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!”