AMEN CORNER: A Clash of Languages

A Clash of Languages
By Genevieve Glen, OSB

This piece appeared in Worship 96 (April 2022).

Years of experience in liturgical development have led us to recognize that our worship is sometimes, sadly, a quiet battlefield. No shots are fired, no blood is shed, but our prayer sometimes limps from the struggle. In this article, however, I would like to set aside the usual antagonists: tradition vs. reform, conservatism vs. liberalism, inclusivity vs. exclusivity, and so on. Instead, I would like to look at a more subtle conflict: the language of our worship vs. the language of our worshipers.

In most of our worship traditions, text and action draw heavily upon the images and stories of Scripture for depth of meaning. Theological explanations aside, the experience of breaking and sharing bread would seem to be nothing more than a rather sparse lunch without its many roots in biblical tradition. Those roots include, for example, Israel’s desert experience (Exodus 16:9-31), the promised banquet on the mountaintop (Isaiah 25:6-9), and, of course, Jesus’ practice of feeding the hungry with bread that is more than bread (John 6:1-16, 22-34). A cup of wine would appear to be only a festal complement to a good meal without the images of a beloved vineyard and neglected ones (Isaiah 5:1-6; Psalm 80; John 15:5), the cup overflowing with promise or forcing the wicked into drunken staggering (Psalm 23:5; Isaiah 28:7-9), and the cup accepted in Gethsemane and swallowed by the dying Christ on the cross (Mark 14:36; John 19:29). Similarly, water, oil, fire, breath, the touch of hands would all seem noteworthy but hardly meaningful in a contemporary context without all the grounding images that inhabit the biblically formed religious imagination. The same point could be made about some of the rather cerebral texts provided by our liturgical books, texts sorely in need of the enhancement of image and story. Liturgy without them risks becoming shallow.

But what happens when all these rich, multi-layered images and eloquent gestures fall on minds and hearts hardened by the constant tramp of language that is pedestrian, utilitarian, and manipulative? The language of technical manuals, information reports, and news accounts can be, and is, very useful in its place. We need instructions as technology grows more and more complex and pervasive. We need information, though we now receive it in a constant flow that sometimes threatens to drown out all other activities of the mind. We need facts upon which to base important decisions, though today facts can be hard to come by without accompanying rhetoric intended to shape those decisions as information slips subtly into coercion. Resistance and mistrust then become significant modes of listening that we bring to church with us without realizing it. Jesus imagines for us the consequences of attempting to grow wheat for bread with seed that falls on the paths of mind and heart trodden hard by such treatment: the seed sits unsprouted until other circumstances snatch it away (e.g., Matthew 8:4, 19). Paul asks poignantly, “how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14). I would add, “how can they hear if they have been deafened to the subtler poetry of image and story of our worship by the constant hammering of this one-dimensional language?” And what we cannot hear, we do not live.

Is there anything we can do to remedy this deafness, or at least to lessen it?
At this point, further tinkering with texts and rubrics seems to serve no purpose. In some cases, it has merely watered powerfully evocative language down to conceptual statements of a theological depth that excites serious readers in an intellectual context but catches almost no one’s attention in a liturgical celebration. Those who appreciate the formative power of evocative writing have often leveled this criticism against the translation of the opening prayers of the eucharistic celebration in the current edition of the Roman Catholic sacramentary, as one example. On the other side of the issue, the worshipers them- selves, we might note that English and writing teachers have lamented for years the gradual disappearance of imaginative, multi-dimensional language from language curricula. Learning to read and write a sound technical manual has more commercial value than learning to read and write a lyric essay or a sonnet. Most of us are neither called upon nor professionally prepared to address this lacuna in the field of educational reform. Efforts have been made, and success- fully, in some types of liberal arts programs, but their beneficiaries may or may not be sitting in the pews at worship.

There is a third alternative. We human beings come equipped with a powerful intuitive skill that is largely unconscious. I would call it the “associative imagination.” It is a familiar phenomenon. Advertisers make constant use of it by pairing, for example, the newest car with beautiful pictures of the mountain scenery to which it can give vacationers access. Similarly, they entice us with the latest electronic communication device or software by showing timely photos of virtual chats among happy family members separated from one another—best sellers during COVID! When we think of rugged mountains or joyful family gatherings we suddenly, and without knowing why, find ourselves wondering about buying a new car or more advanced gadgetry. However, the associative imagination often has little place in the pragmatic tasks of communicating fact and instruction that consume so much of our waking time, so it can easily fade into the background of our lives. Reawakening it where it has dimmed seems to be a task crucial to bridging the gap between the language of worship and the language of worshipers—and thus the gap between the texts of worship and the personal spiritual lives of those who hear and speak them.

