This Throwback is a substantially revised version of a post called "Scripture: Why is Language Important?" that I posted on April 8th of this year.
The Word Made Flesh
My family doesn’t attend the Extraordinary Form of the Mass on a regular basis, but we go whenever we can. One of the things (among many) that always impresses me about the Tridentine Liturgy is the fact that every Mass closes with a reading of the “Last Gospel”, the opening of John’s Gospel, which reads in part:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made . . . And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:1-14)
|St. Jerome Visited by Angels by Bartolomeo Cavarozzi|
On those occasions when I have been granted the privilege of teaching a religion course in the High School where I work, I always start the year with this passage because it is an excellent introduction to the Catholic understanding of the “Sacramental Principle”, that is, that God speaks to us through his creation. "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us"! Catholic and Orthodox Christians have always understood that the embodiment of the Eternal Word Who Existed Before the Creation of the Universe in the Man Jesus Christ reveals a pattern that is repeated in countless lesser embodiments: in the men and women whom God chooses to carry out his will, such as prophets, evangelists, and saints, not to mention his ordained clergy; in his Church and its sacraments; in the events of Salvation History and of everyday life. “The Heavens proclaim the Glory of God!”, says the Psalmist (Psalm 19:1). Accordingly, things, details and events are important. That’s why the early Church was always careful to emphasize that Jesus was an actual man who lived in known places, at a certain time, under certain verifiable Roman officials such as Pontius Pilate. The details matter.
Loosening Up the Meaning
I couldn’t help but reflect on these things as I read this Anthony Esolen article here. I have commented previously on the substance of Pr. Esolen’s characteristically excellent piece (here); today I’m more interested in a tangential matter that he brings up in the opening paragraph of his article, where he says:
I recently read Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae the way it was principally meant to be read: in Latin. There’s something illuminating, I find, about reading in the original a work that is familiar to you in translation. It becomes unfamiliar. You can’t catch the gist of a clause unless you pay unusually close attention to the words. You can’t dismiss something before you have quite determined what that something is.
I immediately identified with the idea of reading something (particularly the Bible) in its original language as a way of reawakening my own attention to its substance because the same principle applies in many of my posts dealing with Holy Scripture (here and here, for instance). I often find that looking at a passage in the original Greek, and maybe the way it was translated into Latin just a few centuries later, is not so much a matter of “linguistic analysis” as it is simply a way of “loosening up” the meaning after the English translations have become so familiar that they have calcified, and no longer sink in.
It’s also true that having to work through a language like Latin or Greek, where the syntax follows different principles, forces you to examine the language much more closely than if you were simply reading it in English. Some of my students know this first hand. A few years ago I was searching through recent papal encyclicals looking for some “modern Latin” for a third year Latin class. One day I heard some of the students in the class teasing one of their classmates because he had visited a store called “Condom Sense” (yes, it is what it sounds like). “Of course!” I thought, “what would have more relevance to their daily lives than Humanae Vitae?” Which we did indeed read, in the original Latin. By the time we were through, those students knew Pope Paul’s teaching inside and out (which is not necessarily to say that they were pleased to know it).
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.' (from Through The Looking Glass)
Another problem with translations is that invariably many of the connotations and possible meanings of the original language will be lost. This perennial problem loomed even larger in the latter half of the twentieth century, when an approach called “dynamic equivalence” was popular among translators. In brief, dynamic equivalence means that the translator renders what he thinks is the “essential meaning” of the text, as opposed to what it literally says. The result for scriptural and liturgical texts was “translations” that were really interpretations, since the translator would often replace figurative language with whatever (in his or her judgment) the figures or images were intended to convey.
We find a good example in Psalm 51, for instance, verse 7 or which literally reads “You will sprinkle me with hyssop and I will be made clean”. The official translation used in the Liturgy of the Hours renders this as “O purify me, then I shall be clean.” Notice the concreteness of the original text: we can picture in our minds the priest in the Temple (or a Catholic Priest today) dipping an evergreen branch into a bowl and sprinkling the congregation; “purify”, on the other hand, is an abstraction which we can certainly understand, but it does not engage our imagination, and is easily passed over as we move on to the next line. We lose much of the distinctness, and sense of embodiment (“Word become Flesh”!), because much of the concrete and vivid imagery has been flattened or erased. Think also of the recently replaced translation of the Mass, where dynamic equivalence formerly obscured the scriptural source of things such as “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you . . .”; this allegedly “dynamic” translation is clear enough, but it is abstract and remote. The new, more literal, translation, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof . . .”, is not only something that we can visualize, but we see a clear connection to the Roman centurion with a sick servant in Matthew 8:8, whose words we are speaking. It is always more meaningful when our imagination is engaged.
They Are There For A Reason
We should also bear in mind that images that have been written into Holy Scripture by writers under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit could very well be there for more than one reason. In the passage from Psalm 51 above, for instance, in addition to what is a clear suggestion of a liturgical purification, the “sprinkling” can be seen as looking forward to Baptism. Another example is a translation I have heard (not in specifically Catholic circles) of the Lord’s Prayer which substitutes “daily strength” for “daily bread”. While “strength” is certainly one of the things implied by the image of bread, there are so many other implications contained in the original image (which, in this case, was chosen by Jesus Christ Himself), not the least being allusions both back to the Manna that fed the Hebrews in the desert and forward to the Eucharist.
It’s All Greek To Me
So, you might be saying, "I don’t know Latin or Greek: where does that leave me?" Fortunately, there are things you can do refresh your reading of Scripture, short of learning another language (although it’s never too late to start), and that can help you achieve much of the same result. You can read the Bible with a good Catholic commentary, for instance. It can also be helpful to compare different translations (sticking to approved Catholic translations, of course). I would make a point of including the Douay-Rheims version, which for a long time was the Catholic Bible in English; it is from the same era as the King James (a few decades earlier, in fact), and makes a point of following the original text much more closely than has been the fashion in recent years (the passage from John's Gospel at the beginning of the post is from this translation). Working with the language in this way can help to free it from the choices of a particular translator, and also help the reader to get below the surface of a translation that has become too commonplace.
Here’s my final point: God speaks to us through his creation, including the words of Holy Scripture. But we are like the Apostles, who could not remain awake with the Son of God in the Garden of Gethsemane; it’s a mark of our fallen nature that the very words of our Lord can become so familiar to us that we barely notice them as they fly past our eyes or ears. The good news, however, is that sometimes looking at a familiar text from a different angle can loosen up the stuck cogs in our brains, Deo volente.