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The Language of Prayer Is the Language of Poetry

Two men are seated at a lunch table, a bare metal prop in a room like an open barracks. The only decorations on the walls promote the worship of the state of Oceania and its all-seeing ruler, Big Brother. One man, a linguist named Syme, explains with enthusiasm the deep purpose behind the bureaucratic language called Newspeak. “It isn’t that we want to make understanding easier,” he says. “What we want to do finally is to reduce all language to the minimum of essentials. When that happens, you see,” he whispers, the gleam of diseased genius in his eye, “rebellion will be impossible, because people will have lost the capacity even to form the idea of rebellion.”

If the purpose of the English paraphrasers of the Latin Novus Ordo had been to ensure that the next generation of Catholics would be unable to form a clear idea of what C. S. Lewis called the “weight of glory”—the unspeakable splendor of God, lighter than light, bowing us in reverence beneath it—then I should say they did their work well. Perhaps it was not their purpose. Perhaps they were merely incompetent, or misled by a transient allergy against the prayerful and the poetic. Whatever may have been their motives, we are now beset with a people who no longer “hear” the ancient cadences of prayer, and who may initially be puzzled by them when they encounter the Mass as newly translated, or I might even say genuinely translated for the first time, into English. My purpose is to examine one or two of the features of poetic prayer, especially as they are manifest in the new translation, and to argue that the human soul thirsts for such forms, as surely as birds need to sing.

Thank God for Being God

First, one of the features of sacred poetry is fullness or richness. The heart, moved by the insufficiency of words to do justice to God, moves from one wonder to another in happy succession. So the poet George Herbert, in attempting to describe what prayer is, shifts breathlessly from image to image, each conveying some glint of the light shining upon the soul that yearns for God, and that will fairly storm the gates of heaven to have him:

Engine against the Almighty, sinners’ tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six days’ world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, that all things hear and fear . . . (“Prayer 1”)

A similar plenitude of prayer is to be found, of course, at Mass in a Catholic Church, understanding that the prayer we make is a petition, but also a gift, a sacrifice, and yet a sacrifice that Christ himself makes, sacrificing himself on our behalf. We are the ones praying, yet we pray at once in union with all other Christians, both those alive and scattered across the world, and those who have crossed the river into salvation, who likewise pray for us. Our Eucharistic celebration partakes of the entire history of man, here and hereafter, as summed up in Jesus who walked the earth and became the Passover Lamb to take away our sins, and who now is seated at the right hand of the Father, beckoning us to come and join the wedding feast.

If that is so, then the last thing we want is the dull ordinary language of the office or the faculty lounge. In the Latin original, we find no such dullness. The plenty is there to be enjoyed. Take the Gloria, for example. It is a prayer of power and might, the Latin showering upon us a cascade of verbs, as if we could hardly withhold our imaginations from new words of praise:

Laudamus te,
benedicimus te,
adoramus te,
glorificamus te,
gratias agimus tibi
propter magnam gloriam tuam.

That’s before we’ve even named the Lord whom we are praising. But consider what we have been praying in English these many years. Our paraphrasers, uncomfortable with the sonorous Latin, decided to split the prayer, dividing God the Father from God the Son, and cramping the praise into three relatively stingy clauses that combine into a jog-trot line of seven beats such as would grace a Hallmark card:

We worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory.

And that’s not even what the prayer actually says. Finally, in the new rendering of the Mass, the prayer is properly translated into English:

We praise you,
we bless you,
we adore you,
we glorify you,
we give you thanks for your great glory.

Imagine, thanking God for being God. In doing so, we unite ourselves with all this wild and spangled creation, for as the ancient Jewish Sabbath prayer eloquently expresses it, “the infinite heavens and the quiet stars tell of thine endless power.”

More than that, we prepare ourselves for the abundance of the Father’s mercies, poured out for us by the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Here it is in the Latin, its tripartite invocation of the Lord and its tripartite petition mirroring the life of love that is the Trinity:

Domine Deus, rex caelestis,
Deus pater omnipotens,
Domine fili unigenite,
Jesu Christe,
Domine Deus, agnus Dei,
filius patris,
qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis;
qui tollis peccata mundi,
suscipe deprecationem nostram;
qui sedes ad dexteram patris,
miserere nobis.

