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On the Linguistic Benefit of Prayer in Latin

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Guest post writ­ten by Ben­jamin Turn­er, M.D.

I am grate­ful to Justin Slocum Bai­ley for the breath of fresh air he lets into the mug­gy base­ment of Latin instruc­tion done The Usu­al Way. I wish I had come across his insights into indwelling lan­guage learn­ing a good twen­ty years ago. And yet in a way, I did. It recent­ly dawned on me that I’ve grown up from my ear­li­est mem­o­ries in an envi­ron­ment of liv­ing Latin: the Catholic Church.

You can down­load a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF ver­sion of this arti­cle “Learn Latin through Prayer” or “On the lin­guis­tic ben­e­fit of Prayer in Latin”.
The burning of incence.
DIRIGATUR AD TE, DOMINE, ORATIO MEA SICUT INCENSUM IN CONSPECTU TUO.

Much has been writ­ten about the cru­cial impor­tance of the Latin lan­guage for the life of prayer in the Church. The Coun­cil of Trent anath­e­ma­tized the sug­ges­tion that the Mass ought to be said only in the ver­nac­u­lar. [1] Pope John XXIII called for the replace­ment of uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sors with­out Latin by those flu­ent in it.[2] Vat­i­can II insist­ed on the reten­tion of Latin[3], and every Pope since, includ­ing Fran­cis, has spo­ken in its favour [4], [5], [6], [7]. J.R.R. Tolkien famous­ly con­tin­ued, rather loud­ly, to use the Latin respons­es at Mass after his parish had adopt­ed the new Eng­lish options.

On the oth­er hand, I have yet to stum­ble across a dis­cus­sion of the reverse, name­ly the util­i­ty of Latin prayer for the learn­ing of the lan­guage. The rea­son for this is sim­ple: Any­one who prays takes prayer as an end in itself. With the excep­tion of the occa­sion­al prayer of peti­tion, prayer is meant to raise the mind and heart to God, and not to get some­thing else. Unless stat­ed very care­ful­ly, any expres­sion of the ‘util­i­ty’ of prayer strikes pious ears as some­thing approach­ing sac­ri­lege. For the same rea­son, no one who does not already pray is like­ly to start pray­ing only to enhance his Latin!

So why write this essay? Easy: a great good can be accom­pa­nied by less­er ones. Food, for exam­ple, is for stay­ing alive, but it can also pro­vide delight and friend­ship. While prayer is not FOR teach­ing you Latin, that’s no rea­son it can’t do so. I hope that what fol­lows will appeal to those who pray already, but need con­vinc­ing that Latin is worth the trou­ble, and also to those who do not pray at all, but who would find the con­cept inter­est­ing for lin­guis­tic rea­sons. I’ll con­sid­er the essay a suc­cess if one such per­son pops into a church to expe­ri­ence Catholic prayer in its tra­di­tion­al form, ever ancient, ever new. I dare even hope some might dis­cov­er a far greater trea­sure than they were look­ing for.

A two by two row of monks reading.

What is Latin Prayer?

The Latin habit of prayer is impos­si­ble to define pre­cise­ly, because the time allot­ted to prayer dif­fers so much between peo­ple. For many, Latin prayer will be lim­it­ed to the week­ly Mass. At the oppo­site extreme, tra­di­tion­al­ly-mind­ed monks such as those at Nor­cia in Italy, Le Bar­roux in France, or Clear Creek in Okla­homa, rise before dawn to spend half their wak­ing hours pray­ing in Latin. They sing rough­ly the whole 150 psalms in a week, besides dai­ly Mass­es, pri­vate prayer, and bless­ings of fields, meals, beer, trucks, and pret­ty well omnia quae moven­tur in ter­ra. For one exam­ple of some­thing in the mid­dle, my own habit (well, when I’m behav­ing myself) includes:

  • Week­ly Mass, with Gre­go­ri­an chant when­ev­er pos­si­ble. About an hour.
  • Dai­ly Prime (morn­ing prayer) and Ves­pers (evening). About fif­teen min­utes each.
  • Dai­ly read­ing of the Reg­u­la Sanc­ti Bene­dic­ti, about five minutes.
  • Grace at meals, a few minutes.
  • Read­ing of reli­gious books in Latin, time variable.

