Thursday, May 27, 2010

New Translation Thursday: "Nearer My God To Thee"

Hello everyone. Welcome to this edition of "New Translation Thursday."

Recently I have been thinking about how the official prayer of the Church shapes our belief. I had a conversation about this issue yesterday with one of my insightful colleagues here at WLP.

The other night, during a fitful night of sleep, I wondered about this issue and began to think about how my own conception of God (Father, Son, and Spirit) has been shaped over the last forty-five (or so) years of having been a practicing Roman Catholic.

From most everything that I have seen, heard, and read, words like "elevated," "sacral," "loftier," and "nobler" have been used to describe the new translation. When prayed year after year, say, over the next five years, will my own conception of God experience a shift?

The question that kept coming to me as I tossed and turned that night was this: "Have you made my God more distant with your new translation—have these new words stressed the transcendence of God to the diminishment of the immanent?" In other words, as I am shaped by a re-shaped lex orandi, will my own belief, my own lex credendi be reshaped in such a way that I feel more of a distance from my God, who became flesh in Christ, and sent the Spirit as a companion on my life's faith journey?

Related questions arise. I think, for instance, of the son of one of my colleagues here at WLP— "Johann," I'll call him. "Johann's" dad is a talented music editor here at WLP and "Johann" shows much promise (at a very early age) of innate musical abilities. Say, for example, that this young man remains an active Catholic for the next twenty years and grows in his musical abilities. Eventually "Johann" chooses sacred music as a career path. He earns a masters in composition from a great music school, also earning a degree in theology, with a concentration in liturgical studies. "Johann" becomes a composer. How will Johann's week-to-week praying and listening to the official prayers of the Church—between now and twenty or so years from now—shape his creation of lyric, melody, and harmony? Will he paint images of God that will reflect a God far-removed?

This leads me to yet another question. Much Roman Catholic liturgical music (that does not "set" the Church's official texts) paint images of God for us. I remember sitting at a roundtable discussion a few years ago. When the musicians at the table were asked what piece of music they deemed "most beautiful," I was struck by two of the answers. One musician said that when he hears the Kyrie from Schubert's Mass in G, the music "transports him to heaven." Another musician said that as soon as he hears the introduction to David Haas' You Are Mine, he knows of God's immediate presence, knowing that the words "Do not be afraid, I am with you . . . I love you and you are mine" will soon be sung.

My question revolves around what may grow into a disconnect during our liturgies. Will there come a time when singing texts about the nearness of our God seem so out of step with the Church's official texts, that they will be abandoned?

I know there are some who would say that this is all easily fixed: sing the official entrance song, sing the official communion song, sing a motet at the preparation rite, have the organist play an instrumental recessional. In other words, bring no other texts into the liturgy other than the official texts found in the Missal.

There are others out there who would advocate for a continued support of composing and singing texts that paint a variety of images of God (Father, Son, and Spirit). These folks would argue that the lex credendi  of the Church must be shaped not only by the official texts, but also by the gifts of ingenuity, creativity, and inherent richness in musical art.

I think these are important, not easily answerable questions. Of course, time will tell. Does the ultimate question in all of this come down to whether or not these newly translated texts will mean a strengthening of our relationship with the living God? The liturgy is God's work; hopefully we have not crafted a translation that filters that work in such a way that God (Father, Son, and Spirit) is made less accessible.

I know my thoughts here are not as fully developed as I would like but, like most of you, this is all very new ground to me. Being a mystagog, I can't help but focus on the experiential pole; and that's tough right now, because none of us has an experience upon which to reflect just yet.

Thanks for listening today. I am keenly interested in your reactions to all of this. Please feel free to join the conversation with your own thoughts.

Gotta sing. Gotta pray.


Diezba said...

Dr. Galipeau:

I think one of the reasons that Rome issued Liturgiam Authenticam is with a desire to shift the global Church's lex credendi back toward a greater balance between God's transcendence and God's nearness.

I think that an argument can be made that God's transcendence is triumphant, to the detriment of his nearness, in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.

I think that an argument can be made that God's nearness—indeed, even a sort of "familiarity"—is triumphant, to the detriment of his transcendence, in the Ordinary Form of the Mass.

One of the main points of Summorum Pontificum and Liturgiam Authenticam is to bring about a balance between both forms of the Mass: let the transcendence of the EF balance the nearness of the OF, and vice verse.

We must always be drawn into personal relationship with our God who is as close as the Sacrament; but we must guard against a loss of awe and reverence toward God.

Remember: the first thing an angel has to say to someone who encounters God is "don't be afraid." That would suggest that God is so amazing that we would naturally have fear. It is true that, as the new translation says, "formed by Divine Instruction" we can "dare" to call God our Father. We must not, however, relax into an airy easiness that helps us remember that while God has come near, He remains God.

Fr. Edgar Borchardt said...


The phrase 'my God' always strikes me as very un-Catholic.
Referring to 'my' God seems to priviledge one human understanding of the Divine over all others. It adds a defining qualifier to the Infinite. God as in any way 'mine' also separates 'me' from the rest of humanity if not Creation.
It is possible to talk of 'my relationship with God' or of 'my understanding of God'. You could substitute either of those phrases when you use 'my God' without changing the substance of what you have said. The advantage would be that you leave room for dialog with other people about the nature their relationship or the particulars of their understanding.

