Lapsing into Latin

Have you noticed how many people, churchy-types mostly, are lapsing into Latin these days? I use the word ‘lapsing’ advisedly, because the Latin used is often incorrect, as though guessed at rather than completely understood. You might think that a Benedictine like me, for whom Latin is the language of prayer and poetry, Western patristics and much else, would applaud any effort to use Latin; but I don’t. I have too much respect for the language to enjoy its misuse. Never use Latin when English will convey what you mean, that’s my motto; and I wish I could persuade others to adopt it, too.

It won’t add dignity to your prose or punch to your prayer to write Veni Sanctus Spiritus (non-Latinists: the vocative is Sancte, thus, Veni Sancte Spiritus). Muddling declensions, confusing conjugations or disregarding elementary rules of grammar is understandable in a child but unacceptable in an adult. I give a little inward shudder when anyone, with bright smile and well-meaning glint in the eye, bears down on me and says, Pax vobis! I silently correct to pax tecum or pax vobiscum if I think the greeting is meant for more than one. I can’t help myself. It is even more of a problem if less usual phrases are invoked. I remember once wriggling in my chair as an undergraduate (they used to exist; no longer, alas) read me an essay about papal plenitudo potestas. After the fifth reminder that a genitive was required, plenitudo potestatis, plenitudo potestatis, I was ready to scream. I rather think the essay-writer was also. And as for sequence of tenses, let’s not go there just now.

What is behind this phenomenon? After all, if one wants to show off, Greek would be so much better, being more of a marker of an elitist education and inherently more flexible and expressive. Is it a reflection of a certain kind of insecurity? God — and the devil — understand every language there is, to say nothing of the unspoken desires of the heart, so could this lapsing into Latin have something to do with a longing to hark back to a golden age of faith when Latin was a universal language and all was well with the world? Of course, it was never like that, but how we wish it had been! Nostalgia is a dangerous emotion, tricky, too. Perhaps we should think about it a little more than we do. I take heart from the fact that, as he lay dying, that great Latinist, St Bede the Venerable, chose to pray in English. Our mother tongue is called ‘mother’ for a reason; but it may take us a lifetime to discover why.


O Clavis David: liberation theology

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, who open and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens, come and free from prison him who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.

I suggest we read Isaiah 22.22 and Isaiah 9.6. It would be useful also to consider the promise, ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock . . .’ as we listen to the antiphon:


I had hoped to write something fresh and new for today, but my mind is taken up with the chapter talk I’ll be giving this afternoon, the Missus Est. The story of the Annunciation reveals layer upon layer of meaning and every year I find myself marvelling at some new facet, which is not really ‘new’ at all but something I had been blind to previously. I suspect we all feel like that. This is a day for doing theology on our knees.

So, I’d like to repeat something I’ve said before. Read it in the context of our current preoccupation with what is happening in North Korea and elsewhere. The key image is telling. Don’t we all feel powerless in the face of political and economic forces over which we have no control? Don’t we need some sort of key to understand them? If we feel entrapped, don’t we need some sort of key to set us free? O Clavis David is liberation theology for today.

Today’s O antiphon links beautifully with the gospel of the day, Luke’s account of the Annunciation. Both remind us of the freedom we have been given in Christ. Yet how many of us think of ourselves as being really free? We are bound by our history, our genetic make-up, the choices we have made through life, the circumstances in which we find ourselves. These can be both limitation and opportunity, but being human, we tend to concentrate on the limitations rather than the possibilities. The sad fact is, we are often quite happy in our bondage: if we are not free, we are not responsible. We can be moral Peter Pans all our lives.

Or can we? It may not be so much a case of being Peter Pan as a prisoner. The key image in the antiphon is a powerful one. To be locked into a room, even accidentally, can be an unnerving experience. To know that one’s release is entirely dependent on another challenges all one’s belief in one’s ability to impose one’s own will. We are reduced to waiting and hoping that the key-holder will let us out.

Two thousand years ago a young Jewish girl held the fate of all of us in her hands. Would she consent to be the Mother of God, to accept the Key of David who alone could set us free? That she did is the cause of all our joy this coming Christmas. Our liberation is close at hand.