by Catherine Madsen

The talking cure

CATHERINE MADSEN is a contributing editor to CrossCurrents and the author of a new novel, A Portable Egypt.

The Unbearable Lightness of Praying

Not many people today would be willing to accord liturgical writing the status even of a minor art form. For art's sake that would not matter -- art will survive either way -- but for prayer's sake it does matter, because so many levels of prayer are now inaccessible in English. There is something quixotic and risible in walking into a present-day religious service in search of profound language; one is made to feel out of place, ridiculously demanding, as if everyone knows that liturgy is mere propaganda to comfort the simple and keep children in the tradition. Nothing is really wrong with liturgy geared toward a child's understanding, except when nothing else is available. But children need liturgy they can grow up to; adults need to know that they can produce liturgy in their own time and language. Both need liturgy that can meet their most exigent needs.

The motive behind the large-scale liturgical revisions in the Western traditions in the twentieth century seems to have been impatience with the established language of piety, whether that language was Latin, Hebrew or sixteenth-century English. (Church Slavonic, surviving the duress of Soviet repression, did not sink so far in its speakers' esteem.) The Western liturgies had come to seem incongruous in a world of mechanized production, fast travel, rational thought, and widespread awareness of the incongruity between behavior and just deserts. The old consolations seemed incredible, the old language impenetrable. The general sentiment toward the old liturgies was simple and nonnegotiable: We don't want to repeat that any more.

What seemed to be an unaskable question was what we did want to repeat. Writers of new liturgy knew what they wanted to say, but not how to make it repeatable; they had theological and psychological and sociological views, but could not cast them in phrases of emotional and moral weight. They did not deal in stylistic imponderables like what makes a phrase commanding, or the ratio between the familiar and the surprising after the nth repetition. Resenting the old language of piety, they neglected old language generally; they did not ransack the dictionaries for disused words with a contemporary bite. (Middle English had a word evilfare that described the opposite of welfare; how different the discussion of welfare reform might be if this word were in it.) The new liturgists wrote with a sweeping sense of political mission; they insisted that attention must be paid -- while neglecting all the available linguistic means to develop attention.

I suspect that the general malaise of liberal religion in this country since the Vietnam war -- its diffidence before its battle-hardy right-wing cousins, its inability to create a climate of opinion that will not tolerate homelessness or lack of universal health care -- has everything to do with this neglect. Our liturgical speech does not hold the imagination, or move the heart or the feet. The language in which the Civil Rights Movement moved the feet of a generation has been taken out of the religious mainstream and rendered quaint; what will strike new generations about it is not its authority but its antiquity. Modern liturgists seem to believe that an idea -- stripped of music and cadence and conviction and all the other means by which we convey an idea we love -- need only be presented to accomplish its work. But an idea in an inert form accomplishes nothing. I recently read that a group of African women activists hope to replace female circumcision by "circumcision through words." What words would be strong enough to do the job? What modern liturgist would be up to the task?

There is very little help in the literature of religious studies for these questions. Theologians and scholars of religion have studied the doctrines, the development, the anthropology, the sociology and the politics of liturgy -- everything but the moment when our souls ring in sympathy with a phrase and want to obey it. But that moment of resonance is what distinguishes prayer (and some poetry) from all other speech. What I present here is a preliminary sketch of certain forces that may be operating at such a moment.

Out of the Mouths of Babes: Language Development and After

In one sense, liturgy starts from one of the more desolating facts of human experience: we live in groups, but very little of what we most need to say can be said outright in a group. Between the people we know too well and the people we do not know well enough, we cannot go much above or below the surface in a public liturgical setting, except by indirect methods. Our secrets are too powerful, or too fragile, for such exposure.

Yet humans are, from almost the beginning of our lives, speaking creatures. We seem not to be satisfied that we have experienced our experience until we have passed it through language. We acquire the habit very early in childhood, in the preschooler's running chant of moment-to-moment activities that Piaget called "egocentric speech." Piaget's critic Lev Vygotsky discovered experimentally that egocentric speech increases in the presence of an obstacle: it functions as a form of problem-solving. He also believed it was meant to be overheard, since it occurred with much greater frequency in the presence of others, even though the child was not quite conversing with them. Speech presupposes a listener; in some rudimentary sense, it is a form of trust.

