12 March 2017

Christine Mohrmann (2)


 "Father Mars, I pray thee that thou wouldst forbid defend-against avert diseases seen and unseen dearth and ravage calamities and disorders". " I beseech solicit and seek favour of thee that thou desert this people and state and leave the sacred defined spaces and their city and go away from these ...". The first was a prayer for the lustration of fields used in ancient Rome centuries before the age of the Caesars; the second the text of a prayer by which the Romans attempted to persuade the Gods of an enemy city to desert it. Here are the original texts; and I ask those who do not understand Latin to spot at least the parallelism, the wealth of words, the alliteration, the rhyme, the lawyer-like precision. "Pater Mars, precor uti tu morbos visos invisosque vidueritatem vastitudinemque calamitates intemperiasque prohibessis defendas averruncesque". "precor veneror veniamque a vobis peto ut vos hunc populum civitatemque deseratis loca templa sacra urbemque eorum relinquatis absque his abeatis ...".

These pieces of archaic Latin were used by the great Christine Mohrmann (the towering intellect of liturgical scholarship in the generation before the Council, whom the Conciliar generation ignored or chose to forget) to explain the nature of the Latin of the Canon of the Mass. She has in mind, to offer but one example, the words of the Quam oblationem: benedictam adscriptam ratam rationabilem acceptabilemque [blessed written-up ratified reasonable and acceptable]. What she is demonstrating is that there is nothing vernacular about such language, nothing simple and clear, nothing that the-man-on-the-top-of-a-Clapham-or-Aventine-omnibus could understand.

Mohrmann argues that Christian liturgical Latin is a hieratic dialect deliberately created in the image of the liturgical Latin of pagan Rome centuries before Christ. The rhythmically balanced flow of words, the juridical precision, the monumental verbosity, combine with scrupulosity towards the Gods.

Forget the idea that when the Roman Church replaced its Greek liturgy with the Latin, it was trying to be more understanded of the people and comprehensible by the man in the street. It was trying to do exactly the opposite. It was trying to be dignified and obscure.

Continues ...

12 comments:

Savonarola said...

Given that the language of liturgy is not and should not be the language of the street (I imagine most people would agree on that), one might still ask what degree of sacral stylisation is appropriate. Throughout its history Western Christianity has majored, as it were, on the otherness of God, his remote splendour and glory, but this is only part of the picture. What it has perhaps not done so well is give people a sense of his presence to us and in us, and maybe at this point in time, when the whole future of religion is problematic, it is the immanence of God, not just his transcendence, that we badly need to recapture. What sort of sacred language will help to do that? It is not a matter of either/or - either Latin or highly formalised Latinate English on the one hand, the language of everyday speech on the other - but how we draw the necessary balance between a a language which is too remote and one which is too demotic. The history of liturgical language does not seem much help in addressing that.

Maureen Lash said...

Do you think that liturgical Latin was deliberately created like this, rather than that it just turned out like this because people were already familiar with the sound of sacral Latin in its pagan context?

The utterly ridiculous Book of Mormon is in the style of the AV Bible because thats what Joseph Smith's magic spectacles told him a religious text should sound like.

Thomas said...

The examples are interesting, but more questions crowd in:

Why did we follow a pagan model? Shouldn't the Hebrew liturgy have been our primary heritage? Were the 4th century Latin prayers completely new compositions or were they based on the preceding Greek prayers? Do we, in fact, have examples of those earlier Greek prayers? Did they in turn derive from the Temple liturgies in style? Of course, there will be those, as I'm sure you know, who ask why we want to be monumentally verbose and obscure in the first place?

Finally, I know you are not against the use of English in principle (or at least I think so), but you have argued that this is not the time to construct a suitable liturgical dialect. You hold up the example of the Ordinariate Liturgy as a possible way forward in that regard. I wish I had more access to it to take advantage of the experience. But perhaps we can also find an example of the ability of English to be both elevated, spiritual and theological in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was undoubtedly verbose and obscure as well as containing wonderful alliteration, parallelism, rhythmic cadences etc. It would take a saintly soul of literary as well as theological genius to take such inspiration and apply it coherently to the liturgy, but is there any objection to eventually having something as poetically beautiful and expressive in an English liturgy?

Geoffrey Kirk said...

Similar forces seem to have been at work in the creation of the speech register of the BCP. See Stella Brook'The Language of the Book of Common Prayer', 1995 and Ramie Targoff 'Common Prayer: the Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England' 2001.

Victor said...

