Reason 3: True prayer comes out of the depth of our graced experience and thus is rooted in the particulars of our own culture.
One of my favorite historical quotes is from the Emperor, Charles V (1519-1556) who said
I speak Spanish to God
French to my soldiers
Italian to my women
And German to my horse.
(In those days, unlike today, the French had the reputation for being the bravest of soldiers.) Charles prayed in Spanish because it was his primary language—his everyday language which he knew best and in which he was most comfortable. I am always amused, wryly amused, when people claim that the Latin Mass was “universal” because Latin is a “universal language.” A universal language that (almost) no one speaks and few know. I am not sure that that qualifies Latin as “universal.” It certainly doesn’t qualify as a language of prayer except for those few who have not only a rudimentary education in it (4 years secondary or 2 years college minimum) but some genuine facility with the language. (I am a former Latin teacher and can pretty much tell how much exposure to the language it takes for one to have a sufficient level of comfort to more than read it. I remember being at morning Mass one day some years back at a little parish church in Clifton, Virginia where I was staying with friends. The priest—a somewhat young man—came out and began Mass in Latin. It was painful. I mentioned to him afterwards that no one present, including himself, other than God and I, knew what he was saying. He took his breathes and pauses at times that made no sense, his pronunciation was way off, accents falling on syllables they didn’t belong, no awareness of the idiosyncrasies of the pronunciation of Latin letter combinations or consonants. It was absolutely dreadful. It was worse than dreadful. And I wish it were the exception—but it is far from so among these junior clergy who think a year or two of seminary Latin has made them ready for their attempts to simulate a Pontifical High Mass. But I have digressed too far.)
Prayer is not some mindless repetition of words, much less nonsense syllables. A recent comment addressed to this site, in an attempt to justify the Latin Mass as a normal rite, said “Latin is not mumbo-jumbo.” I beg to disagree. Unless one knows the language, Latin—or any other language we attempt to use whether at Church or ordering in a restaurant or watching an Art Film—is mumbo jumbo. The nuances of Shakespeare are lost on a person who does not have a pretty deep knowledge of English. The Divine Comedy is best read in translation if you do not know 14th century Italian pretty well. And so too with the Liturgy.
Ann and Barry Ulanov wrote about prayer:
In prayer we speak to and of ourselves, of what lies heavy on our minds, of what rumbles in fear at the pit of our stomachs, of the grudges and resentments we hold behind our eyes below the surfaces of our outward being. We speak what we have to say, whatever that is, and however we are moved to say it.
This is not limited to liturgical prayer but extends to all prayer. In prayer we must come truthfully and honestly into the Divine Presence. It is precisely why the Church ordinarily begins the Liturgy with a “penitential rite” that makes us look deep inside and acknowledge the disorder into which we have fallen. We can’t pray, truly pray, until we do so. And then the Church confronts us with the Word of God which is meant to pierce our hearts like a two-edged sword:
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. (Hebrews 4: 12-13).
And we proceed on to make an intelligible affirmation of our adherence to the key doctrines of the faith in the Creed—an intelligible affirmation of what we believe and ponder in our hearts. The gifts that represent our lives are then presented on the altar and the Great Mystery of Faith unfolds. While in contemporary English “mystery” means something not-understood, in Latin and in the Tradition of the Church it means something that transcends understanding: something we know in our being without having to intellectualize it. It is not meant to be something veiled by human confusion but something that in clarity reveals the Divine Essence being made manifest in it. That is the splendor of the Eucharistic Prayer. (Well, not the so called Roman Canon that delights in that sheer multiplicity of words that Jesus warns us against in Matthew 6:7). The oldest of the Eucharistic Prayers, so-called Prayer II on which III and the Eucharistic Prayer for Special Needs are each modeled, has a very austere outline: epiclesis (consecratory invocation of the Holy Spirit), consecratory Last Supper narrative, anamnesis, oblatio, communio of the Church and its hierarchs, communio of the departed, communio of the Mother of God and the Saints, and the Doxology. The simplicity of the prayer reveals the complexity of the Eucharist and at the same time keeps our focus on the Mysterium. The prayer reveals the action of the Holy Spirit as the one who transforms the Bread and Wine—and by extension we who offer it and whom it represents—into the Body and Blood of Christ. The Prayer centers in the Sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross and establishes the identity of the Bread and Wine (and us whom the bread and wine represent) with the Body sacrificially broken on the Cross and the Blood sacrificially there shed for the forgiveness of our sins.) The Prayer draws us there gathered into unity with the Church spread through the world. The Prayer keeps us in union with those whom we have loved and cherished and who have gone before us. The Prayer celebrates our identity in communion with the Mother of God and all the saints. And finally the Prayer leads us to the great Doxology in which we, in gratitude for all God does for us in the Eucharist and indeed in life, sing the Praise of God. This prayer, to which we are given access when it is in a comprehendible language, gives us direct and immediate participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice without diminishing the unique ministry of the ordained priest celebrating the Mass. We are not passive spectators but can join our entire person—heart and mind—into the great act of Worship.
What makes the Mass “universal” is not its language, or even its Rite. The joke was always told that Mass should not be in a language that only some understood—the vernacular, but a language, Latin, in which no one understood. In my travels I have often been faced with attending Mass in a language I don’t understand—Polish, Czech, Arabic, even Irish on one occasion. It wasn’t a problem because my familiarity with the Mass in my own language keeps me very much aware where I can pray in my own language with those whose language is different. But I am familiar with it, know it by heart at this point, only because day after day I pray it, and can pray it deeply, in my own language. I am familiar enough with the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom that it isn’t a huge problem when I have been at the Liturgy in Greek or Old Slavonic but I must admit that I not only miss the nuances of the prayers, but much of the particularities. While I enjoy the experience—especially the music—I can’t say that I have the same direct and conscious access to the Mysterium as when I am praying in my own language regardless of rite.
And then there are times when I am in an unfamiliar rite and language—the Syro Malabar Rite when I was in India or the Chaldean in Iraq. They are lovely rites—well, I found the music to the Syro-Malabar rite non-conducive to prayer but that is my subjective experience—but it does push me out of the community into private prayer while those around me are immersing themselves in the common experience. I like private prayer. I spend a considerable amount of time each day in silent prayer. But that is not the Liturgy or the essence of Liturgical Prayer.
I am not saying there is no room for Latin in our worship. There is a treasury of great Latin Music and like the wise steward we need to bring forth both the old and the new from our storeroom. A Pie Jesu, or an Ave Verum Corpus, can offer a respite from the vernacular in which we can give ourselves over to a moment or two of prayerful reverie, but the Mass is not meant to be prayerful reverie but our participation in the salvific Death and Resurrection of Christ.