Egocentric speech is generally outgrown by the age of six or seven, becoming more idiosyncratic and less comprehensible to a listener and finally disappearing. Piaget thought that it was fully replaced by social speech; Vygotsky thought that it simply became unvocalized -- that the child becomes able to think in words without speaking (like becoming able to count mentally rather than on one's fingers), and egocentric speech is internalized as the private shorthand of thought. But egocentric speech may also have a kind of external survival in the public shorthand of prayer. Prayer is a vocabulary for difficulty; notoriously, it increases in the presence of an obstacle. It addresses -- usually without being able to solve -- the severest and most intractable problems of adult moral life. It may to some extent compensate for the isolation of private thought, simply by being vocalized.

Prayer is not social speech, in Piaget's sense; it is not dialogue. The highly formal nature of liturgy, like the autonomy of egocentric speech, protects the participants against the risks of interaction at moments of vulnerability. David Crystal, a linguist one of whose specialties is intonation, once noted that the recitation of written liturgy takes place in something close to a monotone (100-102). Facial expressions, spontaneous gestures, the rise and fall of the voice all vanish; prayer, virtually alone among our linguistic expressions, is emotive without being expressive. (Some religious traditions give more space to demonstrative emotion than the Catholic and Anglican traditions that Crystal studied, but the monotone chant often exists alongside it.) The trancelike repetition of emotionally charged language -- spoken in the presence of others but stripped of the essential tools of conversation -- allows an intensified inwardness to emerge in an outward form.

As a "collective monologue" -- a Vygotsky term for a roomful of children all engaged in talking to themselves and not to each other -- liturgy is a meeting point between opposing temperaments. It gives extraverts practice in being introverts, against the time when they may need that skill. It gives introverts practice in being extraverts, a way to tolerate the presence of others. The monotone liturgical recitative is a release from normal social relations; there is no need to think of one's next remark, no need to conceal one's true nature, no need to smile. Personality clashes and differences of opinion may resurface the instant the liturgy ends, but while it lasts another mode of existence has taken over.

In the Dark Backward and Abysm of Time: Early Modern Liturgical English

In the English-speaking world, the language that modern liturgy tried to replace was a sort of fusion of inner and outer speech. The literacy of the sixteenth century was still powerfully oral; the printing press was quite new, and it was the printing of vernacular Bibles that created the first unprecedented wave of populist literacy. The translations themselves had a strongly assured oral sense -- what the poet Donald Hall (in another connection) calls the "chewable phoneme" -- and they employed the rhythms and repetitive sounds of a tradition of memory-training. Our speech is still full of phrases from the earliest modern English Bible, William Tyndale's -- signs of the times, God forbid, fight the good fight.

At the same time, sixteenth-century English writers were striving for eloquence. Scholars trained in Latin and Greek were eager for a vernacular with the abstract terms and conceptual possibilities of classical literature. Hebrew also came into the mix; the biblical translators introduced both conceptual imports (coinages like lovingkindness, scapegoat, Passover) and syntactical ones (an increased preference for possessives in the form the trees of the wood rather than the wood's trees, the ubiquitous "and" to begin a sentence). Ultimately, the liturgical writing of the age created a remarkable tension between the hypnotic consolations of oral language and the startling novelties of the written word.

The urgency of this evolving language was intensified by the uncertainties of a political climate in which a writer was liable to be martyred for taking any strong religious stand. The threat of death concentrates the mind, and the prose. What David Daniell calls the "slightly heightened" language of Tyndale's translations comes partly from a consciousness of the extraordinary step of making the Bible generally accessible in English against English law, a step for which Tyndale eventually paid with his life. But other forces were at work as well. Empiricism was one: the independent judgment with which Reformation Protestants read the Bible was paralleled in the secular realm by the development of scientific method. The excitement of building a language was another: the experimental power of coining new words, making a familiar tongue strange in order to make new thoughts sayable. A sense of contingency filtered into literary style as the sixteenth century progressed; it even became a syntactical method.

Literary styles loosened, becoming less oratorical and calculated, more speculative and spontaneous. Writers in Latin, French and English abandoned the elaborate Ciceronian period for a "humble" and more direct sentence. As Morris Croll points out in one of several essays on this transition, Cicero's measured and circuitous style was only possible in a highly inflected language; in the minimally inflected Western European vernaculars, an adequate prose style had to work with a new set of rules. But Tyndale had come to grips with those rules when he exclaimed that "the properties of the Hebrew tongue agreeth a thousand times more with the English than with the Latin. The manner of speaking is both one, so that in a thousand places thou needest not but to translate it into the English word for word" (Daniell 290) rather than becoming involved in the flexible Latin word order. When late sixteenth-century literary stylists were ready to try the "humble" style in English, Tyndale's sentence -- headlong, monosyllabic and versatile -- had been in the public ear for several decades.

