Ralph Adams Cram: Caldey Abbey and the Latin Liturgy (1911)

To the Editor of The Living Church:

THE fact that I have almost always found myself consistently at one with Presbyter Ignotus may perhaps in his sight palliate my dissension from his conviction in one particular case. In The Living Church for October 14th, he speaks with unwonted sharpness of the use of the Latin language in the monastic offices and the liturgy at Caldey Abbey, finding the effect “alien and artificial,” asking “cui bono,” and while justifying the use of the “Liber Precum Publicarum” in colleges on the ground (untenable, alas, today) that there Latin is a second mother tongue,” condemning it amongst the Caldey monks as a “sort of tour de force, a phonograph performance, disedifying and exotic.”

I am sorry for the expression of these impressions as I am at a loss to understand how they could have been obtained: the restoration of the Religious Life for men to our own portion of the Catholic Church is (or has been) sufficiently difficult of accomplishment, and even now it is important that no idea of affectation or wilful mediaevalism should be carelessly attributed to the several houses, or heedlessly acquired by those unfamiliar with their nature. This is particularly true of the Benedictines, since, being a lawful and bona fide revival in the Church of England of the Religious Life according to the Holy Rule of Sf. Benedict, unchanged and undiminished, the movement they represent is by its nature most open to superficial criticism or uninformed condemnation. I suppose I am as intimately familiar with Caldey Abbey as any man in the United States, and I think I have the right to say that there, if anywhere, any charge of affectation or unreality falls to the ground: not only is this Benedictine community the most absolutely untarnished centre of true Christian civilization with which I am familiar, it is also the moat convincing example of single purpose, honest effort and simple sincerity. It is impossible to spend a few days on this new “Holy Island” without submitting to the kind compulsion of this wonderful and potent thing that has come in these latter days to play its enormous part in the redemption of the Church. I know Presbyter Ignotus would agree with me in this, and because I know this I regret what he has written.

For myself, and all the others I have come to know in the Abbey guest house, the Latin offices are an essential part of the whole thing, not only an added beauty to a mode of worship that has no equal east or west, but a fundamental fact, a note of universality, a mark of historic continuity that could not be eliminated without loss that might well be fatal.

Every visitor to Caldey should remember that he enters the chapel, lives in the guest house, even sets foot on the island, only on sufferance and by the kindness of the Father Abbot; the life is not arranged for him, the offices are not for his edification; his very presence on the island is often, and in several ways, a handicap. The work of these monks is the Opus Dei of unceasing prayer and intercession; they are not a missionary Order, and the standard by which their methods are determined is not that of public appeal but of private effectiveness.

That the use of Latin in chapel conduces to this effectiveness is proved at least by the fact that it has continued from the first and under it the Order has grown stronger and more efficient year by year. Why should it not! Why should the use of Latin be a hard ship or a stumbling block? Presbyter Ignotus holds that, few of the brethren being university men, the offices must be uncomprehended by them, but this does not follow: the offices are not novel and unknown, they are unvarying in their make-up and they are repeated day after day and year after year. Many of the psalms, as those for compline, must be committed to memory, and it is possible that many of the monks know the whole Psalter by heart. As a matter of fact all the offices are far more familiar even to the newly professed novice than are the vernacular services of the Church to the average secular worshipper.

But it may be said, why Latin rather than English? Isn’t the latter good enough and more consonant with the spirit of the Anglican Church? There are two sides to this question: no one would think of suggesting the abandonment of the English language in parish church services, but of late we have come increasingly to realize that Latin is not a dead language, useful only as a mode of mental training, but that it has a cultural value for which there is no substitute. The change in the point of view of educators, in this respect alone, during the last five years, is almost startling, and I think the time will come when something of the same change will be perceived in the Church.

For after all there is a good deal of superstition mixed with the good sense that proscribes English as the sole language for public worship in our part of the Church. Half the old antipathies engendered by the Reformation are still operative though the cause is long since dead. One of these is naturally the use of Latin as a liturgical language. Every revolution gains at the cost of something lost. The gain of vernacular services was enormous, but something of value vanished with the old missals, breviaries, graduals, and psalters. The effort to make of religion a purely rational thing, intellectually expressible and intellectually comprehensible, has met with indifferent success, and the nemesis of denial is hot on the trail. We who have heard the noble and sonorous Latin of the choir offices at Caldey, chanted in the dusk to the solemn Gregorian mode after the method of Solesmes, know that therein is something of wonder and mystery and transcendence that are as consonant of religion as the keen mental appeal of services in our own tongue: we love the good English of Caldey parish church, but across the field, in the dim chapel, we find another and a different element that rounds out and perfects the familiar Prayer Book services. Words and language are more than the small change of thought, they have in the beginning, and acquire without ceasing, a certain spiritual significance and dynamic power of spiritual suggestion: they become evocative as well as expressive: moreover, an Idea of emotion voiced in one language can never be adequately translated into another, and many of the noblest thoughts and aspirations of man have been expressed in the Latin tongue: any transcription of them into another language can be only a pale simulacrum of the original. Take for example the Dies Irae, the Stabat Mater, or, best of all, the Hora Novissima: listen to the best possible English translation, said or sung, then hear good English monk voices chanting:

“Imminet, imminet, ut mala terminet, aequa coronet” and all that goes before and follows after in this astounding hymn: no man can deny that even to the most rudimentary Latinist (like myself) there is something of inestimable value in the original that is non-existent in the translation.

Again, the Gregorian mode, which is the only perfect type of religious music devised by (or revealed to) man, is the alter ego of Christian Latin, it may be distorted to misfit our English words and construction, but the results are seldom edifying: if we are to restore it in all its sublimity, it must be in conjunction with Latin words, otherwise we had best leave it largely alone.

Finally Latin was our own Church language for a thousand years, it is today the universal tongue of all the rest of the Church in the West, and it possesses a certain element of universality, of continuity, that is supremely useful at this particular juncture: it can never be the common tongue of our public worship, but it links us by another chain to the great past of which we are common heritors with the rest of the Western Church, and if we abandon it altogether we do so at the peril of irredeemable loss.

So for one (though there are many others) I am devoutly thankful that Dom Aelred in restoring the Benedictine Life to the English Church has been led to restore the Latin offices as well, and I hope to live to see the day when the admirable Latin translation of the Prayer Book will be as commonly used in our Divinity Schools as the original, and every college and university have its own “Latin Chapel” with daily services. I know of no better panacea than this for the ills of materialism, intensive intellectualism, and rationalized religion that now afflict the spiritual life of our time.

R. A. CRAM. Boston, October 19, 1911.

The Living Church, November 4, 1911, p. 18.

1 Comment

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One response to “Ralph Adams Cram: Caldey Abbey and the Latin Liturgy (1911)

  1. John Klopacz

    We may not yet have “Latin Chapel” with daily services, but 1559 Preces Vespertinae will be sung for the last time in the current academic year on Wednesday, June 8, 5:15 pm in Memorial Church on the Stanford University campus. Should you find yourself in Palo Alto next month, please join us.

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