Liturgical English

As noted when LAJ was founded, while the visual arts are of primary focus of course, we also wish to consider other elements which inform the beauty and sacrality of the sacred liturgy. Most obviously that includes sacred music, but it also includes liturgical prose.  Today we wish to specifically consider the matter of the potentialities that could exist for a properly liturgical English.

Now it is important in any discussion of liturgical English to preface it with a caveat about the importance of Latin within the sacred liturgy of the Western church. It is well known that since the latter half of the twentieth century Latin has, regretfully, fallen off the liturgical map for the most part. This is not as it should be of course and it has had many ill effects -- most notably the effective loss of the great treasury of Latin liturgical chants, polyphony and so on. An additional, unfortunate side effect is that this has tended to taint any conversation about the genuine potentialities for some measure of vernacular within the Latin liturgical tradition. Understandably, the experience of the past five decades and the practical loss of the Latin liturgical patrimony has left a sour taste in the mouths of many. This is not only for reason of the loss of our Latin patrimony, but it is further exacerbated by other forms of liturgical rupture as found in the revision of the liturgical rites of that time and the imposition (in the English speaking world at least) of a form of liturgical vernacular that was found severely wanting, both in terms of its fidelity to the Latin liturgical texts and also in terms of its beauty and sacrality. While there is need to restore Latin to its proper liturgical place in the parish, there would also be great benefit, where the vernacular is to be used, for a properly hieratic liturgical English.

Before proceeding any further it will be important to define what is meant by this.  The term 'hieratic' as it is being used here was first used by Clement of Alexandria in the second century.  The word literally means 'priestly' and, as Clement used it, it meant 'priestly writing' or language. This form of language was exclusive to religious texts. In essence then we are speaking about a form of language that was set apart from the day-to-day; it was of a sacral character.  In speaking then of a hieratic liturgical English we are essentially speaking of a form of English that has a sacral character to it; something which sets it apart from mundane vernaculars. Often within the liturgical context something becomes sacral by virtue of a conservative tendency to change more slowly which thereby gives a certain sacral quality over time by virtue of both its antiquity and its liturgical associations. This was and certainly is the case with regard to vestments, and the English language, like some other languages, has a similar pattern. In English this is represented by way of an antique form of English, or what linguists would refer to as "early modern" English; the English of Shakespeare. This is the very same English that was and is employed in many Latin-English pew missals as well as for various other devotions. It is the English still used today in the "Our Father" and by most Catholics praying traditional devotional prayers such as the 'Hail Mary' and so on.

But what is the precedent for this within liturgical tradition? Hieratic English would be comparable to what Latin was in the early Church. Latin was of course one of the common tongues of the Roman Empire but the liturgical Latin of those times was highly stylized variant and was certainly not the “common vernacular” of the average Roman. Speaking on the hieratic character of the Latin liturgical texts themselves, Christine Morhmann, in her chapter on "General Characteristics of Liturgical Latin" in Liturgical Latin: Its Origin and Character, suggests:
...Latin used in the liturgy displays a sacral style. The basis and starting point of Liturgical Latin is the Early Christian idiom, which, however, through the use of features of style drawn from the Early Roman sacral tradition mingled with biblical stylistic elements, has taken on a strongly hieratic character, widely removed from the Christian colloquial language. In this liturgical Latin the requirements demanded by Hilary for the style of the Christian exegete are realized to the full: Non enim secundum sermonis nostri usum promiscuam in his oportet esse facilitatem: "There is no place here for the loose facility of the colloquial language" (In Ps. 13.1). The advocates of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy who maintain that even in Christian Antiquity the current speech of everyday life, "the Latin of the common man," was employed are far off the mark. Liturgical Latin is not Classical Latin, but neither is it, as is so often said, the Latin which was considered decadent by educated people. The earliest liturgical Latin is a strongly stylized, more or less artificial language... This language was far removed from that of everyday life, a fact which was certainly appreciated, since, at the time, people still retained the sens du sacré.
Of course, what Mohrmann notes about liturgical Latin, we can also find examples of within the context of the Eastern liturgical languages.

So far we have been speaking in the abstract, but to show the promise and beauty of a hieratic liturgical English, an example would seem in order. Here are two examples coming from Psalm 42, the Judica Me Deus. We begin with a contemporary English translation:
Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling;
That I may go to the altar of God, to the God of my joy and gladness;and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God, my God.
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? And why are you so disquieted within me?
Now here is the same text in a hieratic English translation:
O send out thy light and thy truth, that they may lead me and bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy dwelling:
That I may go unto the altar of God, even unto the God of my joy and gladness; and upon the harp will I give thanks unto thee, O God, my God.
Why art thou so heavy, O my soul? And why art thou so disquieted within me?
While the first translation still has a certain beauty about it (more so in content than in style), the hieratic version not only has that but further has sacral quality about it.

Knott's English Missal
One of the liturgical texts I have mentioned in other places which can be used to see the promise of hieratic English is The English Missal -- which is essentially a hieratic English translation of the usus antiquior; one described by Fr. John Hunwicke as "the finest vernacular liturgical book ever produced." The English Missal presents itself as an interesting resource and case-study that shows the potential of traditional Latin liturgical texts done into hieratic English, one that is not only more edifying, but also more in keeping with the historical Catholic tradition of hieratic liturgical languages.

One wonders: had the vernacular been introduced in a way that was more sacral and majestic, augmenting rather than displacing Latin, and had the treasury of sacred music not only continued to utilize Latin but also expanded to include vernacular forms of chant and polyphony -- in the vein of a Tallis, Byrd or Healey Willan -- how very different our experience and reaction might be? The English Missal as well as other traditional English translations provided for in Catholic devotional life continue to invite consideration of the potentialities of a dignified liturgical vernacular within the context of the Roman liturgical books.

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