lingua latina

Walking recently in a country that was Catholic until the Council, I saw a large, medieval village church and tried to go in. The nave was barred by a locked iron gate, but from the narthex one could see the high altar with its fine marble baldachino. In front of it stood a little altar set up to face the congregation upon which, I suppose, the holy sacrifice is offered on days when the nave is not locked. And I marveled, as I always do, at the silent testimony these things bear to a revolution; and I mused on how many Catholic altars there are throughout the world, once consecrated by a successor of an apostle, now gathering dust.

What would Pope Innocent III have said of it? Writing of the mystical meaning of our ceremonies, he says that the altar-stone in which the relics of saints are enclosed represents the Church; the priest kissing it when he begins Mass, is the Bridegroom showing his love for the Bride. How many of our altars never receive this mark of tenderness, but remain unreverenced from year’s end to years end? Some serve as stands for pot-plants, or worse. Some stand naked, as if a decree had gone forth that it should be always Good Friday and never Easter. Others again, if little heeded by the priests, are tended still by some faithful sacristan who waits in silence for a change of days. But alongside each unused altar, a heavenly power stands, untroubled yet unforgetful.

And as I thought of these things, and thought also that he spoke rightly who said one should kindle a light rather than bemoan the darkness, I determined to compose a prayer for the restoration of our altars; and you also, good reader, may recite this prayer if you think like me about these things:-

O God, who hast granted to thy Church to set up altars throughout the world consecrated by holy oil and by apostolic power, and hast commanded thy angels to stand guard beside them until the end of time, grant we beseech thee to thy bishops and priests a new love of these holy altars, that the everlasting sacrifice of thy Son may daily be perpetuated upon them, and that thy girded people may ascend to that sublime altar which is in heaven, Christ thy self-same Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end. Amen.

And a Latin version, mostly literal:-

Deus, qui dedisti ecclesiae tuae ut potestate apostolica oleoque sanctissimo altaria per orbem terrarum erigat, quique angelis tuis praecepisti ut usque in saeculi finem iuxta eadem adstantes pervigilent, tribue quaesumus episcopos sacerdotesque tuos altaribus ita nova mente delectari ut Filii tui sacrificium crebrius in dies offeratur atque ad sublime altare in coelis populus accinctus tuus ascendat, eundem Iesum Christum Filium tuum Dominum nostrum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti, Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.

I have just finished reading the Latin correspondence between C.S. Lewis and St Giovanni Calabria (1873-1954). Although it has a certain charm, both from the personalities of the authors and from the use of the ancient tongue, it is theologically rather jejune. There is very little discussion of doctrine; much of it is taken up with expressions of good will and desire for unity, and assurances of prayers. One wonders if anyone ever explained Catholic doctrine to Lewis, or if he himself ever took the trouble to read a papal encyclical or a manual of scholastic theology. Despite his great general erudition, his theology is strangely parochial: the Anglican prayer-book, odd pieces from the Anglican divines, George MacDonald and Milton tend to dominate, with some Dante thrown in. He said of himself that he was a very poor Thomist; I don’t know that he was much better as a patrologist. I don’t remember him quoting anything even from St Augustine apart from sayings that are part of general culture, such as ‘love and do as you will’. Perhaps he was warned off much theological study by Newman’s saying about what happens to those who go deep into history…

The other thing that strikes you in the correspondence is how confident Fr Calabria is about Lewis’s present spiritual position. He writes to him for example, ‘I call you blessed and shall do so in the future, because God wants to use you to carry out His works’; and again, ‘In heaven with God we shall see each other by the mercy of the Lord who has redeemed us’. This was written in 1953, not long after Pius XII had warned against reducing the axiom ‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus’ to a meaningless phrase. I think a little more caution would have been in order. However,  the Italian was clearly a holy man, who apparently offered his life for the pope’s recovery when the latter was gravely ill in 1954. Pius suddenly recovered and lived another 4 years.

