The Colonial Williamsburg Mass

It's kind of amazing to find someone whom you disagree about everything, but Fr. Dwight Longenecker is coming rather close to that point for me.  His recent post on Crux is less offensive than other things he has written, but I wanted to write about it because it hits a very specific pet peeve of mine.  Here, Longenecker defends the "new" translation of the Catholic Mass that was imposed on the English speaking world five years ago.

I should say two things before I get to the meat of my objection.  First, Longenecker doesn't really defend the idea that the new translation is good because it is more like the Latin original, except for a throw away line about "accuracy and doctrinal faithfulness."  That's another rant, and I would encourage you to check out Questions from a Ewe's blog where she breaks down the supposed "accuracy" of the new translation.  The second point is that Longenecker suggests that this recent translation is what Rome wanted, as expressed in the 2001 document Liturgiam authenticam.  I have no doubt that's true, as seen by the fact the French bishops are going through the same fight the English speaking ones did five and ten years ago.

I am fully willing to accept that the new translation accurately reflects the instructions and priorities of (at least some of those in) Rome.  The problem, from my point of view, is that those priorities are stupid.  At the heart of Longenecker's and the Vatican's argument in favor of the new translation is the notion that the language of the new translation is "awkward, distracting, [and] cumbersome" as a result of "the use of archaic language and a lofty turn of phrase," but that is good because it makes the text "elevated."  And I think that's nonsense.

Instead, I think the new translation could accurately be called the Colonial Williamsburg Mass.  For those non-US readers, Colonial Williamsburg is a park in eastern Virginia that tries to re-create Williamsburg as it was circa 1700 or so.  All of the park employees dress in period costumes, engage in period crafts (you can go to blacksmith, for example), and generally try to pretend they are living in Virginia prior to the Revolutionary War.

To explain why I think the current translation is the Colonial Williamsburg Mass, consider these three short texts:

But herkneth, lordynges, o word I yow preye,
That alle the sovereyn actes, dar I seye,
Of victories in the Olde Testament,
Thurgh verray God that is omnipotent
Were doon in abstinence and in preyere.
Looketh the Bible, and ther ye may it leere.

Not with fond shekels of the tested gold,
Or stones whose rates are either rich or poor
As fancy values them; but with true prayers
That shall be up at heaven and enter there
Ere sun-rise, prayers from preserved souls,
From fasting maids whose minds are dedicate
To nothing temporal.

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

The first is from "The Pardoner's Tale" of the Canterbury Tales (lines 287-292).  If you squint real hard, you can figure out what is being said, but I think it is fair to say that it is only marginally intelligible to a modern English speaker without special training.  The second quote is from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (Act II, Scene 2).  It is basically intelligible, if archaic, to modern English speakers, and most people would describe Shakespeare as the quintessential example of elevated language.  The third is from T.S. Eliot's poem Ash Wednesday.  Except for one slightly convoluted sentence ("These matters that with myself I too much discuss"), it is basically thoroughly modern in its English.

The key thing to understand is that the only difference between these texts is their age.  All three of them were written using the common English vernacular of the time (early 1400s, middle 1500s, and early/middle 1900s, respectively).  None of them were attempting to sound elevated in some artificial way, and to the extent they sound elevated it is because (1) they sound old and we (wrongly) associate that with being elevated and poetic; and (2) they are poetic masterpieces in and of themselves, regardless of how modern or archaic the language is.

Switching back to the Mass translation, my point is that there is nothing inherently elevated about using archaic constructions and vocabulary and making it sound old.  Either the text is elevated as a result of its own inherent qualities, or you are basically turning the Liturgy into Colonial Williamsburg, using Ye Olde English to create fake elevation and fake transcendence.  Archbishop Vigneron essentially admits that Colonial Williamsburg is the goal when he says, "[t]his basic meta-principle leads me to conclude that if a translation of the Roman Rite did not to some significant degree strike us as being out of step with our ordinary speech, we should be suspicious of that translation.”  In other words, the goal is to get a text that sounds archaic for the sake of being archaic.

But that creates a second problem, which can be seen in the three texts above.  As the Canterbury Tales shows us, a text can become so archaic that it is basically unintelligible.  I am not an expert on the linguistic evolution of the English language by any stretch of the imagination, but it stands to reason that the Canterbury Tales were far more comprehensible to English speakers 300 years ago than they are today.  Likewise, the time will come when Shakespeare is so distant from English as it is spoken that it will be mostly unintelligible.

This means that the supposed sweet spot of archaic-but-not-too-archaic is a moving target.  Eventually, the Mass translation will have to be revised to prevent it from drifting into Canterbury Tales territory.  And, if you have to periodically revise the translation to keep up with the development of language, why not periodically revise the translation to keep up with the language as it is actually spoken by real people?   Keeping it modern at least has the advantage of reflecting organic developments, as opposed to pegging the text to some completely artificial construction of the language in the imagined past.

To be fair, it will be a long while before the current translation is Canterbury Tales-style unintelligible.  But the fact that one day it will have to be "updated" just underlines for me the purposelessness of the whole endeavor.  It's not like this new version hits some unchanging, sacrosanct "elevated" place.  In 200 years, the much despised by conservatives post-Vatican II ICEL translation will sound "elevated" to then-modern English speakers.  Moreover, if you kept the ICEL translation for two hundred years, it will have the advantage of developing a history and a lineage for generations of believers, much like the original Book of Common Prayer did (another text that started out as being in the common speech and over time came to be seen as elevated).  At least that development would be organic.   There is nothing at all organic or authentic about this Colonial Williamsburg translation that we have received.

I guess that's my basic objection to the current translation--I think it is basically fake.  It is faux-elevation, faux-transcendence.  It is antiquarianism for antiquarianism's sake, but worse it is a psuedo, constructed antiquarianism.  It makes the Mass into a theme park, as if it is hearkening back to a past that never existed.  I wish we would scrap it and go back to a version that has forty years of authentic, organic tradition behind it.


Anonymous said…
It sounds as though you have been reading

The blogger there frequently argues that the people who prefer the Latin Mass "wish to worship in Colonial Williamsburg."
Michael Boyle said…
I actually hadn't seen that site, but thank you for bringing it to my attention!
Michael Boyle said…
I loved this quote, which sums up everything I was trying to say with this post:

There is nothing wrong with Colonial Williamsburg. I like Colonial Williamsburg. I go there sometimes two or three times a year. I eat at Josiah Chowning's Tavern--I like the Beef Trencher. But Colonial Williamsburg isn't real. It is a bit of participatory theater that gives us the feeling of Colonial Virginia on the even of the American Revolution. Fantasy and imagination are great things--especially in appropriating our history. But The Mass is not a historical tableau. We come in the fullness of our being a priestly people and stand in the Presence of God as Christ the High Priest presents the Eternal Sacrifice to the Father. The priests of the god Baal danced and carried on around his altar--we don't need some theatrical production but an honest, clear worship in Spirit and Truth.

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