Thursday, June 17, 2010

Cat Stevens, dewfall, and the spirit of obedience

Larry D informs us that Bishop Donald Trautman is still having problems with the new Mass translation. From the article in US Catholic:

Did Jesus ever speak to the people of his day in words beyond their comprehension? Did Jesus ever use terms or expressions beyond his hearer’s understanding? Jesus did explain the parable of the sower privately to his disciples in Mark (4:10-12) and Luke (8:9-10). In John 6 many of Jesus’ disciples found his Bread of Life discourse hard to accept. In these instances it is the message—not its vocabulary—that required further explanation.

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy showed pastoral wisdom when it specified that liturgical texts should “be within the people’s powers of comprehension and normally not require much explanation.”

But in the new Missal there are whole prayers that are extremely difficult to understand. For example, in the Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit, the prayer after communion reads, “Let the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, O Lord, cleanse our hearts and make them fruitful within by the sprinkling of his dew.” In the epiclesis, or invocation of the Holy Spirit in Eucharistic Prayer II, the celebrant will pray: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall.”

What will people understand by “the sprinkling of the Holy Spirit’s dew” and “dewfall”? The words are pregnant with poetry and scriptural meaning, but if they fail to be understood by the average worshiper, they fail pastorally. Or consider the opening prayer on the Monday of the fifth week of Lent: “May we bring before you as the fruit of bodily penance a cheerful purity of mind.” What do these words mean?

Notably, the bishop is still having problems with "dew" and "dewfall." I don't really think those are obscure words, outside of the vocabulary of the average person. Even a small child sees sparkling drops of water on the grass in the early morning and wants to know if it has rained; the word "dew" describes something very everyday and normal, not something inaccessible and esoteric.

The singer formerly known as Cat Stevens apparently didn't find the word "dewfall" too obscure to use; otherwise he might have omitted this verse from his song "Morning Has Broken," based on Eleanor Farjeon's poetry:

Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass
Sure, it's poetry--but it's not some odd, obscure bit of sixteenth-century verse; the words are plainly understandable.

But I don't think the comprehension factor is really the issue for some of the people objecting to the new translation. Let's look at this example Bishop Trautman cites:

But this pastoral style is missing in the new translation, which is especially evident in Eucharistic Prayer III. Presently we pray: “Welcome into your kingdom our departed brothers and sisters and all who have left this world in your friendship.” This is a clear, straightforward, hope-filled, understandable prayer. However in the new Missal it reads: “To our departed brothers and sisters and to all who are pleasing to you at their passing from this life, give kind admittance to your kingdom.”

Contrast the phrasing: “welcome into your kingdom” versus “give kind admittance.” The first is inspiring, hope-filled, consoling, memorable. It conveys the thought, “Lord, welcome, open your arms.” “Give kind admittance” is dull and lackluster, reminding one of a ticket-taker at the door.

To me, "Welcome into your kingdom..." is a bit of an imperative to be addressed to God. While "give" might also be seen as an imperative, the preceding phrase softens that, while "give kind admittance" might be seen as imploring God rather than commanding Him--which too many of our present prayers seem, sometimes, to do.

While I don't wish to appear overly critical, here, it seems to me that Bishop Trautman's attitude is less than helpful. The spirit of obedience and trust in the Church's ability to improve the English translation of the prayers of the Mass is going to be hard enough to cultivate at the parish level, without bishops openly being hostile to the whole idea--and repeating the same complaints again and again. We wouldn't want a spirit of rebellion to spread across the landscape of English-speaking Catholics like--well, like dewfall--would we?


LarryD said...

Thanks for the link, Erin. Your esoteric, well-thought out exposition contrasts nicely with my short, curt sight-gag version. We make a good team!

Carrie said...

I don't think the "problem" with the vocabulary in the new translation is even a problem at all. People who read good literature improve their vocabulary; I'm sure a similar thing could result from hearing good English more often, and that's just what the new translation does: it changes a banal, choppy, often incoherent English into something (to quote a priest I know) of which "Shakespeare could be proud"!

Magister Christianus said...

Using Cat Stevens to rebut illiterate foolishness...I love it!

Anonymous said...

Just try to read what second graders were reading not 100 years ago years ago from their textbooks!


Siarlys Jenkins said...

It would be a low blow to point out that Cat Stevens is now a Muslim convert who enthusiastically endorsed the fatwa against Salman Rushdie... but I too still enjoy the songs he sang when he was less certain of where he would find what he was searching for in the uncertainties of life.

I don't find the use of terms that are uncertain in their meaning, lack vernacular precision, or have poetic dimensions, to be a problem. After all, we are talking about God, and man's relationship to God, which is something we perceive through a glass darkly. It would be arrogant to try to make the meaning too clear.

On the Protestant side of things, I find the King James translation preferable to the New International version precisely because the latter tries to make the meaning of everything perfectly clear -- and how could we possible know that this is the correct meaning of the text, compared to the KJV, the New Jerusalem, the Latin Vulgate, the Tyndale, the John Wycliffe...

Using words that require people to think about what the meaning might be, or what God is saying, or what the spirit might poetically be inculcating, keeps things in their proper perspective. It is, after all, a mystery.