Within the worship setting, the task seems to fall primarily to preachers, hymn writers, and musicians. Take, for example, a snippet from an ancient text still said or sung by the congregation in every Roman Catholic eucharistic celebration: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts, / Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” The phrase “Lord God of hosts” will likely fall flat for congregants who have little acquaintance with the prophetic texts emphasizing God’s power. (And that might be just as well because the prophets’ “Lord God of hosts” is an angry, violent, and punitive figure more likely to inspire us to cower in our seats—or under them!—than offer praise-filled worship.) “Glory” is a rather abstract word, again vaguely associated with God through its use in the doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, but in human experience usually attached to the quest for fame, adulation, and power. Someone who is a “glory hound” is not attractive—so why should we find a God of glory, whatever that means, any more appealing?

Preachers and musicians attuned to the need for revivifying the associate imagination of worshipers can make available potential associations that turn these ancient words into a powerful invitation to abandon ho-hum boredom and take the plunge into genuine worship of the all-holy God. When Isaiah 6:1-6 is read at the liturgy, a preacher might note that the vision that launched Isaiah on his prophetic paths offers a dramatic background to the familiar liturgical acclamation. The prophet amplifies its simple words with the account of his experience of God’s presence: “I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” So it was the great seraphs who originally inspired the familiar words given to us to say or sing! In a Catholic setting the preacher might point out to the assembly that, depending on the texts chosen for the penitential rite, we have already claimed to be in communication right here and now with all the angelic and saintly inhabitants of heaven. The book of Revelation pictures “heaven” as a place of dramatic worship where one of the texts sung is none other than “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God almighty” (Revelation 4:8; cf. 4:1-11). Imagine: we hope to join the choir already knowing a version of the lyrics! And the God we will worship then, but also next Sunday, is the same God of “glory,” a word that evokes the God concealed and revealed in the burning bush, instructing Moses to take off his shoes because the ground where he stands is ground made “holy”—that word again!—by God’s presence (Exodus 3:1-6). But so is the ground on which we stand in church! Suddenly we recognize hints that our mundane worship might not be so mundane.

Appropriate hymnody can strengthen the power of the imagery. Reginald Heber’s classic “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty” sung to John B. Dykes’s powerful tune “Nicaea” is a case in point. It haunts my own memory still, from Sunday morning worship in the Presbyterian church I attended as a child, where choir and assembly singing in parts and accompanied by a gifted organist brought the imagery vividly to life. Long experience of singing the hymn as a Catholic in many other liturgical contexts has not lessened its impact on me. When liturgical and biblical texts interact in such strong music, how dare we consider prosaic the mutual presence of the all-holy God and us sinners still on the road?

The task of stirring and nurturing the associative imagination is not only a liturgical but also a pastoral task. It is often thankless because it may stretch worshipers beyond comfortable familiarity and demand imaginative participation that is far more than cerebral. It falls to those entrusted with the challenging work of adult faith formation. Many churches have excelled at supporting Bible study. Without familiarity with the biblical foundations for the language of worship, worshipers may have limited access to the associations preachers, hymn writers, and music planners are trying to evoke and strengthen. How- ever, more than study is needed, as biblical educators know. To move between study, prayer, and life, as well as between communal worship, personal prayer, and biblically-inspired living, we need strong formation in praying biblical texts outside as well as in liturgical celebrations. Thus, we build bridges between disparate compartments of Christian life.

One approach to that task is to encourage and, as needed, instruct worshipers in the ancient art of what is traditionally called lectio divina, meaning simply holy reading. It is a matter of slow reading, pausing when one seems to be invited to pause to reflect on whatever a word or phrase or passage summons to mind, turning reflection into conversation with the God whose word this is, perhaps moving into quiet presence—then starting all over again. It has been described as a prayer technique that is not a technique! The “steps” are really just a summary of what people actually did and still do rather than a set of directions. It was the most common type of personal prayer in the church for many centuries and has enjoyed a strong revival today in many circles.

Lectio divina thrives on the capacity of the associative imagination to make connections, sometimes where no obvious connection exists. As an example, consider the Easter season when the liturgy invites us to ponder the stories of Jesus’ resurrection. We might hear or read, “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint [the dead Jesus]. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb” (Mark 16:1-2). The associative imagination invites another line into play: “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2). Perhaps that one is joined by, “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). That becomes a call: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). The image grows richer with each association.

It also offers a bridge from our personal prayer back into the liturgy by inviting a connection with the paschal candle leading worshipers through darkness into light, like the column of fiery cloud in Israel’s desert story (e.g., Exodus 13:21). The paschal candle continues to burn at every Eucharist during the Easter season, potentially calling to mind these biblical stories and images. In the context of personal prayer, these stories and images challenge us to look for
the moments in our lives when light has broken through darkness and to ask how we can be light bearers in the dark places of the world around us. The next time we find ourselves at worship with the paschal candle burning before us, we may discover a new insight into our communion with one another as bearers of Christ our Light.