Discipline

How does such a habit help one to learn Latin? Per­haps the most impor­tant ben­e­fit is that of dis­ci­pline. All stu­dents are famil­iar with wax­ing and wan­ing inter­est in their cho­sen fields. But when study is only a side ben­e­fit of a greater good, one suf­fi­cient in itself to moti­vate repeat­ed and dili­gent atten­tion, flag­ging becomes less like­ly and less severe. Catholics are used to keep­ing up our prayers even when we don’t feel like it. In fact, many authors sug­gest that dry peri­ods are pre­cise­ly when prayer is most fruit­ful. As a result, we’re always immersed in at least some Latin, unin­ten­tion­al though it may be. I can think of any num­ber of inter­ests I’ve adopt­ed with vigour, only to find they’ve gone dor­mant or dead with­in a few months. Cal­lig­ra­phy, pho­tog­ra­phy, cook­ery, var­i­ous musi­cal instru­ments, the Irish lan­guage… But my inter­est and pro­fi­cien­cy in Latin only grows.

Illustration by Concrete Objects

Immer­sion derives much of its ben­e­fit from the use of the lan­guage on the con­crete objects and actions around the stu­dent; it has the stu­dents ask each oth­er for salt at the din­ner table. The litur­gy [8] is crammed with such con­crete objects and actions, often accom­pa­nied by match­ing prayers. While the con­gre­ga­tion is being sprin­kled with holy water, they sing: “Asperges me Domine hys­sopo, et mund­a­bor. Lavabis me, et super nivem deal­ba­bor.” [9] As the priest begins the Mass at the low­est step of the altar, he intones the psalm “Introi­bo ad altare Dei.” [10] While incens­ing the cross and altar, he says “Diri­gatur ad te, Domine, ora­tio mea sicut incen­sum in con­spec­tu tuo.” [11]Grace before sup­per begins “Edent pau­peres, et sat­urabun­tur…” [12] All of this makes the earthy parts of Latin prayer very earthy indeed, and as firm­ly grasped as earth. 

Cantare amantis est

A great deal of Latin prayer is sung. This is pri­mar­i­ly in order to make a more beau­ti­ful offer­ing to God and to move the soul to greater love, but it is also a pow­er­ful tool for mem­o­riza­tion. Thomas Aquinas was a pro­lif­ic the­olo­gian who dis­cussed every­thing from the heart beat to the proof of God’s exis­tence by means of nat­ur­al rea­son. Few Catholics could quote any of that work from mem­o­ry, but many could recite a few stan­zas of his music for the feast of Cor­pus Christi, and most could hum the tunes. Some litur­gi­cal Latin music is easy, even down­right plea­sur­able to learn. Many authors took advan­tage of the new pop­u­lar­i­ty of rhyming text to repeat the same gram­mat­i­cal form for effect. For exam­ple: [13]

“Jesu, spes paen­i­ten­tibus,
quam pius es peten­tibus,
quam bonus te quaer­en­tibus,
sed quid invenientibus?”

— “Jesu Dul­cis Memo­ria,” Attr. to St. Bernard of Clair­vaux,  d. 1153

The Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass plays a sim­i­lar game through­out, with­out becom­ing pedan­tic. Maybe that explains why it’s one of the catchi­est tunes in the his­to­ry of music, cov­ered by Mozart, Haydn, Ver­di, Berlioz and Liszt, and bor­rowed by movies from The Lion King to Star Wars. (This link is pro­vid­ed only for the enter­tain­ing his­tor­i­cal dis­cus­sion. The snip­pets of the Dies Irae itself are deplorably bad.)

CANTARE AMANTIS EST. IMAGE COURTESY OF HOLY FAMILY CHOIR.

Repetition and Memorization

Even a basic pack­age of Latin prayer will see the most fun­da­men­tal prayers, a few pages worth, repeat­ed either dai­ly or week­ly. These are quick­ly mem­o­rized, invari­ably before a com­plete grasp of the gram­mar or vocab­u­lary. The ver­nac­u­lar sense, or a trans­la­tion, for exam­ple of the Lord’s Prayer or grace at meals, is gen­er­al­ly known. One there­fore has some­thing like a liv­ing par­al­lel text in the imag­i­na­tion. Know­ing by heart what the Latin means, one learns slow­ly but sure­ly why it means it. After a while, the crib fades out and one is think­ing, at least for a few para­graphs, in Latin. These prayers become the cen­ter of one’s inti­ma­cy with the litur­gy, the reas­sur­ance that for all its mys­tery, it is one’s own.