The shift was emotional as much as syntactical. The late sixteenth-century stylists (whom Croll, over the course of a career, called variously the "Senecan" or "anti-Ciceronian" or "baroque" stylists) shaped their syntax "to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking." They sensed that "an idea separated from the act of experiencing it is not the idea that was experienced"; they "deliberately chose as the moment of expression that in which the idea first clearly objectifies itself in the mind, in which, therefore, each of its parts still preserves its own peculiar emphasis and an independent vigor of its own -- in brief, the moment in which truth is still imagined" (Croll 210). This immediacy -- which could disrupt sentence logic in ways we now associate with James Joyce -- created a strong sense of participation, a sense that the stakes were high; far from shutting out the common reader, it served as clear evidence that ideas could be experienced.

In a sense the Psalms, with their radical and jarring changes of mood and subject, were the first models in English of stream-of-consciousness writing; if they do not contain "ideas" in the sixteenth-century sense, they do expose truth in the act of being imagined. The Psalms were especially ubiquitous, being read and sung aloud in Miles Coverdale's translation and in many metrical reworkings, but the prophetic writings show equally wrenching shifts between praise and accusation, pride and abjection, psychological subtlety and raw violence. How this method worked itself out in literature is evident in Shakespeare's soliloquies -- Hamlet's vacillations, Lear's ravings -- and eventually also in the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, with their "heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together." Incongruity became a method of spiritual and psychological perception.

The "humble style" was eventually superseded by an even humbler style: a radical simplicity, proceeding step by step according to outline, which first emerged in Puritan sermons and eventually became the syntactical backbone of the prose of secular reason with Dryden in the late seventeenth century. This clear and highly organized prose, which is still the model for scholarship and journalism, eclipsed the speculative style rather rapidly. Ian Robinson's claim (164) that the new style squelched "passion, tragedy, ecstasy, great beauty" with an efficiency that has crippled prose writing ever since is perhaps an extreme view -- or at least it can be argued that Blake, Ruskin, Emerson, Yeats, and others eventually recovered much of the lost ground in the literary realm. But T. S. Eliot too perceived a "dissociation of sensibility" in the writing of the late seventeenth century, from which he thought the language had never recovered: a detachment of emotion and intellect that impoverished both.

Certainly Robinson's theory offers an explanation for the state of modern liturgical prose. As prose became more organized, it became both more abstract and less audible. The reader could grasp its ideas without lingering over the details of their expression. (Modern methods of speed-reading depend on this ability to read visually, without subvocalization: speed without sound.) By the time of the Romantics, passionate language was recoverable in the realm of literature and criticism, but excluded from the realms of science, technology and political economy, and suspect wherever objectivity was valued. By the mid-twentieth century, when large-scale liturgical revisions began, scholarship had become standardized in the dispassionate rather than the passionate form. People with graduate degrees in divinity and theology learned to write the language of analysis, not experience. Meanwhile liturgical English had frozen in the forms of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; when it thawed, it was in the possession of writers in whom the language of feeling had been checked. Modern liturgists, throwing off the shackles of four hundred years of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible, had ready to hand the professional prose of scholarship -- language that begins with an answer and proceeds to arrive at it in carefully rationed increments, rather than language that begins with an impulse and finds its way to an epiphany.

Stanley Fish, anatomizing the prose of a mind thinking, suggests the psychological difference between the rational, organized style (which he calls "rhetorical") and the speculative and inductive (or "dialectical") style:

A presentation is rhetorical if it satisfies the needs of its readers. The word "satisfies" is meant literally here; for it is characteristic of a rhetorical form to mirror and present for approval the opinions its readers already hold. It follows then that the experience of such a form will be flattering, for it tells the reader that what he has always thought about the world is true and that his ways of thinking are sufficient. This is not to say that in the course of a rhetorical experience one is never told anything unpleasant, but that whatever one is told can be placed and contained within the categories and assumptions of received systems of knowledge.

A dialectical presentation, on the other hand, is disturbing, for it requires of its readers a searching and rigorous scrutiny of everything they believe in and live by. It is didactic in a special sense; it does not preach the truth, but asks that its readers discover the truth for themselves, and this discovery is often made at the expense not only of a reader's opinions and values, but of his self-esteem. If the experience of a rhetorical form is flattering, the experience of a dialectical form is humiliating. (1-2)

Most modern liturgy is "rhetorical," in the sense that it prides itself on not giving offense. It has cleaned up the messy supernaturalisms of the old language, adjusted its gendered pronouns, and toned down its chauvinisms; it has avoided unsettling the certainties in other directions. Modern liturgists, keenly aware of the risks of humiliating their constituencies, know that a heavy application of flattery is a useful emollient. But powerful and durable liturgy owes more to our uncertainties and our hungers, which humiliate us by nature; flattering language is worth very little next to language that allows that humiliation its place. What "dialectical" prose does is to reproduce egocentric speech: it puts us in the midst of our difficulties. It is a problem-solving form that will not guarantee a solution.

