A vocabulary of faith

When I was a kid in school, we learned new vocabulary words in one of two ways: reading books, or taking spelling tests. The first method was generally what you had to do when your question about what a word meant was answered with the frustratingly familiar refrain every adult seemed to recite. Look it up! I remember reaching the conclusion that the reason people never told you the definition of the word you were wondering about was that they didn’t know it either. The spelling test usually worked well because preparation for the test involved using each word in a sentence. The idea there was that if you were forced to use a new word once, perhaps, just maybe, you’d try using it again.

I love words, and have always had some favorites. In high school, one of my warhorses was “multinational.” The other, I think, was “moreover.” In college, I remember how struck I was by the phrase “stands in contradistinction” when I first read it. Of course, I ended up using it more often than I probably should have.

When it finally occurred to me -- late in my junior year of college -- that I probably should have been studying Greek and Latin all along, I couldn’t resist doing something about it. So, in the final calendar year of my college “career,” I crammed in the equivalent of two years of each. That gave me what so many previous generations had considered to be the minimal standard of what might be called “educated”: Greek through Homer and Latin through Virgil. Between the two, though, I’d have to say that I definitely prefer the clarity and precision of the expansive Greek vocabulary to the force and streamlined eloquence of Latin grammar.

Words, both written and spoken, not only give us the power to express our ideas, but the ability to express our humanity. Language, though frail, is also how God has approached us. Covenant, after all, means giving your word and keeping it. The law, in the end, is words carved in stone, written on parchment, and inscribed on human hearts. Prophets bring the word of God to the people of God. And even more, the Incarnation of Christ is the Word-Made-Flesh.

When the United States Conference of Bishops meets in June, chances are we’ll find out when implementing the new English translations of the Mass will become a reality of parish life. Until then, it may be a good idea for us to give the changes we’ll be making a look, and prepare ourselves -- and especially our children -- to use language that hasn’t been part of common speech for quite some time. These changes go way beyond what a return to “Thee’s” and Thou’s” would mean. And, by the way, that isn’t what’s going to happen. But unless you are a devotee of crossword puzzles or theology textbooks, you aren’t likely to come across “hosts,” “accordance,” or “grievous,” let alone “consubstantial” on a regular basis.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m thrilled with 99.8 percent of the new translations. Why? Because the language is worthy of prayer. Because the words are exalted, and therefore exalting, not just to God (who needs no exalting), but to us (who do). I love the fidelity of the new translations to the universal Latin texts. And frankly, I like the poetry.

Then too, the source of words we use is important. When we worship the God of the Bible, it is fitting that we use Biblical language. This is especially appropriate when a prayer that is part of our liturgy originates in Scripture and is meant to evoke a particular image or passage. “Behold the Lamb of God” recalls the words of John the Baptizer in a way that “This is the Lamb of God” cannot. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” brings to life the words of the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant.

But beyond matters of taste and origin, the fact is that because words do mean something, the new language we’ll be using will stretch our understanding of just what it is we think we’re praying. The truth is that “visible and invisible” really isn’t the same as “seen and unseen.” “With you” is a seriously impoverished version of “with your spirit.” “Only-begotten” is different from “eternally begotten.” The image of Christ descending “into hell” and rising “from the dead” is much more inspiring than descending “to the dead” and merely rising “again.”

In the coming months and years, our discussions on the way home from Mass are bound to be more animated. Certainly, there’ll be some discomfort with the coming changes--there always is. But I’ll be happy to be talking with our children about some of the issues that will be raised, simply with a few new vocabulary words.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.