Dear Donagh,
…Sometimes I think I understand the faith and the next minute I think I don’t understand anything about it.  Why is it so hard to understand?  It’s supposed to be for simple people as well as for highly educated people, so why is it so difficult?  The new Mass has thrown me back to square one.  I don’t know what the priest is saying.  It might as well be in a foreign language.  I used to love going to Mass, I was able to follow the prayers and feel part of it.  Now it’s all above my head.  I talked about it to my friends and they are just as much at sea as I am.  One of them said she saw this website where you could ask questions.  That's how I came to ask you.  Can you explain why everything is now so hard to explain?  Margaret

Dear Margaret,

The faith is at once very difficult and very easy to understand.  It is difficult for grown-ups, and easier for children (and for grown-ups who have the heart of a child).  “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exuperéy, in the person of the Little Prince.  

But it was adults who tried to explain everything to us about the faith when we were children.  We had to learn the Catechism: to memorise adults’ answers to their own questions.  I saw that same catechism on sale again a few years ago, and I read the first chapter as I stood waiting in a bookshop.  It was all about God.  It said that God made the world, that ‘he’ is the ruler of all things, that he sees all our most secret thoughts and actions, that he will reward us for good deeds and punish us for evil…. Nowhere did it mention that God loves uslet alone that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8, 16).  “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love,” St John wrote.  We were being taught about God from a book that indicated no knowledge of God.  Is it any wonder that we now find the faith difficult to understand?  To know God we have to rediscover in ourselves the open heart of a child.  “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God [= the presence of God] as a little child will never enter it” (Mk 10:15).

One of my confrères, who is more than ninety years of age, tells with great delight what an eight-year-old girl said to him when he visited her family.  “You stay here with us [the children],” she said, “and we’ll let the grown-ups do their own thing.”  “But I'm a grown-up!” he objected.  “No you’re not,” she said; “you’re just one of us.”  He is a delightful exception to every rule of boredom.  Most adults are deficient in imagination, and they complicate everything by trying to understand everything with their rational minds alone.  In the Church (with very few exceptions) they are still doing this on a grand scale. 

I know a church where the priest produces his own Sunday missalette so that he can leave the opening prayer, the offertory prayer, and the communion prayer in the simple form they had till last year.  When asked about it, he said he puts them there as “solutions to the riddles” that we now have in their place.  Since the language of the new missal is largely incomprehensible to hearers, he said, people can read the simple version and know what the prayer is about. 

The stilted style of the new missal says something very strange about God.  It suggests that formality, not intimacy, is the real deal.  Its artificial language helps to make the Liturgy alien to us.  It brings back the chill of the penny catechism.  It is not an improvement on the translation it replaced; instead it squanders most of what we had gained in half a century. 

Try not to be put off by the pompous language of that new missal, Margaret.  Some people, defending it, call its language “sacral”, but it comes to the same thing.  For centuries Mass was said in Latin, a language unknown to most people.  Why not just say to yourself that the new missal puts you in the same position as your parents and grandparents?  They were devoted to the Mass while not understanding a word of what the priest was reading.  We can still be intimately present to Christ even when the language militates against it.  Christ is fully present in the readings, in the assembly and celebrant, in the bread and wine, in the action of the Eucharist. 

You are in good company when you say there are moments when you feel you understand nothing of the faith.  The Christian mystics are just about unanimous in saying that we cannot understand God.  In the second century St Justin Martyr wrote, “No one can give a name to God, who is too great for words; if anyone dares to say that it is possible to do so, he must be suffering from an incurable madness.”  And in the thirteenth century St Thomas Aquinas wrote, “This is the final human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know God.”  God would still be mysterious even in plain English.  But bloated language gives the impression that it is better suited to God than simple language.  This is not the case.  When you feel you understand nothing of the faith, don't be disheartened.  That is exactly the moment when you can know it in your heart. 

Let’s not expect too much from ‘adults’, who are not so adult after all; let them do their own thing, as the little girl said.


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