As a model for prayer such a form is far more versatile and capacious than the flattering one. For one thing, it can hold disabling private emotions without insisting on an immediate cure, an accommodation which immediately makes them a bit less disabling. Its point is not to take us to humiliation and leave us there, but to take us through humiliation to a resolution that cannot be foreseen. We may be justified in rejecting certain old liturgical forms and assertions; we are unlikely to outgrow the method.

Down the Garden Path: Cognitive Science

It is not possible to revoke the seventeenth-century shift to the organized and rational sentence and the logical argument. But it is not necessary to give those developments the last word. Shakespeare and Donne are not so far removed from us as to seem primitive or cognitively unformed; our own thought processes remain less organized, more instantaneous, than a cleaned-up logical presentation would suggest. We possess the same neurological equipment as the earlier writers.

The neural workings of language are so complex that we are only at the beginning of knowing them; the same is true of the neurology of both emotional and religious experience. Cognitive scientists have begun to map, at a gross and schematic level, the locations of certain functions, but how those functions work in concert will be the task of decades or lifetimes to understand. How does metaphor work in the brain? Does "egocentric speech" use the same pathways as social speech, or are there perceptible differences? Is there a traceable connection between the monotone liturgical recitative and the sense of trust? Some observers have noted that music and familiar religious language can cause sufferers from dementia to become more composed, even to reach relatively intact islands of memory: the trance is accessible even when social habits are badly disrupted. Does this effect depend purely on the familiarity of the material, or do the sensibility and rhythms of the writing assist the process? The physical satisfactions of rhythm, the "mouth-pleasure" (another Donald Hall term) of words designed to be spoken -- and the visceral resentment of unwelcome liturgical changes -- clearly have some biological basis; how does it work? No doubt an MRI would show very different patterns of brain activity depending on whether the subject was reading in the "rhetorical" or the "dialectical" mode -- whether the ear was involved along with the eye, whether the prevailing emotion was complacency or troubled introspection.

There has been a good deal of cognitive research on sentences with ambiguous referents (a phenomenon known as "garden-pathing"): by allowing the reader to advance the sentence one word at a time on a computer, researchers have been able to pinpoint the exact place where the reader slows down to disentangle the ambiguity. It would be much more difficult to devise experiments to learn how the syntactical and conceptual ambiguities of "dialectical" or poetic language slow and concentrate the reader's attention. But I suspect it will eventually be found -- by objective means as it is already found by experience -- that when language slows us, even by saying something disturbing, it is in some way also calming. It gives us something besides its content: even by puzzling and humiliating us, it gives us essential work to do. Language that can be read fast and understood easily -- language that speaks to the eye and the reason -- keeps us on the surface; if it disturbs us the only compensation it offers is a convenient categorical term for the disturbance. Language made for the mouth and the ear goes all the way to the bone. The difference is so palpable to the reader that it must surely be perceptible to the neurologist's instruments. Objective and subjective knowledge may eventually support each other in showing that there is no such thing as paraphrase -- that the form of our language is as crucial as the content.

Putting the Id Back in Liturgy

"You taught me language," snarls Shakespeare's Caliban, "and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse." Despite the range of feeling in biblical writing, the worshiper's experience is generally more like Balaam's in Numbers 23-24: we open our mouths to curse and can only bless. The experience is occasionally revelatory, but more often merely anaesthetizing; at times it may be bitterly frustrating. To recover the full "dialectical" range of liturgical language, it may be necessary to recover its unpleasantness.

It is a commonplace of religious studies that ritual is a form of anamnesis. The word is curiously constructed -- as if amnesia were the normal state, and the negative prefix an- were only needed for those rare occasions when forgetting is reversed. But the a- of amnesia is itself a negative prefix: the word mnemonics, and the goddess of memory Mnemosyne, point back to the root form mneme. Untangling the negatives, we reconstruct the progression: the natural state is accessible memory; the interrupted and concealed state, amnesia; the third state the recovery, deliberately and through repeatable acts, of alienated knowledge. The need for a memorable language of ritual is at least partly the need for language strong enough to handle our memories.