Jerry Galipeau, D. Min. said...

Hello Fr. Borchardt,
Thank you for your comments. I don't believe that a Roman Catholic's use of the term "my God," which is biblical in nature, should be labeled as "un-Catholic." I don't believe that the use of the phrase privileges one human understanding of the divine over others. We are talking about matters of the heart here, aren't we? From the depths of my very Catholic being, from the depth of my prayer, I believe that I can cry out to "my God," without being "un-Catholic." Am I missing something here?

Labs said...

I think what Fr. Borchardt is talking about is in reference to your line, "Have you made my God more distant with your new translation". When I read that line I too was struck by an uneasy feeling of "personal control" over God. It seems as though the implication is that you have your relationship with God and thats how it is, there should be no interference from the outside. That may be way off the mark but I agree with Father that the line struck me as odd.

I also must agree with Diezba regarding the leveling of the field. It seems that the current translations lost some of the Awe which is due to our Creator. I think this new translation will help to restore some of that, while maintaining the personal relationship which is harder to find in the EF. Also, to return to the previous quote: The new translation is not "your" (which I assume referenced the hierarchy), but should be OURS - the Church militant. We are being given a new opportunity to explore the depths of our faith as it expressed through the Liturgy. If we stand on the outside and say that it is not "our" translation, then how can we expect to get anything out of it? Instead, we should engage this in a way where we take ownership of these new texts so that they not only sustain our relationship with God, but help us to grow in that relationship and understand our faith in new and amazing ways.

Jerry Galipeau, D. Min. said...

My thought about the "your" translation issue was just what was striking me as I tossed and turned. Please allow me moments like this. If you read this blog, you know my own "our" in my approach to all of this; as I have been saying for years, this new translation issue has more to do with issues of ecclesiology than it has to do with liturgy or translation issues.

Fr. Edgar Borchardt said...


Thank you for making my point better than I did.

Charles said...

I dunno, Dr. Jerry, what floats our various balloons. But I regard language as a precious gift from God, as I do music, love, suffering, redemption, ritual and almost ever' durn thing, even an ugly, unremarkable rock that G.M. Hopkins declared to possess a natal freshness should we look deep, deep, deep down within it.
Are comprehension and understanding the same? Is is still a wonder that dictionaries still burgeon with both antiquated and newly minted words and expressions? Must we argue and ultimately agree that each poem contains merely one discernable meaning? Shouldn't we celebrate the occasion when a word that is identically spelled in English and French contains nuanced differences of meaning?
Me ramble too.
ee cummings fun.
I kind of like the idea that we can search the ineffable now, because we won't need to if we meet in heaven, I hope and pray.
Don we now our gay apparel, fa la la la la...

(And no, I took my meds, haven't had a shot of anything, and very much enjoyed your post. I'm just from California! Fruits and nuts, y'know.)

jdonliturgy said...

"...hopefully we have not crafted a translation that filters that work in such a way that God (Father, Son, and Spirit) is made less accessible."

I am particularly concerned that some of the language in the new translation will indeed distance people from God. Using Latinate words not heard in American discourse for about a hundred years (when was the last time you used "ineffable" in conversation, for example?) is going to make the Mass less accessible to especially to young people.

Thanks for raising this issue, Gerry. While it may seem that we limit and define God by our words, God is powerful enough to take care of God's self in this regard. The higher value is that worshipers should understand the words they pray.

Liam said...

I've certainly heard ineffable used in non-religious conversation in recent years, often in some form of "it as an ineffable experience." It's hardly archaic.

Critiquing a preference for lazy use of Latinate cognates and syntax is one thing, but the Bp Trautman approach of honing in on certain words alleged to be archaic is a bad form of overargumentation that is both unnecessary and not likely to persuade. It's unfortunate that those arguments continue to be trotted out; they seem more designed to preach to the choir than to persuade the skeptical or undecided.

I am not sold on immediate intelligibility as the summum bonum of translation, either. Jesus himself spoke in deliberately inscrutable ways at times, and Scripture is replete with that motif, of course.

However, aiming for a beautiful musicality of speech is something that both the translation principles of 1969 and 2001 have missed, and that remains a serious mistake.

Fr John Farley 81506 said...

I think the comment about "balance" is entirely appropriate. Not only balance between images of God as transcendent or immanent, but balance throughout the whole liturgy.

Complex needs the balance of simple, intellectual needs the balance of emotional, warm fuzzy needs the balance of cold prickly. Not that all of that needs to balance out in each liturgy every time, but over time 2 out of 3 people need the balance. Nor is this balance just about official texts.

As complicated as the text can get, the music and preaching may need to be simpler in tone or style as much as in their own textual content (eg Amazing Grace and the Hymn to Joy can both be done in complex intellectual ways and in stirring emotional ways).

To balance the newly complexified liturgy will require new collaboration and consultation with the People of God in general and the liturgy team in particular to find new "warm moments" (maybe more of those blessings?) in my preaching (more gratitude, compassion, hope, community, less scolding, challenge, commitment), and generally more connection to what is happening in people's lives, their griefs and anguish, their hopes and joy.

Well, it's a piece I'm working on.