Liturgy, the Body, and Memory

If you’re like me, the aspect of the introduction of the new translation of the Roman Missal that was most difficult was the sheer effort involved in undoing forty years of liturgical conditioning. No matter what one thought of the translation on a theoretical level, I think all of us were united in the experience of, after decades of responding “And also with you” to “The Lord be with you,” suddenly having at several points during Mass to make a concerted mental and physical effort to say “And with your spirit.” Pascal wrote that “we are as much machine as we are mind,” and this seems borne out by how deeply run our autonomic responses to stimuli. The change in the liturgical response was like someone running a very long experiment in human conditioning to make Pascal’s point. And to this day I still occasionally say “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…”

I noticed a number of years ago that texts I think of myself as having “memorized” are really carried more by my body than by my mind. Particularly in reciting the office, I could recite frequently used texts like the Gospel Canticles or morning Psalms for solemnities from memory only if I turned off my brain and let the muscle memory of my body carry me. I found that what I needed to do was not try to call the next word or phrase to mind, but simply let my mouth say them and listen with my ears to what my mouth was saying. If I tried to think of what came next before saying the words, I inevitably screwed things up. Sung texts I find even easier to remember, because the experience of singing is even more somatic than the experience of speaking.

Of course, we have a new translation of the Office coming up, and I have already begun using the psalms and canticles that will be included in that translation. And I find myself experiencing some of the disorientation that I experienced with the new Missal translation. Even when I have the new text before my eyes, I will still stumble over words as my body tries to say the words it has been saying for the past forty years. This is true not only of those texts that I had previously committed to memory, but even other texts, like many of the more frequently used psalms. Even when I prefer the new translation (e.g. Psalm 70–one of my favorites–is vastly improved), I still feel a certain loss. The body craves its familiar patterns, and the mind longs to let the body do its thing, so that the mind can do its thing: raising itself to God in self-forgetfulness. This is the genius of liturgical worship, and a new liturgical translation, whatever its merits, makes this difficult.

All this makes me hope, perhaps selfishly, that the words of the liturgy–at least the words I am expected to say–will not change again in my lifetime. Liturgy is about rhythm and repetition and is as much a matter of the body as it is the mind. If I would fault the liturgical reforms for anything, it would be an overly intellectual approach to liturgy that takes insufficient account of the importance of bodily habituation. “Full, conscious, and active” seemed at times a bit too fixated on “conscious,” to the detriment of a “fullness” that includes the body’s love for the familiar. I think one manifestation of this is the quest for ever more perfect translations of out texts, even if these are ostensibly more “conservative” translations. The endless tinkering with the liturgy indulged in by some on either side of our liturgical divisions underestimates the importance of bodily habituation in the quest for self-forgetfulness. But of course it’s not up to me what the words are that I get to say, so I suppose the task ahead is to try in the years I have left to habituate my mouth to the words the Church gives me so that my mind can be left free to pray.

16 comments

  1. What a wonderful reflection! I can often find myself running on autopilot when reciting (or, more often, chanting) Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, although I confess my mind is not always “lifted up” – too frequently it is “spaced out” with the worries and cares of this world.

    But I had not thought before about the bodily aspect of this memory/chanting exercise.

    Are the new translations of the Psalms and canticles those found at the USCCB’s online bible?

  2. I was 14 or so when the Tridentine Mass was slightly revised in 1965 and the parts in the vernacular were instituted around 1966 in my home parish. The Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei were in English but an English closer to the current English translation. The Lord be with you’s response was “And with your spirit.”
    Then around 1968 all the English was retranslated and everyone was discombobulated. In a short three or four years we went from all Latin to partial English with a more literal translation of the Latin to a truncated, horrible translation of the 1970 Missal released in Advent of 1969. And yes, I still revert to the 1970 translation when the Mass is spoken and I need the Gloria and Creed in front of me, as well as the “Lord I am not worthy” to lead it at Mass. I hope the laity’s responses and parts in English do not change again.

    1. Let’s keep in mind Allan, that the 1965 and 1970 work was all interim and never meant to be permanent. In an ideal world with a diligent and unified collection of bishops, experts, and curia we would have had a stable MR2 by the 1980s.

      But yes, clergy stumbling over words is a thing. But just think about how the parishioners feel whenever the bishop switches pastors on them every 6, 12 years and they need to learn new cadences. Or worse, endure a parade of music directors and associate pastors.

      1. Todd, as for your first paragraph, as a 14 year old I did not know that and I would say most of the parishioners in the parish I grew up in Augusta, Ga, did not know that and most weren’t inclined at the time to care. They either liked or disliked what they heard and sucked it up it they didn’t like it in a sincere obedience to the Magisterium.
        Yes, there is more instability now, rather than continuity, as it regards your second paragraph. Each has their own way of doing things, liturgically and otherwise. And various nationalities of priests with unique English accents to most American’s ears is a problem. I now help in a large parish with many priests and some from other nations, and parishioners after Mass compliment me because they say they could understand everything I said. I don’t know if they liked what I said, but at least they understood it!

