Why on Earth Should I Learn Latin? – Part 2/3

This is part two of a three-part Rose. It follows on from part one, which should be completed first. Each part consists of a 20 minute blog post (mixed video and reading) followed by a 20 minute study session. All three completed are a single rose.
For the introductory page to the rose, click here.

Reason #2 – The Significance and Honouring of Culture

“Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam”
(A country without a language is a country wihout a soul)
Pádraig Pearse

I’m going to come at this one from a little further back. Let’s begin with the definition of a Latin word: Pietas. I suppose if one were to hazard a guess without being told it would be possible to see in its root something like the English word ‘piety’ and wonder if it means something along those lines – and they’re not a million miles removed! However in a Roman context, pietas means more. It is a virtue concerned with rendering justice to those things to which we owe respect – so that, of course, includes God (and our pious endeavours to honour Him), but also takes within its scope things that we tend to think of separately – like family loyalty and patriotism.

Why am I starting here? Because I think without a general understanding of pietas it’s difficult to move to an appreciation of how the Church’s heritage is tied up with the Latin language. Grace builds on nature. If we don’t begin by understanding on a natural level, to some degree, the value of culture, history and identity, it’s difficult to enter into the idea of God having a purpose in choosing particular cultures and languages – not arbitrarily but as a specific conduit for the message He desires to convey. Let’s first take a look at a talk about the potential of losing another ‘dead’ language:

(This video should cut off, unfortunately abruptly, about 9:17, you can stop it if it doesn’t do so)

One of the beautiful observations Dónall makes in his talk is the fact that ‘sometimes in life you have to leave home to come home’. Perhaps this is a specific grace available to a Catholic who chooses to learn to pray in Latin in the 21st Century, when it has fallen somewhat to the wayside in comparison to previous generations. Sometimes when talking about the topic of Latin in prayer it is argued that when Latin was used widespread in the liturgy a lot of people simply prayed the Rosary the whole way through Mass, and there are many who found changes into the vernacular made things more accessible to them. And perhaps it did. But that doesn’t mean that the points we make about the value of Latin should be disregarded… For one thing, we need to ask carefully is accessibility even a prime concern… Anyway, my point here is that sometimes when we are accustomed to something we don’t always take the time to ponder it as a mystery and benefit from all its fruits. In the 21st Century we can’t really take the presence of Latin in our prayer lives for granted, we need to make a decision to foster it. Perhaps precisely because of this we have a particular opportunity to seek to be more aware of and present to its beauty and value, and to choose it freely… Bearing that in mind, let’s try to take some of the points in the story in the video and see if and how they apply to Latin:

We are told that for the men in the story their ancestors were in their songs, and we see that by this they carried within them something that sustained them in a world that was very different from what they had known before. Now whether or not you like Latin, whether or not you think it adds anything to prayer, it is indisputable that until very, very recently it was the primary language of prayer (liturgical at the very least) of the Roman Catholic Church. It was the language of prayer of our ancestors, not merely in the restricted sense of a national identity, but across countries and continents for brothers and sisters in Christ. Latin has a significance, not just on the level of identity or culture, but spiritually, as a consecrated language for prayer. It is the medium by which so many prayers have been carried for generations – but not only that, as a ‘dead’ language it has been set apart for this purpose. Just as their songs and their ancestors were something specific to the race in the story, and could sustain them in strange lands because the songs were not of that land but hearkened back to their specific culture and identity – so Liturgical Latin has been set apart for prayer and as such in and of itself has a power to remove us, in a sense, from the world – and ground us in God.

The next thing I want to note is the listlessness that came upon the men after their months of travel. Here the words of the elder are worth reflecting on: ‘We have moved so far, so fast, during these last two and a half moons, that we must now sit down and wait for our souls to catch up.’ A lot has happened in the past 50-100 years. A lot has happened in the world, and a lot has happened in the Church. And always when much change happens quickly there is that danger of losing one’s sense of oneself. I think won’t be hugely shocking if I say that in many ways, much of the Church, in the Western world at least, has lost a sense of what it is to be Catholic in recent years. Whatever the reasons for that, a language provides a medium and a frame of reference by which we can begin the rediscovery of this sense. Without it, we are dealing always in translations. This means, to a degree, always losing something in translation, always surrendering something from an original manner of thought and expression and always submitting to the judgement calls of the translator. Having been the language of liturgy and doctrine for centuries, Latin gives us access to the teaching and prayerful formulae of the Church at source. Moreover, because learning a language that isn’t our every day tongue requires slowing down our pace of assimilation, it does so in a manner that in and of itself slows us down and ‘gives our souls time to catch up’.

Then we come to what Dónall’s father believed would be lost through the loss of the Irish language – that it would mean the death of beauty. This beauty was the specific grace of Irish that he believed would be at risk of perdition were the language to be lost. If, then, every language carries some specific gift or grace that would be lost with it – what would the loss of Latin mean for the Catholic Church?

