O Lord, Open Our Lips

It may seem strange to assert that Catholics have forgotten how to pray. Surely we still beseech the Lord in times of distress. We attend Mass, we say the rosary. More than that, simply because we are human, by the grace of God the Spirit works within us, with unutterable groans and longings. We pray sometimes without knowing we are praying, “O Lord, help me!”
And yet the same march of vandalism that has stripped our churches of their art, and our schools of their traditional symbols of devotion to God and country, has impoverished our language of prayer, too. We may call it the curse of the modernist box. We had to dwell in “machines for living,” said the modernist architect Le Corbusier. So he built machines all right, but whether human beings could really dwell in his blank concrete boxes was another matter. They were, I should say, apartment buildings for creatures with no felt connection either to the natural world or to the heavens above, but rather for functionaries within, or serfs beneath, the all-competent State.
Schools have been built in the same fashion. They do admit of a little bit of childish decoration, but the model of the machine for learning dominates all the same. It is not a place wherein one would hang, as a cherished memorial, a framed copy of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington. It is not a hieratic place. It neither dwells in the natural world nor aspires to contemplation of everlasting truths. It is instead a flat bureaucratic place, whose employees sometimes cheerfully and sometimes grudgingly and rebelliously submit to the demands of that same State.
And then there are our churches. Others can write more knowledgeably than I can about the loathing of the transcendent, which gives us bare concrete in place of stone, auditoriums instead of naves and sanctuaries, and stage platforms for hootenannies instead of galleries, clerestories, and choir lofts. What I should like to point out is that the same rejection of the transcendent, which is at once also a rejection of the natural and the human, is at work in the language of the prayers we have had composed for our disedification.
In Orwell’s 1984, the ultimate project of the State was more ambitious than to have people forget that they had ever been free. It was, of course, a wonderful thing that the records of people and events should be sent down the “memory hole,” where they would be distorted, shredded, or obliterated, never to be known again. But the most radical work was being done in the linguistic department, to ensure that the people would never again be able to form complex thoughts — about freedom, for example. Orwell was not predicting that such linguistic vandalism would go on; he was noticing that it had been going on. And it has continued to go on, as is made manifest in the blank concrete of the language of our worship.
Language is not merely a tool, or an artifact. It is the means by which man, who is capax universi, encounters all the world about him and fashions for himself a world of meaning for understanding it and dwelling within it. It is, to capture a glimpse of Eden, his way of encountering the animals: He names them, and when he does, he sees something true about them and enters into a relationship with them.
It’s legitimate to ask, then, what kind of “world” is summoned into being by the language we use. Consider this opening prayer from the Anglican Order for the Burial of the Dead:
I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.
I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.
We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out. The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.
I can see, in my mind’s eye, the site of the tomb where Lazarus was buried. And Martha came up to Jesus and confessed that she believed her brother would live again in the resurrection, to which Jesus replied in words of fire and thunder: I am the resurrection and the life. We know what would happen soon after; but our attention turns then to an old man sitting half-naked on a dungheap, his body covered with sores, crying out in anguish for his suffering and defending his innocence. It is Job, affirming that someday, somehow, he shall be vindicated, for he knows that his redeemer lives. Then comes the stark and plain judgment of our insufficiency. We carry nothing out of this world. And we end with the first patient sigh of that same Job, when he heard that his sons and daughters had perished: The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.
They who learn this language have more than tools to pray with. They have a world of symbols and events, like mountains and plains and running streams, to pray in.