The last line of the collection is the most moving. Lewis wrote in 1961 to Fr Calabria’s successor after the death of his own wife:-

Scio vos preces effundere et pro desideratissima uxore mea et pro me qui jam orbatus et quasi dimidatus solus hanc vallem lacrimarum peragro (I know that you pray for my wife whom I so miss and also for me, as now bereaved and, as it were, halved, I journey on in solitude through this valley of tears.)

Let us hope St Giovanni’s prophecy has been fulfilled.

It is a scene itself worthy of a poem, or a painting. Leo, bishop of Rome, thirteenth of that name, now in the ninetieth year of his age, the fifty-seventh of his episcopacy, and the twenty second of his supreme pontificate,  looks out upon the world from his home or prison in Rome on the 31st December 1899. For decades now this old man, one of the wisest of our race, has striven to hold back the advance of antichrist by prayer and intelligence. As he looks back in sadness upon the nineteenth century and forward in trepidation upon the twentieth, his spirit is touched by some afflatus, and uniting his youthful learning to his long experience he composes an Alcaic poem, offering the world to its Saviour.

Notice these two stanzas:-

Auditis? effert impia conscius/ insanientis grex sapientiae; brutaeque naturae supremum/  nititur asseruisse numen.

Nostrae supernam gentis originem/  fastidit excors; dissociabilem,/  umbras inanes mente captans,/  stirpem hominum pecudumque miscet.

That is, ‘Hear ye? A guilty herd comes out with the godless things of a raving wisdom; it strives to establish the supreme divinity of brute nature. Foolishly it disdains the heavenly origin of our race; grasping at empty shadows it confuses the irreconcilable ancestry of men and of beasts.’

Though he doesn’t seem to have considered it opportune to condemn ex cathedra the idea of Adam’s body descending from a beast, Pope Leo clearly held it to be an idea belonging to the insane wisdom of this world.

Some time ago, as I was taunting Aelianus with the mispronunciation of Latin prevalent among English native speakers, he answered with a sarcastic remark about the “particular suitability of the German language for the pronunciation of classical languages. Let us leave aside classical Greek, of which I know next to nothing – but for Latin, curiously enough, Aelianus’ sneering remark rather seems to hit the point.

Let us just look at the vowel, as the problem largely seems to center there:

As Wikipedia tells me, Latin knows five vowel qualities, which may occur long or short:

[a:]/[a], [e:]/[ɛ], [i:]/[ɪ], [o:]/[ɔ], and [u]/[ʊ].

While all of these occur in ordinary German, [e:] and [o:] are missing in English.

With very few exceptions, moreover, German uses the same letters to represent these vowels as Latin does (sometimes indicating length by doubling them), or maybe more to the point, predominantly the same vowels are used to pronounce the letters.

In English, the matter is far more confusing: “a” often is [æ] (as in cat), [ ɔː] (as in law), [eɪ] (as in date) or [ə] (as in about). On the other hand, [i:] may be spelled “ee” or “ie” or “ee”, and probably in other ways as well, but never, to my knowledge “i”. (Illustrated by the need “Ignitum Today” has of a video on pronunciation of their name.)

Yes, there are lots of Americans. But they’re not that bad 🙂


Life is good. Litanies. Motorbikes. Warm weather. The parish choir sang Vidi Aquam on Sunday, and Monsieur Le Organiste has just told me that he heard them practising the Missa de Angelis this evening. As he said, competition is healthy 🙂 (cf. here for an explanation – chant hasn’t featured in prominently in their repertoire in the past.) He’s also lent me a rocking recording of Alain’s organ works, so I am at once dancing around the sitting room (maybe I should get curtains :/ ) and weeping inside at the thought of the hours and hours and hours and months of practice it would take to be able to play even just as badly as I used to.

Aelianus – I’ve not forgotten. But I’m still struggling with this stupid Polglish account of the rationality of the operations by which we build classical metaphysics (snore).

The baby doesn’t understand English and the devil knows Latin.

Ronald Knox when asked to perform a baptism in the vernacular.