@Savonarola: both aspects - the transcendent and the immanent - were beautifully expressed in the official, Latin liturgy of the church and so-called "popular piety" . Of course, since the 1950s liturgical scholars sneer at most expressions of popular piety; in fact, one of the main goals of liturgical 'reforms' was to make popular piety obsolete by absorbing the aspect of the immanent into the official liturgy (meaning, it was dumbed down). Now that this experiment has so obviously as well as spectacularly failed, perhaps it is time to abandon it...

Athelstane said...

"...maybe at this point in time, when the whole future of religion is problematic, it is the immanence of God, not just his transcendence, that we badly need to recapture."

The Church (certainly in the West) has been pushing immanence and little else for the last five decades.

How's that worked out for us?

El Codo said...

The most pungent and penetrative English is Cranmerian.Forget his horrible mangling of the Mass and his wheasley sycophancy of the Sovereign.His liturgical English is unsurpassed and beautiful beyond expression. Why?Because he thought in Latin,was trained in Latin,his whole intellectual pulse was Latin.There is a tenseness and tension which no other language possess.If we abandon this heritage ,we are condemned to second-rate expression and processing,Anglican,Catholic or Mr Mormon.

Anita Moore said...

Savonarola: absolutely no harm in imagining; but, I fear you will find a lot more people than you think who believe the language of the liturgy SHOULD be the language of the street. It can hardly fail to be so in a world where everything is dumbed down. I can't seem to get through a Mass without having the priest "improve" upon the text to make it "easier" -- or, in some cases, revert back to the awful, recently-abrogated translation of the Missal. (One priest, since transferred, used to use the abrogated version of the consecration: he did it consistently, so it wasn't just an accidental lapse into old habit.)

Thomas: I think the problem with the liturgy in English is not just that you need high-flown, poetical English worthy of the occasion, but also the inescapable fact that English and Gregorian chant just don't go well together. With very few exceptions that I have ever heard, English cast into chant sounds clunky and awkward. Maybe this problem is overcome in the Ordinariate liturgy, which unfortunately I have never seen (the nearest ordinariate parish is 627 miles away, and in Canada).

Anita Moore said...

Savonarola: P.S.L: The problem seems to me not that of the immanence versus the otherness of God, but the modernist notion that God is a mere concept. Nothing is more calculated to make God seem unknowable and unattainable.

Michael Ewbank said...

"Furthermore, in the Liturgy, we must make a distinction between the purely prayer texts, those destined to be read --the Epistle and Gospel, and the confessional texts-- the Credo. ... In the purely prayer texts we are concerned with expressional forms; in the others, primarily with forms of communication. It is these latter, in my opinion, which especially need to be formulated in the vernacular. ... we must realize that sacral stylization forms an essential element of every official prayer language and that this sacral, hieratic character cannot, and should never, be relinquished. From the point of view of the general development of the Western languages-- to say nothing of the problems raised by other languages-- the present time is certainly not propitious for the abandonment of Latin. But even if a solution could be found for this problem of the sacral language of the liturgy, the question would still remain whether the gain would outweigh the loss."

Christine Mohrmann, Liturgical Latin: its origins and character (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1957), 85-86.

William Tighe said...


Thomas wrote:

"Were the 4th century Latin prayers completely new compositions or were they based on the preceding Greek prayers? Do we, in fact, have examples of those earlier Greek prayers? Did they in turn derive from the Temple liturgies in style?"

Marius Victorinus, an Africal writer writing in Latin at Rome against Arius and the Arians at some point between 350 and 375 cites passages from the Roman Canon in Greek; Isaac the Jew, writing at Rome ca. 382, and St. Ambrose of Milan, writing around 390 - both of them in Latin - cite from it in the Latin form in which it remained ever since (at least until 1970). The conclusion generally drawn from this is that the transition from Greek to Latin as the liturgical language in Rome, or at least the cessation of celebrating the Roman Liturgy in Greek, happened or was completed during the pontificate of Damasus (366-384).

Cf. G. G. Willis, *A History of Early Roman Liturgy to the Death of Pope Gregory the Great,* ed. Michael Moreton (London, 1994: Henry Bradshaw Society, Subsidia, 1), pp. 20-22.

John Vasc said...

Personally, I regard Christine Mohrman as a saint, and pray constantly for her recognition and beatification.
I strongly recommend her recently reprinted and brilliantly lucid little booklet: 'Liturgical Latin - Its Origins and Character'. I hope Father H will not mind if I give this link:
http://www.churchlatin.com/Books.aspx?AuthorID=3