Patiently building bridges by strengthening the power of the associative is not a universal panacea, of course, nor is it always a success. Given the interiority of personal prayer, we have no way of measuring. But the work matters. Words, perhaps most vividly in images and stories but also in exhortations and explanations, create worlds, just as God’s word did in Genesis 1. As we take them into what the Bible calls “the heart,” we are putting them to work, whether we realize it or not. The biblical heart, which I like to call wisdom’s workshop, mixes them with our daily experience and hammers out over time our world- view, our values, and the behavior they inspire. Mere data gathering becomes a part of that, of course, because it is part of our experience. It is useful knowledge. But the associative imagination, with its store of images and stories, provides richer fare for shaping a deeper wisdom. Anything we can do to transcend the clash of languages and enable worshipers, ourselves included, to integrate the language of fact and instruction with the language of the imagination fans a flame. It is the fire set by the Spirit who drew people of every language together at Pentecost and transformed them into a force for making real within our worship and far beyond it Jesus’ prayer and ours: “Thy kingdom come!”

9 thoughts on “AMEN CORNER: A Clash of Languages

  1. Great article!

    The author quite rightly points to the key to all this being ‘a biblically informed religious imagination.’

    My concern is that this seems to be understood so much as the work of the preacher, or the study group, neither of which, I would suggest, provides the best way into the nurturing of such an imaginaton. The author herself notes the pervasive power of hymns. It is quite true that the contemporary Catholic ‘religious imagination’ is biblically sparse, despite half a century of the Lectionary.

    But it is also incongraphically and sensorily sparse. Perhaps that is because we have lost or even spoiled traditions in iconography that work their way into the consciousness and imagination more pervasively than do words. Our bare stripped down churches and often poor ephemeral and secularised songs bear witness to this.

    My local Orthodox priest asked me once why there is an enthusiasm for eastern icons and ‘byzantine’ or early mediaeval styles of art in the contemporary Latin Church. Maybe such styles, informed deeply as they are by Scripture, satisfy a thirst for a deeper imaginative religion. The ‘New Liturgical Movement’ website has many interesting things to say about the arts in service of the Liturgy.

    Christianity is, after all, not least a great creative work of imaginative fiction which has in the past been able to take hold of the human psyche at all levels, conscious and unconscious.

    As a child, my ‘religious imagination’ was stimulated by smell and sight and song as much as words, though the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible played a part too. That whole ‘bundle,’ presented to my child’s senses at once as an integral artefact, is what ‘kick started’ it for me.

    I hope it’s not too late for some retrieval of such an imagination, though I am not confident.


  2. “Lord God of hosts” may be much more evocative and resonant for people who abide in a longstanding context of widespread deprivation and oppression than for people for whom pain and suffering are individual and episodic and something that can be escaped in a comparatively short period of time and space.

    Strunk & White, while good for journalism and certain literary styles, is not necessarily the always apt model for lyric or prosody.

    Good editors appear to be MIA in this field. The kind of editors who question and push authors to manifest their best work before proceeding to publication. “You may have something here, but’s far from ready yet” needs to be communicated much more. And works that are in copyright but have not shown the strength to stand the test of time should be *retired* rather than allowed to linger like fish in the repertoire resources. FWIW, people working in the Creative Commons world in more traditional mediums seem to be much more openly collaborative in seeking and incorporating critical feedback that people who are mostly in the mainstream liturgical publisher workstream.

  3. As I would expect from the contributor, excellent.

    First I’d like to demolish the silly thought “on the pervasive power of hymns. It is quite true that the contemporary Catholic ‘religious imagination’ is biblically sparse.” A piece of outright fake news.

    That it would appear as a comment to *this* author’s article is nonsense. It shows an ignorance of English language liturgical compositions, at least since 1970. Even the oft-maligned Glory & Praise editions contained ample Scripture-based pieces, 65% (red), 54% (blue), and 73% (yellow). And when GIA and OCP surged into dominance in the 80s, you sure can’t say the Bible didn’t prop up their early output. If modern Catholic favorites don’t put Exodus 19:8, Isaiah 43 or 6, or John 6 or any number of Psalms, 23, 139, 91, etc, on the lips of worshippers, some of the lingering favorites from the past like “Amazing Grace” certainly plug a hole or two with biblical imagery.

    “Appropriate hymnody can strengthen the power of the imagery.”

    It sure can. But incompetent music leadership can deaden the experience. NICAEA played super-slowly on an aging electronic instrument is kind of like taking all the consonants out of the text, and trust me: the aahs and ooohs that remain aren’t an expression of awe and wonder.