What the old paraphrasers did first, as I noted above, was to split the sentence, severing the Father from the Son, and breaking the tripartite invocation. Then they collapsed the petitions from three to two, taking the second petition and tacking it onto the third clause describing Christ, while omitting both the third petition and the second (repeated) clause describing Christ. Got that? Here’s the office-memo result:

Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
you take away the sin of the world:
have mercy on us;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father:
receive our prayer.

Here is the prayer now, finally translated in all its ringing fullness, and its interlocking complexity:

Lord God, heavenly King, O God, almighty Father,
Lord Jesus Christ, only-begotten Son,
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
you take away the sins of the world:
have mercy on us;
you take away the sins of the world:
receive our prayer;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father:
have mercy on us.

Out of the Ordinary

Another characteristic of the poetry of prayer, as by now the reader will have guessed, is sublimity. We do not confine ourselves to words or to rhetorical devices we would use while ordering a sandwich or talking to the next door neighbor. Why do I make a point of this? Isn’t the meaning of the prayer the same, regardless of the form? Well, no, it isn’t—for we are not talking about abstract answers to a math problem, but the minds and hearts of real people of flesh and blood, and those people are made to be moved by beauty. When you are translating the poetry of prayer from one language into another, you must use all the resources of the new language to bring out the beauty of the old. Vernacular does not mean dull, stale, flat, humdrum, drab. All it means is that it is the language of a people. But that language of a people includes also their beloved sacral language: what they say when they are in love, their tradition of poetry, their devices for oratorical power, the sonorousness of their exalted words, the richness of their repetitions, the finality of their full stops. Make no mistake: That janitor next door, who cannot hear the national anthem at a ballgame without taking off his cap, putting his hand over his heart, and straining to sing the unsingable tune, that man, a common man, has a soul made for the poetry of prayer, just as a clarinet left to gather dust in a drawer can sing out, if we could but learn again to use it.

For proof, one need only go to Scripture itself. Take the Psalms, for example. The new student of Hebrew will note the ease with which long passages of prose flow along, though with delightful repetitions fit for an audience to hear. All at once, though, when he comes upon the poetry of prayer, the language changes, and he has to scramble for his dictionary. Beloved old words, venerably archaic, appear everywhere. Stunning shifts from the ordinary and abstract to the concrete pull him up short, as if the waters had risen to his neck, too, or as if he too were a deer thirsting for the running stream. Strange collocations of words fuse ideas together without making their connection explicit—and all he can do is look to the hills, whence cometh his help. Rhymes and consonances, too, play upon word and idea, and echoes of words used many a time before ushering him into unsuspected old worlds of meaning.

Here are the opening lines to the grand Psalm the Church sings on Easter:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever.
Let Israel now say, his mercy endures forever.
Let the house of Aaron say, his mercy endures forever.
Let all who fear the Lord say, his mercy endures forever.

In Hebrew, terse old language that it was, the repetition strikes like a trumpet of joy:

Hodu l’Adonai ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo!
Yomer-na Yisrael, ki l’olam chasdo!
Yomer-na beth Aharon, ki l’olam chasdo!
Yomeru-na yir-ei Adonai, ki l’olam chasdo!

There’s vernacular poetry for you. Since when does the lover want to say something only once? The Psalmist begins with the greatest—the Lord—and connects by assonance the command to give thanks (hodu) with what you are giving thanks for, namely kindness, mercy (chasdo). More than that, he chooses words that ring in the souls of his hearers, for that little phrase ki tov, “for [he is] good,” is exactly the same as the author of Genesis used, when God looked upon the light he had made, and then all the other things he had made, and saw, again and again, ki tov, “that [it was] good.” It is as if the Psalmist wanted to thank God first of all for being God, that good Creator of a good world; and then, applying it to himself and to all his fellow Israelites, to say that his mercy endures l’olam, forever. And that too is a word charged with meaning, liturgical and historical; the commandments given to Moses were to be observed l’olam; Aaron and his sons were to be priests of God l’olam; David and his house were to be established as rulers over God’s people l’olam. In other words, we have not gone past line one, and the poetry has steeped us in the history of Israel, in words of poetic grandeur, precise balance, and theological profundity. And as if that were not enough, the succeeding lines bring God closer and closer to us, moving first to Israel, then to the house of Aaron, then to all individual believers, sharing, by their fear of God, in the priesthood of Aaron, the chosenness of Israel, and the goodness of the maker of all things.

