Our Vast Pudding, Who Art in Heaven, Muddled Be Thy Name...

February 2000

There’s a small but grand prayer-and-response in the middle of the Catholic Mass that hasn’t changed appreciably from the old Latin Mass to the new English Mass. The priest says: “Pray, brethren, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” The people respond: “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his Church.” Thus it is written.

But it is quite common to hear people in the pews editing the response. They revise out the possessive pronouns and say carefully and loudly, “for the praise and glory of God’s name, for our good and the good of all God’s Church.” How odd and puzzling. The prayer is wholly masculine in its imagery, calling God Father and Lord. Why then choke at the innocent masculine possessive pronoun that goes with those? If we can say “Father” and “Lord,” we can certainly say “his.” And if you can’t affirm that God is Father and Lord, it’s not at all clear what you’re doing at a Catholic Mass, or even in a Christian church. At best you’re incoherent, at worst unbelieving. God knows that we can’t think without images, and thus has revealed Himself in an imagery that suits the divine nature and our human nature. As C.S. Lewis somewhere remarked, it is immeasurably better in every way — theologically, philosophically, poetically — to envision God as a powerful elderly man with a beard than to attempt to envision God as a vague presence, entity, or who-knows-what. (One lady with whom Lewis spoke realized, once she clarified her mental imagery, that she had been in the habit of envisioning God as a sort of vast pudding.) Nor can the human mind envision God as “father-mother” or “mother-father” or any other hybrid without conceiving of monstrosities.

Metaphor and imagery - by these the mind works. Prayer and response - by these the soul is nourished. Promiscuous fuzzing of images and programmatic neutering of prayers will stall the mind and starve the soul. But maybe there’s a way for those who dislike saying “his” to relax and just say it as prescribed. They could recall that this prayer-and-response is originally Latin and that in Latin the possessive pronoun doesn’t aggressively assert a gender of its own but submissively takes the gender of the noun it modifies. In Latin, God’s “name” (nomen) is a masculine noun and God’s “church” (ecclesia) is a feminine noun, and in the Latin Mass for “his name” we say “nominis sui” and for “his Church” we say “Ecclesiae suae.” So our advice to inclusivists, progressivists, redactors, levelers, and worriers is: When you feel the temptation to edit this prayer — blurring the imagery and blunting the poetry — just think “It’s a Latin Mass, it’s a Latin Mass, it’s a Latin Mass,” and recite it as written.


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New Oxford Notes: February 2000

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