To begin answering this question, it is necessary to recap on some of the points that we began to cover in part one of this Rose. There we saw that Scripturally, Latin is set aside as one of the three Sacred Languages because of its being nailed to the Cross on which Christ died for us – the Instrument of our Salvation. Furthermore, in the study session materials we had a chance to read a little more about those three languages. I want to come back to one of the observations of Isidore of Seville which seems to be so simply a practical observation that it is easily skipped over:

“All the nations of the East – like the Hebrews and the Syrians – crunch together their speech and words in their throats. All the Mediterranean nations – like the Greeks and the people of Asia Minor – strike their speech on the palate. All the Western nations – like the Italians and Spaniards – gnash their words against their teeth.” (Etymologies, study materials in part one)

What I find interesting about this observation is, it covers the three Sacred Languages and assigns each one a place in speech. Remembering that Christianity is about the revealed and Incarnate Word of God, I think it’s beautiful to look at the place he assigns to each of those three Sacred Languages:

  • Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people from whom Salvation comes (John 4:22) is crunched together in the throat – that is to say formed at the source, where our vocal chords are. There is something distinctly Incarnational about its particular gifting that seems to be pointed to even by the way in which the language is formed.
  • Greek, the language of the New Testament and of the philosophers who gave so much form to Catholic Theology (consider influence of Aristotle on Aquinas…) is struck on the palate. This seems to point in some way towards the turning over of the idea – in this case the Word (the Logos, which also means ‘reason’) interiorly – to the philosophical reflection and contemplation accompanying the expression of the words that are spoken.
  • And Latin – which is the focus of this particular blog post – is obviously the origin of those Western Languages St. Isidore names that are gnashed against the teeth. There are a few things this points towards that I would like to explore – a certain forward clarity in enunciation, a proximity to the world outside and an impression of defense.

When we looked at the Sacred Languages previously we noted that not only were these three languages chosen and mounted upon the Cross according to the dictates of the Roman Governor, but it was he who defended their message against being removed or modified. Remember that the other two languages are those of the Sacred Scripture. But Latin, over the course of history, has proven to be the language par excellence by which these Scriptures have been defended and interpreted. It is not a lesser language than the others because it is not that of the original Scriptures – rather its gift is distinct and complimentary.

Latin is also a language particularly suited to the enunciation of clear doctrine for a few practical reasons, here are two: It is structurally a pretty objective and ‘no nonsense’ language that’s quick to get to the point and difficult to waffle in. It’s not changing because it’s not in common informal use. Try finding ‘selfie’ in a Latin dictionary!

When it comes to prayer, this stability is also extremely helpful for the Liturgy. However another advantage is that Latin, as the talk was saying of Irish, has a distinct beauty. True, it can be argued of all (or most!) languages used well – but Latin prayers tend to be particularly beautiful. This is partly because the language lends itself to poetic recitation, and partly because they are, in most cases, the original prayers that were composed solely to glorify God – as opposed to translations composed with the intention of accommodating those praises to our convenience.

As a final consideration of what the loss of the Latin language could mean to the Church, I want to return again to the last line in the studied section of St. Isidore’s Etymologies:

We have treated languages first, and then nations, because nations arose from languages, and not languages from nations.

I find it quite a striking observation in the 21st Century, but St. Isidore of Seville doesn’t even attempt to justify or back it up – he just states it as a fact. The first thing that I thought of when I read that was of JRR Tolkien, who in fact was a linguist before he was a storyteller. Middle Earth, the Lord of the Rings and everything around it, was created in the first instance as a means by which he could create speakers of the languages he had already set about creating. To be honest I’ve always thought that was an incredibly odd motivation, and never understood it. Why would anyone randomly create a language and then feel compelled to write stories and create worlds to give them life? For me the world and stories are much more interesting… And yet, above we have a Doctor of the Church saying that this is nothing but proper order. Languages come first, and nations come out of them. So a language is not just a tool that the nation uses to express itself, but the seedbed from which its culture and identity draw life.

Tolkien was a devout Catholic, tremendously devoted to the Eucharist, who nevertheless never really got into writing apologetic or allegorical works in the way, for example, C.S. Lewis did. This was partly because of personal taste, but partly because he felt it wasn’t his place and should be left to the experts. The area in which Tolkien was an expert, was that of linguistics. As regards his own response to Latin’s place in the life of the Church, we’ll take look at the following story reported by his grandson, Simon:

“I vividly remember going to church with him in Bournemouth. He was a devout Roman Catholic and it was soon after the Church had changed the liturgy from Latin to English. My grandfather obviously didn’t agree with this and made all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English. I found the whole experience quite excruciating, but my grandfather was oblivious. He simply had to do what he believed to be right.”

The story is quite funny, but in order to consider it aptly we need to bear in mind that it doesn’t hold up to consider this as some sort of a mere defiance on account of personal annoyance. Tolkien didn’t hesitate to advise making Holy Communion ‘in circumstances that affront your taste‘ and allowing the focus to be on the Sacramental presence. If his objections to the loss of Latin went so far as to make a public statement in Church, there must have been a spiritual point. Given his background, it would seem likely that something in his knowledge of language, culture, and how the two interact influenced this. Perhaps something springing from his profound awareness, that doesn’t generally come naturally to a modern mindset, that a language is more than just an incidental tool for communication, that culture is more than just sentimentality. A language isn’t just expressive of a nation, but it sculpts and forms it. And when that language is lost at source – something of the nation goes with it, something in the formation of a people that touches the very soul. In the context of the Church, and of a Sacred Language, this loss is not less real. Rather it is but transposed, as it were, into a divine key…

Study Session #2

Again, to complete this section of the Rose, spend 20 minutes in total across the following study materials, reading, considering and note-taking as helps you.

On the Use of the Latin Language (Vatican)

The Language of the Mass (St. Robert Bellarmine, from ‘The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass’)

Take as long as you need with the above. For the rest of your study time work through this one (you are unlikely to get finished in the remainder of the time – and that’s ok!):

De Lingua Latina Rite Excolenda

And nope, I’m not joking. I’ve not got a translation and I’m not suggesting you look. Do your best with an online translator (might sound like a cheat – but fire ahead, you’ll see that google ain’t so fluent!) and a Latin dictionary. You want to know why it’s a good idea to learn Latin, it is one thing me telling you it makes the ancient riches of the Church open up to you. It is another for you to experience digging out those treasures without a knowledge of the language…

2 thoughts on “Why on Earth Should I Learn Latin? – Part 2/3

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