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Breadth of Style and Purpose

On the oth­er hand, many of the texts are repeat­ed only annu­al­ly, even less often for those par­tic­u­lar to spe­cial occa­sions. One might spend a life­time with­out see­ing the con­se­cra­tion of an altar stone, for exam­ple. There is there­fore plen­ty of fresh mate­r­i­al to keep things chal­leng­ing. And some of it is pret­ty chal­leng­ing! The Office Hymns, for exam­ple, can be as gram­mat­i­cal­ly acro­bat­ic as Horace, and pre­sume a broad vocab­u­lary, some of it post-clas­si­cal. The range of texts and styles in the Latin litur­gy can hard­ly be exag­ger­at­ed. The Canon[14] is rem­i­nis­cent of the high­ly styl­ized pagan prayers that pre­date Christianity.[15] The bib­li­cal read­ings are ear­ly Latin trans­la­tions of more than a millennium’s worth of Greek and Hebrew scrip­tures. Read­ings from the church fathers are often in a late clas­si­cal style. The Reg­u­la Mona­cho­rum is some­where between clas­si­cal and vul­gate. The hymns of the Divine Office were com­posed in an evolv­ing style between the 300s and 1200s, before being severe­ly revised in 1632 under Urban VIII to make them more Augus­tan. The sub­ject mat­ter is as vari­able as the style, rang­ing from prayer in the strict sense to instruc­tions for receiv­ing guests in a monastery, with healthy dos­es of his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, the­ol­o­gy, and of course expo­si­tion of the cen­tral dog­mas of the faith. 

Speak up!

One can­not learn a lan­guage with­out atten­tion to its heard and spo­ken aspects. It is much more tempt­ing to dump these in favour of silent read­ing when the lan­guage one is learn­ing is not used in dai­ly con­ver­sa­tion. You can’t turn on the Latin radio sta­tion on the way to work (apolo­gies to Nun­tii Lati­ni) or swing by the Lat­ian quar­ter for an espres­so and a box of mus­sels with garum. Latin prayer, on the oth­er hand, is usu­al­ly spo­ken aloud. You can’t escape from your inept­ly rolled ‘r’, and it’s hard­er to ignore vow­el quan­ti­ty. When you’re not speak­ing your­self, you’re lis­ten­ing to oth­er peo­ple speak­ing, and learn­ing from their supe­ri­or dic­tion. It’s even edi­fy­ing to hear the occa­sion­al priest who clear­ly has no Latin at all, whose mis­takes can sil­hou­ette the right habits you weren’t explic­it­ly aware of before.

FIAT LUX!

Check your work

Most pop­u­lar edi­tions of Latin prayer books come with a par­al­lel ver­nac­u­lar text. Mr. Bai­ley has explained the util­i­ty of a crib else­where, so I needn’t dwell on it here. Still, I’ll add one unex­pect­ed advan­tage of the Eng­lish cribs: They are gen­er­al­ly very loose, since they’re intend­ed to read pleas­ant­ly in Eng­lish. That means they’re most­ly use­ful for the occa­sion­al word one doesn’t know, and the read­er is not tempt­ed to let the crib do all the translating.

Two drawbacks

There is one way the Latin habit of prayer falls short of true lin­guis­tic immer­sion: One nev­er impro­vis­es these prayers, but relies on those found in the tra­di­tion. So although you’re speak­ing Latin, you’re not forced to make the jump from con­cepts to sen­tences. A corol­lary: writ­ten Latin is not part of this reg­i­men at all. If you want to become tru­ly flu­ent in Latin, you will need to sup­ple­ment your prayer life with col­lo­qui­al immer­sion, such as that offered by Vivar­i­um Novumand SALVI. Recep­tive lan­guage, on the oth­er hand, read­ing and hear­ing, does not suf­fer from this draw­back, and can be learned very well in the liturgy.