That is a prayer in vernacular poetry.

The Glory of the Passing Day

Want another example? Let us go to the Master himself. It is no depreciation to say that Jesus was an artist in the poetry of prayer. Consider the repetitions of the Beatitudes, and the terse, typically Hebrew, juxtaposition of the key word with a series of changes upon it:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

In the Aramaic which Jesus spoke, the artful poetic balance of the line comes out more clearly:

Blessed the-poor in-spirit: for theirs the-kingdom-[of]-heaven.

Why did Jesus repeat the word blessed when once would have been sufficient? Because once is not sufficient, not for poetry. Because poetry exalts the ordinary, and makes us see even things of the passing day as if they glowed with the light of glory. Here, I suppose, would have been Jesus’ poem, paraphrased by the committee that gave us the truncated Gloria:

The poor in spirit, the mourners, the gentle, those who seek righteousness, the merciful, the chaste, the peacemakers, and people who are wrongly persecuted, are all blessed. They will inherit the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus instead gives his hearers a series of eight blessings, with “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” uniting, as in a corona, the last with the first, the most sublime of all the rewards. Is his number eight coincidental? Hardly: In coming round again to the first, he has implicitly identified the kingdom of heaven with the Sabbath, the day of rest with eternal life. Then he goes on, in masterly fashion, to redefine what it means to belong to those eight bands of blessed people—and in so doing, to help us understand what it is to be most human, and most divine, because most like him:

Blessed are you, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

Grace Like the Dew

Finally, apart from richness and sublimity, the poetry of Christian prayer should be embodied, incarnational. Perhaps that is true of all really excellent poetry, but Christians especially must remember that the God who made all things good once walked the earth and dwelt among us in the flesh, thereby blessing all the things we know and love here in this life. The same Jesus whose language in the Sermon on the Mount is more sublime than that of any philosopher or theologian, yet speaks of salt, and candles, and brothers fighting, and plucking out your right eye, and turning the other cheek, and not letting your right hand know what your left hand is doing, and regarding the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field how they grow. The great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins understood this love of God for the beautiful particulars of our world, and sung his praises in weeds “long and lovely and lush,” and in “silk-sack clouds,” and the glistening mud of “plough-down sillion,” and the “piece-bright paling” of the Milky Way, shutting in “Christ and his mother and all his hallows.”

The new translators do not set themselves up for poets, but where the Latin suggests a homely, embodied, earthy metaphor, they strive to render the metaphor exactly—and in doing so they invite us to enter richer worlds of meaning than we have been accustomed to. Examples abound. In the current preface to Eucharistic Prayer IV, we inform God that he “live[s] in unapproachable light.” The final phrase, “unapproachable light,” is good enough, but “lives”? Our translators now render the Latin more accurately, speaking of God “dwelling in unapproachable light.” At once, with a single word, we may recall the dwelling places of God in the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant and the temple, and then we might recall that Jesus himself is the new temple. To dwell is to live, and more; it is to hallow a place, and to live there in all the fullness of love.

In Eucharistic Prayer III, we have prayed that “from east to west” we might make a perfect offering to God. Abstractions, those, mere directions on a compass, and a refusal to render the incarnational possibilities of the Latin. Now we will pray that “from the rising of the sun to its setting, a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name.” More than clinching the allusion to Malachi 1:11, the language now places us in a world of space and time that we know. Nobody knows what “east” looks like; the word is merely notional. But everyone has seen the sun rise and set; everyone has felt the passage of time; everyone knows, too, that our life itself is like a day, with its rising and its setting. The concrete image means everything that “east” and “west” mean, and far more—just as a fully human life is more than a series of locations on a map.

Sometimes the old paraphrasers exhibited what I can only call prudishness: for some prudes blush at any mention of sex, while other, more universal prudes blush at language that touches upon any of the mysterious particularities of our world. So, in Eucharistic Prayer II, we have been praying, “Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy.” Nothing wrong with that, except that the Latin is embarrassingly intimate. Behold the translation, wherein we pray that God will make our gifts holy “by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall.” “Like the dewfall?” detractors have snickered, like 10-year-old boys hearing something about the facts of life. Yes, indeed, like the dewfall. The point—other than humbly translating what the Latin says, rather than wishing it didn’t—is that the grace of God is like that simple refreshment of the green things on earth; not visible to us, but there all the same, working in silence, but miraculously. Yes, God’s grace is like the dew.