From the secure and leisurely amblings of egocentric speech, we arrive at the most difficult speech in our experience: confession, recollection of bewilderment and pain, admission of helplessness, longing and pleading. Western religion, which had a difficult birth, has known all these states. Its rituals of memory trace a series of destructions: destruction of the faithless, destruction of the enemy, destruction of the innocent, destruction of trust between the people and God. Both rabbinic Judaism and Christianity evolved from a catastrophic loss -- the wreck of the Second Temple and of the geographical Jewish nation -- and their liturgies derive not only from revelation and deliverance but from the knowledge of devastation. When Judaism in exile replaced the sacrifices of the ruined Temple with the "sacrifice of the heart," when Christianity in embryo replaced both the Temple sacrifices and the martyred teacher with the symbolic sacrifice of the communion, they were not only preserving memory; they were ascertaining how much they could live without.

Modern liturgy has not wondered how much it can live without. The sense of loss is far from its consciousness; it has abandoned old forms with relief or maintained them by reflex. The prose of analysis interposes itself between the experience of loss and the emotions of fear and grief. But religion is being practiced in a time when all securities have gradually been pared away: the centrality of religion, the authority of religion, the point of religion in the face of planetary crisis; the certainty of God's favor, the certainty of God's goodness, the certainty of God's existence. It is an extraordinarily disengaged sensibility that can maintain halfhearted and vestigial forms in the face of multiple threats to human survival. Of all the ironies of the twentieth century, not the least is that in the century of Hitler and Stalin, of Freud and Einstein, of trench warfare and state-sponsored gas chambers, of the Bomb and chemical weapons and global warming, liturgy should become, of all things, optimistic.

Art and psychotherapy -- which have had to confront these same truths without the refuge of optimism -- are far in advance of liturgy, and may provide some direction. Though the two forms are sometimes at odds (the reason that some artists prefer not to be cured of their neuroses, and that the purpose of art therapy is expression without evaluation), their material is the same range of traumas. Whether they deal with love or epiphany, the extremes of childhood suffering or the disasters of war, they hold certain assumptions in common. Both reject censorship: there is no penalty for knowledge and no prohibition on the expression of knowledge. Both recognize the continuity of body, mind and feeling in our response to distress and in the work of survival. Both artist and patient must re-experience fully the emotions of disaster -- and both must eventually subordinate those emotions to a greater demand: in art, to the form of the work, and in psychotherapy to the obligations and compensations of adult life. Both artist and therapist must use strong and effective means of awakening honesty, teaching sympathy, compelling change.

Liturgy is not a negligible cousin of these techniques, to be left to the incoherent cross-purposes of prayer book committees who mean well. As therapy is a private means of integration, liturgy is a public one; as art is an individual effort at transformation, liturgy is a collective one. Or, to put it in Freudian terms (not that Freud understood either religion or childhood suffering with full accuracy or good faith): liturgical language is a talking cure, which allows the id the full range of its passions while allowing the superego the full range of its authority. It gives aspects of our selves that are generally in conflict a means of trusting each other. (George Steiner speaks of Henry James's "super-id of moral-aesthetic commitment.") To produce liturgy that can compass both our sublime and our ridiculous with such reconciling force, liturgists will need far greater attention, sensual enjoyment of words, and imaginative agility.

There are many reasons why this cannot be an institutional project. There is every reason why it must be an intellectual project. The night terrors of clergy at the erosion of mainline religion must no longer be allowed to set the common denominator of religious language; flattery and evasion are the inevitable results. The complacency of worshipers who prefer flattery must be disturbed, or at least sidestepped, by worshipers (and outsiders) who prefer ideas at the point of emergence. It is essential that liturgical language be detached from the means of enforcement; the necessary humiliations of dialectical prose must be resolutely distinguished from the gratuitous humiliations of institutional power. But humiliation is not always imposed from the top down. It is generated spontaneously from our inadequacies and our failures, and the mere look of pain on the face of a friend we have failed is enough to convince us that the moral universe is stricter than our religions have ever taught. The language in which we can simply admit this -- in which we can long for and work toward earning a look of joy, with no certainty that we will ever find it -- may be the language we want to repeat.

Works Cited

Croll, Morris W. "The Baroque Style in Prose." In Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm. Ed. J. Max Patrick et al. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Crystal, David. Investigating English Style. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969.

Daniell, David. William Tyndale: A Biography. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Fish, Stanley. Self-Consuming Artifacts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Robinson, Ian. The Establishment of Modern English Prose in the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Vygotsky, Lev. Thought and Language. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2002, Vol. 52,  No 2.