Our Bible Study group this year studied Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans. When we finished this study of this truly seminal text, we decided to read the first 9 chapters of The Confessions of Saint Augustine. I suggested this because this book has meant so much to me personally, and also because I taught this book in Latin when I was teaching at Brunswick School. I did not think very much about the relationship between Romans and the Confessions. But when we read that famous scene in the garden, where St. Augustine finds the final resolve to be baptized, the relationship became so apparent. For it was a passage from Romans that convinced him in a remarkable and supernatural way that he must be baptized and become engrafted as a member of the Church, the Body of Christ.
Part of the enjoyment of reading the Confessions is St. Augustine’s “way with words”. The translation we are reading is by Frank Sheed. I had never read this translation, but I have come to admire it quite a lot. Sheed understands the importance of words, and he manages to capture St. Augustine’s style even in English. St. Augustine wrote in a time in which words were important not only for giving meaning to what is being read but also for being able to point beyond themselves to a “transcendental” meaning. Those two famous Latin words he heard in the garden, tolle lege, which seemed to be coming from a child playing a game, mean “pick up, read”. Augustine’s understanding of these almost random words was instantaneous, and, swept away by what these words pointed to, he picked up his copy of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, opened it randomly, and read the passage that broke the dam that he had created and brought him into the Church.
We live in a world in which words are understood just as a means of explaining things, or giving information, or something to get through to the goal of understanding or meaning. In reading the Confessions, our group saw that words are not merely things to be read or heard. They have a power beyond that and can call us to something beyond what we are reading. In this context we discussed the use of Latin in the Mass: how when the words themselves, in a language that is no longer spoken and which few people can speak or understand readily, point to that “otherness” that is at the heart of the worship of God. This is much more difficult when the words are in the vernacular, for when a familiar language is spoken the intellect takes over and the bridge to the spiritual is blocked. And when the Latin is wed to the chant of the Church, something happens that frees the words from their very meaning and allows them to soar to become a part of the very heart of the worship of the transcendent God that is the Mass.
We must always remember that words at Mass are not primarily for intellectual understanding of what is happening. They act as springboards to that encounter with the Mystery that is at the heart of the Mass: the love of God seen in the Sacrifice of the Word of God in the flesh on the Cross.
Fr. Richard G. Cipolla