Where's the poetry in the Mass?

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Inspired by poet e.e. cummings, Ken Trainor thinks both today's Mass texts and the ones coming in November, are lacking in the very life we're giving thanks for.

By guest blogger Ken Trainor

There’s a battle a-brewin’ over the new missal, the translation that, as some  put it, is closer to the “original Latin” (which wasn’t original at all, of course, the joke being that it reflects the traditionalists’ highly skewed historical perspective).

I hear lots of grumbling. The new missal was developed by a small, closed group of bureaucrats with very little input from the rest of the Church (aka the People of God) and it is being imposed on everyone by the hierarchy whether we like it or not. And they want those who had no input and may not like the new translation to “sell it” to the laity, who also had no input and may not like it.

This, of course, violates everything the Second Vatican Council stood for (collegiality and empowering the laity just for starters).

I agree the Mass needs a good thorough revision. In its current state, frankly, the wording is bland and boring. Going back to the “original Latin,” however, is not the answer.

When I go to Mass, I wonder, “Where’s the poetry?” Take, for instance, the beginning of the Eucharistic prayers. The priest says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God.” The congregation responds with the leaden, robotic, “It is right to give God thanks and praise.” I don’t know what the new translation will change that to, but I’m betting it won’t solve the underlying problem, which is that we’re not actually giving God thanks and praise. We’re only talking about doing it. As my old college English instructor used to say about our writing, “Show me. Don’t tell me.”

A wonderful poem by e.e. cummings illustrates the difference (I’m putting it in “normal” style to make it more accessible. Forgive me, e.e.).

I thank you, God, for most this amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky, and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes

(I who have died am alive again today, and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth day of life and of love and wings, and of the gay, great, happening, illimitably earth)

How should tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, breathing, any – lifted from the no of all nothing – human merely being doubt unimaginable You?

(Now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Now that’s thanks. That’s praise. That’s not just talking about doing it. It’s showing, not telling. How about describing creation as “lifted from the no of all nothing”? Beautiful. There is more reverence in this one poem than I find in either the Latin or English masses. Jesus is all over this poem (I who have died am alive again today). And what about that ending? “Let he who has ears to hear, eyes to see.” Sound at all familiar? Jesus would have loved this poem because he was everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.

That’s Good News. Better yet, it actually sounds like Good News--as opposed to the stifled, uninspired, spiritless prose of the Mass today.

This is just one example, and I’m just one lay person with no formal training in liturgy, but the Holy Spirit moves through me as it does through all of the faithful (though sometimes I wonder about the bureaucrats). Will the Holy Spirit move through this new translation? We’ll see. But the process by which they put it together doesn’t bode well. How many ideas like this did they miss?

All they had to do was ask.


By Ken Trainor, a practicing, progressive Catholic, who was 10 years old when Vatican II began. For the past 20 years, he has been a reporter, editor and weekly columnist for Wednesday Journal, a newspaper in Oak Park. You can find his column at OakPark.com/Opinion/KenTrainor.

 

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.