Dominus VobiscumAs a youngster in the 6th grade of a Catholic grammar school in Chicago in the 1950s I trained to be an altar boy. I recall those days with a lot of fondness–though of course not all aspects of those days! It was my first exposure to the Latin language in an active way. I could actually say Latin words! Of course for years I had listened to the Latin in regular Mass attendance. It seemed like such a mysterious thing. Even though, like a good Catholic schoolboy I had a missal that translated those mysterious, evocative phrases into straightforward English, the Latin is what I loved. The words seemed to say more than what the translation indicated. And I think this “more” is very important.
The Latin translates very simply into “The Lord be with you” which the priest proclaims several times during the Mass. (Of course I am only referring to the Roman Catholic Mass, not the Lutheran, for example, or even the Anglican, but this example may very well hold for them also.) In that era the altar boy would then respond, “Et cum spiritu tuo” which translates as “And with your spirit also.” The Mass would begin that way, proceed on this recurring theme, and end on this note. Even though it was only between the priest and the altar boy, the dialogical dynamic at play was very obvious, and in fact the altar boy was really a stand-in of sorts for the whole congregation. The rest of us would follow this with our missal and say the words in our hearts. After the Vatican II liturgical reforms the Latin vanished and the vernacular version took over and the dialogical nature of the moment became accentuated in that the whole congregation was called upon to respond.
Ok, so the words “Dominus vobiscum” translate into “the Lord be with you,” but what does all that mean? Is it simply a kind of wish, like “have a good day,” or is it more like a statement of fact: the Lord is with you? Either interpretation is possible, but I think the latter is the “bullseye” if you will. Let’s take a step back. Imagine entering an old Catholic church, one built well before Vatican II. You enter a dim, quiet space surrounded by stained glass windows, frescoes, statues, candles, the faint scent of incense, etc. It all speaks of a Presence. (Actually this would be more true in a Russian Orthodox church, but we won’t go into that!) All the artistic renderings concern stories and myths pointing to a critical “call and response,” a deep vision into the heart of Reality, a dialogue of Love, etc. Even before the priest begins the Mass with “The Lord be with you,” the whole ambience speaks of that Presence. And when the whole congregation answers “And also with you,” it affirms in words that it accepts/realizes this Reality as the Ultimate Truth.
Now there are certain special “sacred spaces” that point to this reality in a somewhat different way–an Islamic mosque for example, or even certain monastic churches that have been stripped bare and this “emptiness” speaks of the Presence in its own way. But apart from that I am afraid that I have found so many post-Vatican II churches that are rather weak in this regard in that they have created a rather sterile environment reinforced by an English translation/attitude of the liturgy that is more in keeping with “Have a nice day,” “Nice to meet to you,” etc. In part this is a vast cultural problem in that our language is “flattening out,” becoming less able to articulate or even imply the deeper realities. You get a sense of that if you compare the letters written in the 19th Century by ordinary people compared to today’s emails and text messaging. So the result becomes not only that the “deeper realities” become more difficult to refer to, but in fact they become seemingly more unreal.
So then this leads us to a big theological issue. The dialogical nature of the language in the Mass in its current English seems to fix us to a purely dualistic vision of our relation to the Divine. This is one view of Christianity about which I discussed here. The Biblical stories and myths and the hagiography in its traditional renderings seems to reinforce that dualistic vision. (Abhishiktananda railed against a kind of absolutizing of that language.) There is a “Divine Other who is truly “other,” and you stand in relation to that “otherness.” But then again, traditionally there was also the narrative of Christian mysticism which took all these renderings and picked up on a much deeper truth here than just purely dialogue. This dialogue, rendered either in language or in art, was merely one way of beginning to awaken to a true nondualistic vision of our relation to the Divine Mystery. Granted, Christianity’s main mode of expression is always going to be dialogical in an I-Thou manner, but we can either stay fixed in that or we can gain a sense of something deeper going on within that dialogue. Recall that consummate dialogical narrative from the Resurrection stories in Luke, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They are depicted as encountering the Risen Christ who opens their eyes to the meaning of the Scriptures. They conclude: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road while he opened to us the scriptures.” (Luke 24: 32) That “burning of the heart” is not just a feeling thing, an emotion, but a sense of something much deeper in the meaning of the words and symbols of all our encounters with the Divine Reality. The Lord be with you. And with your spirit.