    I think the associative imagination remains alive in modern Christians. Not all preachers and musicians have tapped into it. ICEL certainly didn’t in its 1997-2010 incarnation. One problem is a culture gap with the ancient Jews and early Christians. Chariots do not strike us with awe and wonder, but perhaps a lightning storm (Psalm 29) even if viewed from a window does. Today, it might be vistas from the Hubble telescope or a quiet awe of an ultrasound image. I’m not suggesting the hymnody has to go all “Earth and All Stars.” (The casual ear there might associate a great basketball team as “God of hosts” points to the Father as a provider flat, little, round pieces of altar bread.)

    When Bob Dufford penned, “You shall cross the barren desert,” the song didn’t become popular because the average American had any experience at all with the journey on foot through a Middle Eastern wasteland. I suspect it was relational, what the antiphon suggested: God goes before us always, and if we follow, we will find rest.

    ICEL of MR3 gets a D-minus for not taking the good but bare bones of a Missal to the next step: integrating words from the Bible, the saints, and the ancient prayers for a modern people. Donald Jackson should have been the model, not George Pell.

    That leaves the task to preachers and musicians who surely need to up their game. I think the pieces we need to make it happen are all available to us from the composers, the Lectionary, as well as the ultrasound pic on the fridge and the book that sits on the coffeetable.

    1. Todd,
      I think you are being a bit optimistic in suggesting that a higher proportion of Scripture in the post-1970 repertoire is an indicator that Roman Catholics are now a biblical people. The hard fact is that they still aren’t. It takes generations for people to get the words of Scripture into their bones, and our people haven’t had that luxury yet.

      Additionally, it has to be said that the way Scripture is used in the repertoire we are talking about is frequently uninspired. It would be invidious to name names, but there is a considerable amount of insipid pablum mixed in with the good stuff, and I’m afraid that much of it comes from one particular stylistic stable that grows in dominance. The Scripture translations themselves that we use are not necessarily optimum either. Anyone who has taken more than a cursory look at the version of Scripture, including the psalms, destined to be used in the next generation of lectionaries will know what I am talking about.

      I do agree with you about MR3. It is nothing short of scandalous that our bishops have not taken the powers given to them by Magnum Principium not only to undo the damage wrought (we understand that it’s difficult for them to admit publicly that they messed up badly with MR3, but we are ready to forgive them!) but also to improve the texts we pray with, or are supposed to be able to pray with, along the lines you suggest.

      I also agree with you that musical leadership plays a big part in the success or otherwise of even the best hymnody.

      1. At least in the G&P music of the 70s and 80s (OEW notwithstanding), there was something of a dominance of deutero-Isaiah, so it really gave only a thin slice of scripture.

      2. Have to disagree with you on this Fritz. The Psalms, by far, were the dominant texts in 70s contemporary music. A good friend has also complained about Isaiah, but I think you’d like to look at how that compares to the Lectionary for Mass, and not just during Advent.

        As for being a Scriptural people, I doubt Catholics ever were. But Today is better than the late Tridentine Era, and if there’s blame to level, I’m going to withhold it from poor work from composers, at least until I get to level it at poor preachers, seminary faculty, bishops, the apologetics movement, ICEL, and the CDWDS.

  4. Thank you, Sister Genevieve, for an eloquent argument in favor of enriching the biblical associative capacities of the faithful. This is critical, and I totally agree with you.

    Two practical notes, which make this essay particularly timely, deserve mention. First, new guidelines for priestly formation in the United States have just been approved in Rome. They mandate an initial year of immersion in prayer and, significantly, scripture and lectio divina. Formation of our priests in these areas will unlock the door to making Scripture not some kind of optional add-on but a primary resource for evangelization and Christian formation within Catholic parishes later on, down the line.

    (Let us not forget that the American bishops made Scripture an “optional” course in their guidelines for secondary level catechesis a number of years ago, so this is a big change in direction for them.)

    Second, this June the subject of the Marten Preaching Conference at the University of Notre Dame will be “enlivening the scriptural imagination.” I hope that those who attend will come away enthused about and committed to the sort of developments discussed in this post.

    Full disclosure: I will be giving one of the keynote addresses at that conference (my subject will be the Sunday of the Word of God). I am excited to be part of this event, with so many wonderful scholars and preachers whose presentations I am looking forward to hearing!

  5. “(And that might be just as well because the prophets’ “Lord God of hosts” is an angry, violent, and punitive figure more likely to inspire us to cower in our seats—or under them!—than offer praise-filled worship.)”

    The above statement is textbook Marcionism. There aren’t two Gods, one Old Testament, and one New. In the New Testament, God struck Ananias and Sapphira dead for a simple lie, and in the Old Testament, there are numerous passages describing the mercy and love of God.

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