If you’re like me, the aspect of the introduction of the new translation of the Roman Missal that was most difficult was the sheer effort involved in undoing forty years of liturgical conditioning. No matter what one thought of the translation on a theoretical level, I think all of us were united in the experience of, after decades of responding “And also with you” to “The Lord be with you,” suddenly having at several points during Mass to make a concerted mental and physical effort to say “And with your spirit.” Pascal wrote that “we are as much machine as we are mind,” and this seems borne out by how deeply run our autonomic responses to stimuli. The change in the liturgical response was like someone running a very long experiment in human conditioning to make Pascal’s point. And to this day I still occasionally say “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…”
I noticed a number of years ago that texts I think of myself as having “memorized” are really carried more by my body than by my mind. Particularly in reciting the office, I could recite frequently used texts like the Gospel Canticles or morning Psalms for solemnities from memory only if I turned off my brain and let the muscle memory of my body carry me. I found that what I needed to do was not try to call the next word or phrase to mind, but simply let my mouth say them and listen with my ears to what my mouth was saying. If I tried to think of what came next before saying the words, I inevitably screwed things up. Sung texts I find even easier to remember, because the experience of singing is even more somatic than the experience of speaking.
Of course, we have a new translation of the Office coming up, and I have already begun using the psalms and canticles that will be included in that translation. And I find myself experiencing some of the disorientation that I experienced with the new Missal translation. Even when I have the new text before my eyes, I will still stumble over words as my body tries to say the words it has been saying for the past forty years. This is true not only of those texts that I had previously committed to memory, but even other texts, like many of the more frequently used psalms. Even when I prefer the new translation (e.g. Psalm 70–one of my favorites–is vastly improved), I still feel a certain loss. The body craves its familiar patterns, and the mind longs to let the body do its thing, so that the mind can do its thing: raising itself to God in self-forgetfulness. This is the genius of liturgical worship, and a new liturgical translation, whatever its merits, makes this difficult.
All this makes me hope, perhaps selfishly, that the words of the liturgy–at least the words I am expected to say–will not change again in my lifetime. Liturgy is about rhythm and repetition and is as much a matter of the body as it is the mind. If I would fault the liturgical reforms for anything, it would be an overly intellectual approach to liturgy that takes insufficient account of the importance of bodily habituation. “Full, conscious, and active” seemed at times a bit too fixated on “conscious,” to the detriment of a “fullness” that includes the body’s love for the familiar. I think one manifestation of this is the quest for ever more perfect translations of out texts, even if these are ostensibly more “conservative” translations. The endless tinkering with the liturgy indulged in by some on either side of our liturgical divisions underestimates the importance of bodily habituation in the quest for self-forgetfulness. But of course it’s not up to me what the words are that I get to say, so I suppose the task ahead is to try in the years I have left to habituate my mouth to the words the Church gives me so that my mind can be left free to pray.