All Saints of North America Orthodox Church (Hamilton, ON, Canada)

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September - October 2006

"YOU" WHO? PRESERVING TRADITIONAL LANGUAGE IN CHURCH SERVICES

While there has always existed variation in the language used in the Liturgy when it is celebrated in different areas, the question of preserving traditional language in English language church services is somewhat unique to our time.

Depending upon the situation in the past, translators have used either the "everyday" language used in daily business, or a more traditional form of language, reserved for official uses and honourary occasions. In most cases, traditional language has been preferred (as we see in the Greek and Slavonic services today). What is the reason for this?

Firstly, Orthodoxy is a faith that holds to tradition in general: things must be tested over time, and widely accepted across the Church before they are made a part of regular Church life. The result? Most "new" things are yesterday's news before they find their way into the Church. This was the case with gaslight, electricity, and the commemoration of those who travel by air (the services used to read "for those who travel by land and by sea"). This has also been the case, in an opposite sense, with organs, electric guitars, and video presentations in the Church: they have not stood the test of time, and also run counter to the spirit of Orthodox worship. Only time and experience can sift through this sort of thing, which is one reason Orthodox Christians are so cautious about embracing trends or the spirit of the times.

The second reason is the desire to preserve what is called hieratic language, language that conveys the dignity and respect due God and His saints. Liturgically, this also embodies the poetic inheritance of a language. Over time, every language develops a body of words and literature that is not only considered accurate, but also considered beautiful, having stood the test of time. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Milton are examples of such timeless poetic craftsmanship; modern rap music, television comedy, and the evening news are not. Both hieratic language and poetic language call us to be something more than we are, to a timeless nobility befitting God and those who share His Likeness. Sometimes this requires some effort to become familiar with words and concepts not familiar to us. This is of course very much a part of Orthodox life in general: stepping out of the passion-filled present, to acquire the Likeness of the Timeless Christ. The language we use in our services, much like our icons, our incense, our liturgical vestments and priestly attire - all these must call us to step upon the first rungs of the ladder of ascent to Heaven. This is part of the holy gift of Orthodox tradition.

Modern language is in flux, and is an unreliable vehicle to use to reflect eternal things. Not long ago, the word cool referred to a drink, hot referred to the summer, winner referred to first prize, loser referred to last place, and gay referred to happiness. Such words have over the course of ten or twenty years taken on radically distorted meanings. A language in rapid flux is not a helpful tool for the language of divine services.

The use of contemporary language does not make the divine services more accessible: a language in rapid flux does not provide access to eternal divinity, and even where it might provide a glimpse, that glimpse is lost after one generation. The 1960s style folk masses of the Roman Catholics provide us some good instruction. When these services were adopted, the use of guitars, folk singing, and earthy lyrics was avante garde; today, the children of the hippie generation find such presentations theatrical and silly. The adoption of contemporary language becomes an exercise in freeze-drying a pocket of time, in an effort to keep up with an ever-changing swirl of fashion - a practice which runs absolutely contrary to the Orthodox heart.

Lancelot Andrews, an ancestor of mine whose words are the very ones read in the translation of the first dozen books of the King James translation of the Bible, reflected this orthodox spirit, even outside the Church. The words which we find in the King James Bible are not the contemporary language of Andrewes' time, but that used in centuries before his birth. Why would these words be selected? Here again, they reflect timeless language, poetic language, beautiful language that has stood the test of time. One of the keys to mission work is the presentation of the Orthodox Christian faith in ways which are rooted in the traditions of the culture, in order to reflect the eternal fullness of the Gospel to people who are hearing It for the first time. It simply makes sense, particularly in North America, to link to these linguistic root.

Even those who advocate the use of modern language in Church services recognize this. Service books inevitably use the words "Our Father Who art in Heaven", and speak of the "only begotten Son and Immortal Word of God" or read psalms in classical translation. Ask yourself: When was the last time your teenager used the word "begotten"? Young (and often not so young) Orthodox people have no idea about the meaning of words like "begotten" - so why do we continue to use them at all? Their use is preserved because we are drawing the faithful toward something greater than they already have, to form all of us into something greater than that which we already are. This is a basic secular pedagogical principle (although many modern schools reject it,); it is also integral to our understanding of "theosis" or "divinization" - making us more like God.

It is significant that this is the very thing every traditionally Orthodox culture has always done, and continues to do with services in their native language, even in parishes in North America. English is not a second class, secularized language, although some who are not familiar with its origins might think that way: everyday modern Greek, Russian, Arabic, and Ukrainian can just as easily be used for banking, shopping, and selling toothpaste. Just as traditionally Orthodox cultures have recognized the integrity of preserving their own traditional use of language for services, for reasons that are spiritual as well as linguistic, so we must learn from this inheritance of our Orthodox Fathers, and not allow the common tongue of the western world to abase that which the widespread experience of the Church has handed down to us.

A few years ago, a parishioner from a community where traditional liturgical English was taboo told me how excited he was to be studying Church Slavonic. What a noble and beautiful language it was, he said, especially for prayers to the Lord! I asked if he spoke Russian, and he informed me that he only knew English. "But English has no poetic language, nothing beautiful, nothing timeless like this!", he replied. I realized at that point that the fellow really knew nothing about the inheritance of his own language. Perhaps it is this loss of beauty, timelessness, and sacredness in our own language that has hampered mission efforts in the West, or at least, sold many people a kitschy version of Orthodoxy, free from the spiritual heart of authentic Orthodox life.

The preservation of traditional language in church is a necessity for many reasons: the experience of the Church across time, the preservation of beauty in the midst of depravity, and a well-rooted approach to mission work to other cultures. Yet perhaps the most important reason is a spiritual one: that the Lord became what we are, to make us as He Is. What can be more worthy that such striving? What can be more praiseworthy than striving after eternity, in the midst of temporality? Indeed, this is the path of the saints, reflected in every corner of our lives as Orthodox Christians.

- FrG+

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