      2. You didn’t know it then, but you know it now. And I knew it from 1980 or so in college when I learned a “new Sacramentary” was just a “few years away.”

        Rolling back to the present day, if your parish employs a spread of presiders at each Mass, then the average lay person who isn’t a groupie of a particular priest, is likely to encounter a significant spread of nuances in the liturgy. But the ones who come back seem to cope. You and I will also.

  3. I should add too, that in the parishes where I help, the sacristans always ask me, “Father, how to you do things?” I say that I do it as the parish does. They say, each priest has his own way. Poor sacristans and parishes. When I was pastor, I always told the PVs that we all are going to celebrate Mass the same way and if we needed to change something we would discuss it and if approved implement it together with explanation if needed.

  4. I remember (I think) a saying of one of the Desert Fathers that if you transplant a tree too much it will die.

    We have had many episodes of ‘transplantation’ over my lifetime as a RC (became one in 1965).

    The early monastics taught their disciples to learn the Psalms and Canticles of the Divine Office by heart, and to sing them not just with the voice but the heart too. That is how prayer sinks into the heart and infuses the whole person.

    You just can’t do this if you have to adapt every so often to a new or revised text.

    AG

  5. Oddly enough, I just started watching a Netflix seven episode series entitled “Midnight Mass.” It is a horror series but very Catholic and very accurate in much of the post-Vatican II liturgy and pastoral life depicted. It isn’t anti Catholic, although I am only on episode 3.
    The first scene with the priest, who is at the center of the series, celebrates Mass, using the old English translation for the consecration. I thought the director/writer simply didn’t know that it had been changed over a decade ago. But later after Mass, a parishioner comes up to the priest and thanks him for the older English translation which he had not heard in over a decade! The priest comments on how much better it is although not a literal translation of the Latin! I kid you not!
    The priest also preaches a couple of very good homilies, theologically correct, inspiring and well delivered. It could be used in a preaching class.
    This is a horror film but very Catholic in theme, but not anti-Catholic, but Catholicism figures greatly into it like the Exorcist movie did. Who knows what will happen in subsequent episodes, only 7 all total. But I recommend it highly, from the Catholic point of view as well as from the entertainment and horror point of view especially as we enter the season of Halloween !

    1. Sorry to say, Midnight Mass goes horribly off the rails in the latter episodes after, as you say, such a promising start! I thought it was the return of Catholic horror–the best kind of horror!–but moves toward heavy-handed preaching of new age tropes in the final few episodes. My head hurt, both from deep disappointment and from having been beaten over it so many times.

      1. Yes, just saw episode 4 and it is going off the rails, but it is a fictional horror series…

  6. As for not transplanting a tree too much. The significance of words change over the centuries, or even decades. This is not an organic process, in the sense of horticulture. It is an “organic” process, in terms of how societies develop (or merely change) through history and how we all communicate with each other. (And here the term “organic” illustrates my point.) Not using language that reflects common understanding risks making essential aspects of liturgy into anachronisms. It’s not a matter of being ‘up to date’ and a la mode. It’s a matter of conveying the eternal sense of the message in words that are understandable to contemporary ears.
    It’s true that our bodies play a role in our prayer and in liturgy. I’m just beginning to explore this more deeply. But our bodies aren’t only a storage for repetitions and memories. Here’s a video of a dance by Alvin Ailey.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kDXerubF4I4

    The body also joys in new things!

    1. It is certainly true that language changes and we don’t want to have people misunderstanding what the liturgy says. But liturgy is not only reflective of language and culture, but also formative. One example would be the impact that the King James translation had on the English language. Even if translations must change at some point to be comprehensible, how often to they have to change? Every twenty years? every fifty? I’d be inclined to measure it in centuries, and have a bias for retention of the familiar wherever possible (I think the original RSV is a good example this). The new translation of the Psalms seems to me often to change things for the sake of change, since I see little difference in meaning. For example, in Psalm 51 we have “Wash me completely from my iniquity” instead of “Wash me more and more from my guilt.” The former says the same thing as the latter, but in a more abstract and less memorable way.

      1. True, Fritz. I should have added that poor (even awful) new translations are not a step in the right direction. I do sometimes wonder if we all find the ‘best’ versions to be the ones we grew up with.
        I was really just trying to add another perspective, not dispute the article. I’m a musician and a creature of habit, so I understand muscle memory!

  7. A fascinating post, thank you. And I agree that it’s worst for sung texts. I think of changes in hymn texts that I have sung since childhood – changes sometimes made for good reasons, others less obviously so – but always the experience is of a sudden jolt, a disorientation, that derails participation, like finding your shoelaces coming undone while playing soccer. (So far, we haven’t dared do that to the thou/thy in the Lord’s Prayer).
    Our fortune, our ascesis and gift to the future, is to be the generation that discovered that the church is semper reformanda, and to figure that one out.

  8. Oh, you mean uprooting traditional formulae and practice is traumatic? You don’t say! I can’t imagine the people kicked out of their parish buildings to celebrate the TLM would have any idea about that!

    As for the multiple options, if only there was a form of the Roman Rite that didn’t have any…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.