If I’ve sparked any inter­est in these few para­graphs, I will also have caused a small prob­lem. The Latin litur­gy can be dev­il­ish­ly hard to find! When the ver­nac­u­lar Mass was per­mit­ted by Pope Paul VI, Latin went the way of many of the Church’s oth­er price­less trea­sures, whether musi­cal, artis­tic or archi­tec­tur­al: Tech­ni­cal­ly still allowed, but sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly uproot­ed through­out most of the world. For a while, Catholics who pre­ferred the Latin forms were looked on with a degree of sus­pi­cion usu­al­ly reserved for schis­mat­ics. (We still enjoy feel­ing a bit coun­ter­cul­tur­al. I’m sure this is com­mon ground with non-Catholic Latin­ists!) In any case, recent years have seen a slow but steady return of Latin, and while cov­er­age is still thin, at least it’s broad, as you can see from this map. And there’s no geo­graph­i­cal imped­i­ment to pick­ing up a Bre­viary [16] and say­ing the psalms in Latin at home.

The Cadillac Latin Experience

But if you real­ly want to know Latin prayer, there’s no alter­na­tive to vis­it­ing a tra­di­tion­al monastery. The flag ship is Font­gom­bault in France, with 100 monks, but there are sim­i­lar hous­es in Eng­land, Scot­land, Ire­land, Italy and Wyoming, to name only a few. Here you will see Latin liv­ing in the bloom of her youth, and for­get that any­one ever dared to call her dead. The monks saved and recast West­ern civ­i­liza­tion in Latin over cen­turies, and clear­ly intend to do the same for cen­turies to come. But be very care­ful: Clear Creek Abbey in Okla­homa was found­ed by Amer­i­can vis­i­tors to Font­gom­bault. They only want­ed to see West­ern civ­i­liza­tion at its roots. Instead, they chose to pray in Latin for the rest of their lives.

Valete.

References

[1] Buck­ley TA. Canons and Decrees of the Coun­cil of Trent. Library of Alexan­dria; 2016 Nov 24. Avail­able here.

[2] XXIII J. Apos­tolic Con­sti­tu­tion Veterum sapi­en­tia (Feb­ru­ary 22, 1962). AAS. 1988 Dec 4;54:129–35.

[3] Sacro­sanc­tum Con­cil­i­um, para. 36

[4] Pope Paul VI, Sac­ri­fi­ci­um Laud­is, August 15, 1966

[5] Pope John Paul II, Domini­cae Cenae, Feb­ru­ary 24, 1980, sec. 10

[6] Pope Bene­dict XVI, Motu Pro­prio: “Sum­mo­rum Pontificum”

[7]Pope to Pon­tif­i­cal Acad­e­mies: Trans­mit Latin Cul­ture to Youth

[8] The pub­lic prayer of the Church, includ­ing orig­i­nal­ly pub­lic prayers when said privately.

[9] Thou shalt sprin­kle me, O Lord, with hys­sop and I shall be cleansed.

Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whitened more than snow.

[10] I shall enter unto the altar of God.

[11] Let my prayer, O Lord, be direct­ed as incense in Thy sight: the lift­ing up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.

[12] The poor shall eat, and be filled.

[13] O Jesus, hope of the pen­i­tent, how gra­cious you are to those who ask, how good to those who seek you, but what to those who find you?

[14] The cen­tral prayer of the Mass, con­tain­ing the Con­se­cra­tion. It has remained essen­tial­ly unchanged from at least the 500s until the present day, though sev­er­al fab­ri­cat­ed new options were intro­duced after Vat­i­can II. In prac­tice, these are not used when the Mass is in Latin.

[15] Chris­tine Mohrmann, Litur­gi­cal notes

[16] The com­pact man­u­al of most of the dai­ly hours of prayer

Benjamin Turner

Benjamin Turner

Benjamin Turner is a Canadian general surgeon, presently studying head and neck oncology in Florida. He was made Baccalaureatus Artium at Thomas Aquinas College in California and Medicinae Doctor at the University of Western Ontario, and is pursuing a Magister Artium in medical ethics at Duquesne University. He believes that a little Latin would go a long way to help doctors practice better medicine.
Written by Benjamin Turner

Written by Benjamin Turner

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