Saturday 10 December 2011

The Heresy of Understanding

I was lying awake thinking about consubstantial (as one does).

In particular, I was thinking about all those who complain it is too hard a word to cope with, in the corrected translation of the Creed. Which led me to wonder whether they find the word transubstantiation too hard, too.

We are often told that it will put the young people off...

My experience is that most children love long words and esoteric words: once they have been explained to them. So I think that is largely bogus.

I also notice that many of the people who thus complain are happy to use the complex word Eucharist rather than the simple one Mass. They will cheerfully talk about the ambo and the narthex, where I might say the pulpit and the porch... So I think that the whole simplicity thing is a bit bogus too.

But if not bogus, I think it is worse. People talk as though we should have texts for the Mass that are readily understandable at first hearing by the uninitiated.

I think that is verging on heresy. At the heart of our Faith is mystery: truths about God too great for us to comprehend. At the heart of the Mass is mystery: the Mystery of Faith. To presume to understand it all is therefore nearly heretical.

That is not to say that we should not seek understanding. As we study, and pray, and meditate, and reflect, we are drawn into the mystery. We will never (this side of the grave) fully comprehend, but we may make progress.

But to imagine that we can have a language that makes the mystery clear, is to invite a clarification that misrepresents the mystery. And that, I fear, is what we have lived with for some decades.

That is part of the reason why, despite 40 years of Mass in a simple vernacular, people now have a worse, rather than better, understanding of the Mass. Forty years ago, you would never have had people talking about receiving 'the bread' and 'the wine'; now such talk is commonplace. Forty years ago, people fell to their knees if a priest walked by carrying the Blessed Sacrament; now they are as likely to turn their backs to chat with their neighbour.

So what I believe the new translation offers is a chance, not for easier understanding, but for deeper, truer understanding. If I am right, and that becomes apparent, then the next step should be a return to Latin: the traditional language of the Roman Rite - for then we shall realise that instant understanding of language is more a barrier to deep understanding than a help...


Holy Family Guild said...

An excellent post and oh so true!

Patricius said...

One Whitsunday about twenty years ago while listening to the first reading at mass it dawned upon me that the vernacular could sometimes actually be a barrier to understanding! I was certain in my own mind that St Luke had mentioned neither "cretins" nor "prostitutes" among the hearers of the apostles' preaching on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem but as far as our reader was concerned they were there! In short, however simple the language, there is never any guarantee all will be able to understand. The real problem here, I suspect, is those who do not wish to understand.

Hugh of Avalon said...

Most things in life that are worthwhile require at least a modicum of effort, I find. Good post Ben.

Part-time Pilgrim said...

The post makes several arguments. Firstly, we should not reduce the complexities and mysteries of the Faith to simpler notions to make them more accessible. I agree of course. Secondly, a lack of understanding of the Faith amongst Catholics can be attributed in part to liturgy in the vernacular. Whilst it is difficult to unpick the influence of different changes, my own view is that this is not the case. I would hold that poor catechesis should take almost all the blame. Thirdly, that reverting to Latin would improve understanding further. There are some very good reasons for using more Latin in our liturgy but improving understanding making it harder to understand is not one of them.
However there is a kernel of truth in what you say. I was not happy with "consubstantial" when first introduced. I was not sure it meant anything different from "of one being" and certainly not anything different from "of one substance". On reflection I think you are right. Using "consubstantial" reminds us that here the Creed is addressing a difficult idea that we need to research and reflect on to develop our understanding. However other elements of the Creed are more straightforward and I can’t see that reciting “Crucifíxus étiam pro nobis sub Póntio Pilátof” rather than “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate” is going to improve the congregation’s understanding of the Faith.

Ben Trovato said...

Hugh - thanks for your kind words.

P-t P - I quite agree that poor catechesis is a major factor; I also think that it is not unrelated to the thinking behind the imposition of a vernacular liturgy as normative (which is not what Sacrosanctum Concilium mandated , of course).

Further, beneath the specific meanings of the liturgical texts, I think there are some more foundational meanings that are better communicated by Latin than by the vernacular: the unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolic foundation of the Faith being four of them (unam, sanctam catholicam et apostolicam...); also the fact that we are encountering the numinous; and further the fact that we need good catechesis to understand these Sacred Mysteries.

Part-time Pilgrim said...

I think you are now moving away from your original argument on to some of the excellent reasons for Latin in the liturgy: temporal and spatial continuity in worship, emphasising the sacredness by using a special language (although that can be done with the venacualr too) and (in a more recent post) the fact that a perfect translation is possible.

Ben Trovato said...

Not moving away from, though possibly enriching... Development of doctrine and all that!