with them. As the words etched themselves on my heart, I would wait in rapturous anticipation for the next phrase, hearing it in my mind first, then the satisfaction of hearing them said aloud.

Those cold Masses in England were exactly the formation I needed as a new Catholic. My understanding of liturgy deepened. I now seek out those silent and simple Masses. Moreover, my appreciation for the sacredness of words was lifted to a whole new level. Now in my vocation as a crafter of words, I try to keep before me always the opening of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word.” Or to use the words of Justus George Lawler in describing Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetic vision: “. . . all words are seeking to rejoin and to recall the ultimate Word which is their source.” Or to use the words of Archbishop Allen Vigneron: “Words are windows through which things disclose themselves.” Even divine things. Perhaps especially divine things.

I’ve been thinking about words and their importance for prayer—lex orendi, lex credendi—because we soon will have a new English Mass translation. Its importance can hardly be overestimated. The way we pray the Mass is going to change, which means the way we understand the Mass is going to change. We should welcome the change. We should welcome it because it better expresses the sacred realities, with as little distortion and as little omission as possible—as Anthony Esolen so eloquently explains beginning on page 12. The changes will nevertheless be painful, as any change is, but especially those that cut to the heart of our faith. We need to prepare ourselves, that we can help our brothers and sisters understand this, not as rupture, but as continuity.


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