Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Internal Concordance

The 'every Sunday different' approach to contemporary liturgy may appeal to an internet generation that has an increasingly short attention span, but it has to be asked if such hit and miss services just make the problem worse.

The 1928 Prayer Book had only one cycle of lessons and no provision for readings at the daily Office. It is a positive step forward that people who attend church regularly are now exposed to a wider range of scriptures, but this gain has been accompanied by loss. The same can be said of the new translations of the psalms. While there are some brilliant moments—for example, the translation of Psalm 62 in the 1979 BCP—the music is no longer there, and it is the music of speech that seats it in memory.

The change from the KJV or even the RSV to the NRSV has been catastropic. Sometimes the NRSV is so awkward that it is almost impossible to read aloud, and the virtual elimination of the word 'behold' has meant a drastic shift in theology and the ability to interpret the texts. This issue will be discussed at length in my forthcoming books, Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding (BRF May, 2011), and Silence: A User's Guide.

But in this post I want to address the loss of what might be called the internal concordance. This term indicates that the words of scripture and liturgy are so deeply integrated in the person that phrases appear spontaneously and appropriately at any given moment. It is as if there is a kind of prayer wheel in a person's core silence that offers support as well as accompaniment to life.

I look out from my kitchen window at dairy cattle grazing, 'the cattle upon a thousand hills.' The mauve and white blossoms of wild radish and the yellow of wild mustard ripple in the breeze across the lower meadow, 'they laugh and sing.' Or I have been through another 'use and discard' situation and am feeling sorry for myself: 'I have no place to flee unto/and no one cares for my soul.' And the concordance helps me out of this dark place: 'Look upon me and be radiant, and let not your face be ashamed.' Then 'You speak in my heart and say, 'Seek my face'; your face, Lord, will I seek.'

Many of these texts seated themselves during Sunday liturgy when I was a child. They were augmented by years of singing the Office, but the process began long before I ever knew about monastic life. The grace of language of the 1928 book has been cited by many a writer as one of the most important influences in their lives, Coverdale's translation of the psalter in particular. These were often writers who went to private school and had to attend compulsory chapel.

But the internal concordance is not the private playground of the rich; long passages of the Bible are routinely memorized by people who are more or less illiterate. They repeat spiritual songs that contain verses or précis of Scripture. These passages rise up to point the songline of their lives as it spins out of time over the arc of the day. It is the foundation of rock on which they build their house, their tabernacle of the heart.


Anonymous Susan Law said...

In "A History of God," which I was reading awhile ago, Karen Armstrong speaks of learning something "by heart" - of course that's a very familiar expression, but I had not thought of memorization in those words in a long time. Yet that's what is so potent in memorization - it goes beyond the brain and intellect - it engages the heart.

When I've learned something at this level, even something quite trivial, it reveals a richness that I hadn't guessed was there in my initial encounters. Learning can be not just an accumulation but a transformation and so this takes time.

I think this relates to your internal concordance. And as you point out, "it is the music of speech that seats it in memory." And in the heart.

5:53 pm, June 19, 2010  

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