We are told, that when God made the world, the sons of morning sang for joy. We are told too that we are invited to a wedding feast, and what feast is without song? Why then, should not the language we use at Mass then also sing? It is truly right and just!



To See Him Face to Face

The new translators have set out to capture some of the sublimity of the Mass. Consider, for example, how we are now to speak of God’s accepting of our offerings. Where for 40 years the priest has said, and we have heard (if we were still listening), “Look with favor on these offerings,” he will now say and we will hear, “Be pleased to look upon them with serene and kindly countenance,” just as the Latin has it, and we will be reminded that our dearest hope is one day to see God as he is, face to face. Or, from the same Eucharistic Prayer I, we used to hear the priest say, with perfunctory speed,

From the many gifts you have given us
we offer to you, God of glory and majesty,
this holy and perfect sacrifice,
the bread of life
and the cup of eternal salvation.

Now instead we will hear the high oratory of the Mass, focusing on the Victim who alone can reconcile us to the all-holy Father:

We, your servants and your holy people,
offer to your glorious majesty
from the gifts you have given us,
this pure victim,
this holy victim,
this spotless victim,
the holy bread of eternal life
and the chalice of everlasting salvation.

Lord, We Are Not Worthy

Sometimes the particularities of our world are more glorious than dwelling places, or dew, or the rising and setting sun. Sometimes those particularities are people, images of God, free, and capable of responding to him in faith, hope, and love. We are to remember and honor those people who make heroic acts of faith and not wash them away in vague generalities. So, for years now we have responded to the call to Communion by saying, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” The Latin, by contrast, has the Lord taking the initiative in both parts of the sentence, offering to do something that would embarrass us, for we know how poorly we have prepared for him his dwelling place, our souls: ” Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur anima mea. ” The new translation is just that, a translation: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

Now what particular person was obscured by the old rendering? The great Gentile of faith, the Roman centurion. His servant whom he loved was dying, and the centurion, no Jew but a friend to the faith, sent to Jesus to cure him. When Jesus offered to come to his dwelling, the man balked—he was not worthy of it, nor are we worthy that Jesus should come to us in the bread of the Eucharist! But the man said that he knew, being a soldier, what obedience and authority were, and so he knew that Jesus need only say the word, and his servant would be healed. Astonished, Jesus told his disciples that he had not met such faith in all of Israel! That is the faith we now claim, believing that the same Jesus who did not need to enter the centurion’s house, but could save the man’s servant by willing it, now comes to us, body, blood, soul, and divinity, not for our merit, and not by anything we do to cause it to happen, but by his own word, which is truth.

Transcendent Truths

In its 2001 document on the use of the vernacular in the liturgy (Liturgiam Authenticam), the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments outlined the principles for translation of liturgical prayer:

The words of the Sacred Scriptures, as well as the other words spoken in liturgical celebrations, especially in the celebration of the sacraments, are not intended primarily to be a sort of mirror of the interior dispositions of the faithful; rather, they express truths that transcend the limits of time and space. Indeed, by means of these words God speaks continually with the Spouse of his beloved Son, the Holy Spirit leads the Christian faithful into all truth and causes the word of Christ to dwell abundantly within them, and the Church perpetuates and transmits all that she herself is and all that she believes, even as she offers the prayers of all the faithful to God, through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Latin liturgical texts of the Roman Rite, while drawing on centuries of ecclesial experience in transmitting the faith of the Church received from the Fathers, are themselves the fruit of the liturgical renewal, just recently brought forth. In order that such a rich patrimony may be preserved and passed on through the centuries, it is to be kept in mind from the beginning that the translation of the liturgical texts of the Roman liturgy is not so much a work of creative innovation as it is of rendering the original texts faithfully and accurately into the vernacular language. While it is permissible to arrange the wording, the syntax, and the style in such a way as to prepare a flowing vernacular text suitable to the rhythm of popular prayer, the original text, insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses. . . (19-20)

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