Or consider this prayer before the Pax, from the Sarum Rite:
O Holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God: grant us so worthily to receive this most holy Body and Blood of Thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ, that by this we may deserve to receive the remission of all our sins, and to be filled with thy Holy Spirit, and to possess Thy peace. For Thou alone art God, and there is none other beside Thee: Whose glorious kingdom abideth unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Again, to pray such a prayer is to walk into a world: one whose vast spaces and immemorial ages reach upward to eternity. We hear in the final sentence the great cry of Moses to the Israelites: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one!” It is not only a confession of the uniqueness of God, but of His mercies to Israel: He is the only one in whom they must trust. His kingdom — no abstraction, that, but a realm more real than what we know about us — abides, lives, dwells, in everlasting presence, not just “always,” but “unto the ages of ages,” within and beyond time, within what we can imagine, and beyond all our imagining. To that kingdom we journey, and that is why we pray that we might receive Christ’s body and blood worthily, so as to be granted the peace of God. Such peace is not mere tranquility of mind; it is the presence of the Holy Spirit living within us, granting us the friendship of God, which is our safe conduct to His glorious kingdom.
The “world” of such prayers is, we see, not compromised by language we now find archaic. That is because a world is not simply a passing phenomenon. It perdures; and though languages, like all human things, come into being and pass away, yet we naturally long for what does not pass away. Therefore our prayers should never follow the ephemeral skitters and shrugs of linguistic practice. If it is old, it will be all the stranger to us, like a world to be encountered anew. There is nothing more stale than what was new-and-improved yesterday, and nothing fresher to our hearts than what is old and venerable.
But that world does not depend upon the archaisms, either. It is instead a rich world of symbols and sacramental realities and ancient practices; a world you can, so to speak, feel against your bended knees.
Now compare with the sort of thing that is given to us as prayer these days. I will comment as I go along:
Gracious God and Father, we are your people embraced by your love.
In case God does not know that, we inform him of it. “Embrace” is a standard-issue verb of niceness; no actual image of an embrace is summoned up.
We thank you for your presence with us throughout all time.
Abstract, vague, and abrupt. And do “we” speaking this prayer exist “throughout all time”?
Create us anew through Jesus Christ, your Son. Liberate us from all that keeps us from you. Send your Holy Spirit, enabling us to recreate our world and restore justice.
All abstract, still. The tone is that of a memorandum, with the exception of the phrase “create us anew.” But that phrase is oddly applied. The ancient Church prayed Veni, Creator Spiritus: It is the great creating Spirit who remakes us. “Send forth thy Spirit,” says the Psalmist, “and they shall be created, and thou shalt renew the face of the earth.”
But here, the psalm is not on anyone’s mind. Indeed, God is not going to recreate our world. We are going to do it. God is not going to restore justice. We are going to do it. It is, of course, gracious of us to acknowledge that we cannot quite manage it alone. Let us continue:
Heal us from every form of sin and violence.
Abstract, vague. We commit sin, and sin is sometimes physically violent; otherwise violence is something we suffer. We are to be “healed” of violence. I have no idea what that means. Lawrence the Deacon, expiring on the gridiron, breathed out his last words of defiance to his tormentors, telling them to turn him over, because he was not done on the other side. Does that qualify for being “healed” of violence?
Transform us to live your Word more profoundly.
The vague lingo of a freshman theology essay. The image hidden in “profoundly,” that of the depths of the sea, is ignored.
Reconcile us so enemies become friends.
A plea with all the warmth and vigor of a dead fish.
Awaken us to the sacred.
You think? As, for instance, to the possibilities of sacral language?
Nurture our relationships; enliven our parishes; reunite our families.
Enhance our self-image; support our local initiatives; contribute to our retirement funds.
Fill us with joy to celebrate the fullness of life.
And, while you are at it, Lord, fill us with fullness to celebrate fulfillment more fully.
Empower us to be a community of love growing always in Your likeness by the grace of Christ our Lord. Amen.
“Empower” — the slang of political action. What it means to be “growing in your likeness,” I am not sure, since we are already made in the image and likeness of God. If it means “growing in holiness,” it should say so. But it is all vague; poor even for a college freshman, even for a school principal, even for a senator.
And so, our minds laid bare by language like that, which says little and means less, we lose the capacity to pray with that earthy strength that moved the prayers of our fathers of old. Compare, finally, with Pope Leo’s prayer to St. Michael:
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into Hell Satan and the other evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
And let that cunning liar take a sheaf of memos with him. Amen.

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Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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