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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Piggy-backing on God's memory

For about ten years, from 1955, when I entered our novitiate, to around 1965, when we quit using the Latin breviary, I prayed the psalms in Latin.

In those days we went through the entire psalter every week. If you multiply ten years by 52 weeks, you get 520 times I prayed through the entire psalter. For the first eight years or so of that time, we prayed them out loud, either chanting them (on the tone of "F") or reciting them together in community without chant. So the words of those psalms have become burned into my memory.

Enter the ICEL psalter.

The ICEL psalter (the acronym stands for "International Commission on English in the Liturgy") was first accepted by the U.S. bishops when it came out in the mid 1990s, and then, in one of the most foolish moves in the modern history of the Church, was banned for communal use by the same bishops because some bureaucrat in Rome decided that its language was part of a feminist revolution endangering the Church.

The ICEL translation removed sexist references in the text. Not only did it remove texts that spoke of "man" or "him," ("horizontal inclusivity"), but it removed them in reference to God ("vertical inclusivity"). These changes did indeed change the original wording of the text, but the ICEL version was meant for praying, not for study, and since half of the people (women) presumably use the psalms for prayer, and some of those women find sexist language offensive, texts meant for prayer should be changed to adapt to their sensitivities.

Of course not all women find such language offensive. However, many men, myself included, do find it offensive. I like to quote St. Paul, who was writing to early Christians who accused him of hypocrisy because he continued to observe Jewish dietary laws even though he argued that Christians were not bound to such laws. "If my eating pork causes my brother (or sister) to lose their faith in God, then I will never again eat pork" (even though I know that objectively my eating pork would not offend God). If my using sexist language causes some of my fellow Catholics to quit praying the psalms, then I will quit using sexist language. I think it is more important for people to be able to benefit from the riches of the psalms than for scholars to be comforted by my continuing to pray with a literal translation of the original text.

Example: Psalm 96, verses 1-3:

New American Bible translation (the official Catholic translation): "Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; announce his salvation day after day. Tell God's glory among the nations; among all peoples, God's marvelous deeds."

ICEL translation: "A new song for the Lord! Sing it and bless God's name, everyone, everywhere! Tell the whole world God's triumph day to day, God's glory, God's wonder."

The two "his's" in verse 2 are removed.

Over the last three or four years I have been engaged in a massive project. (I keep asking myself if this is a massive waste of time.) First I began using the ICEL psalter for my private morning and evening prayer. But the way we use new "breviary," now called the "Liturgy of the Hours," we do not use all the psalms. We pray morning and evening prayer, but there are psalms assigned for midday and night prayer, and for the "office of readings," and we never pray them. I made the decision to pray those psalms too. That meant getting the text of those psalms into some readable form.

Over the course of two or three years I ended up typing the text of the entire ICEL psalter into my computer. Then I arranged the psalms into the Liturgy of the Hours, and added the antiphons for each season of the liturgical year. This was beginning to use a lot of paper, but then came the Kindle. I uploaded my version into the Kindle, where length causes no problems.

The satisfied me for a couple of years, but then I began to reflect on the Latin version of the psalms.

Bottom line: I uploaded the Latin text from a website and copied it into my ICEL version, so that I can reflect on the Latin words as I pray the English ones. (It helps that I have been teaching Latin for the last few years.)

I keep imagining how many men and women down through the centuries have used these Latin words. Monks and nuns in the middle ages used them. Men who lived in the ruins of monasteries that I saw in Ireland used them. Those words. Those very same words.

Then I began to think of God's part in all this.

I believe that God stores every act we do in God's memory, and will return that memory to each of us when we get to the resurrection. (Aside: I got to this conclusion by reflecting on the phrase in the Apostle's Creed: "I believe in the resurrection of the body.") So God is remembering each time those monks and nuns prayed these words. That really makes me feel close to those people ("the communion of saints"). It makes it easier for me to feel close to my friends and relatives who have died. Most of them did not pray the psalms much, but most of them prayed, and much of our prayer in general is based on the psalms.

So every time I pray one of these psalms, I am piggy-backing on God's memory. I am joining all the people who have prayed them before me, and all the men and women praying them in the world today, right now, as I pray. Orthodox monks and nuns in Russia, refugees in camps in Syria--we are all praying these words in one language or another. God is recording all these prayers. We are really one in the Lord when we do that.

And I am joining my own present to my own past, knitting my life into a whole that I hope is giving glory to God.

So, as I go about uploading more of the psalms into my Kindle (the project is only about half done), I keep asking myself if I am using my time foolishly. Maybe I am, but the actual work of doing this seems to draw me closer to God and to the communion of saints. And I enjoy doing it.

I'm 79 years old, and I'm entitled to some enjoyment, right?