Does it actually mean me? : excluding language

The Communion of Saints, the Holy Souls

All Saints and All Souls always make me notice the Lectionaries’ choice of excluding language.  This is in spite of the names of the feasts, which are comfortably non-gender-specific.  The whole point is surely that we are praying for and with all saints and all souls.  Most congregations seem to contain (several) more women than men, but of course there aren’t any at the altar.  It seems perverse to insist on ‘the just man’ always as our paradigm, especially when it is not necessary.   Using a translation like ‘Such are the men who seek your face, O Lord’ (Psalm 23/24, for All Saints) deliberately excludes more than half of the people present, but it is possible to find acceptable alternatives (see the CAN or OZ version of the psalm in question).

Some Christians are female

Practically speaking, what can a church musician do?  It’s probably not an option to alter the words of the Response as given in the Mass books, as this will sow confusion, which immediately stops people singing with commitment.  So for the Response we are dependent on the bishops’ seeing the light; but you can tweak the cantor’s words slightly.  You don’t want to upset anyone or spoil the rhythm (and even I would put those things in that order), but it is possible to make the language less excluding, and this is desirable.

woman with finger over mouth
No need to be silent about the women
Languages with gender

English is a gendered language (though less so than many others), and there is nothing we can do about that.  Our scriptures come to us from a time where human rights were not regarded as belonging to women as well.  You can’t help to write a faithful narrative if you aren’t allowed to learn to write. History has been presented in a paticular way, and the language in which we talk about anything has been affected by it. If ‘man’ and ‘men’ were genuinely inclusive terms, we would not have so much gender discrimination, and women might even turn up for those weekends inviting ‘men’ to discernment of their priestly vocations…..and maybe even be allowed in (now there’s a really terrifying and radical thought).  ….And the US would not have needed the nineteenth amendment, because ‘all men’ has in fact only ever meant ‘all men and no women’.  (…..And hurrah for New Zealand which got its act together before anyone else on women and the vote.)

Practical considerations

I can’t change the world, or the Church, or even my own parish, but I would like to discuss some of the practical problems of the language of the psalms and its need not to exclude.  At the most basic level, ‘man/men’ is a strong single syllable, and ‘people’ is two syllables, the second one weak.  This is very important in the psalms, where rhythm and cadence are crucial, so it can be necessary to be slightly more creative rather than simply going for substitution.  To go back to All Saints, this is why the CAN version works so well : it translates the idea rather than the word, and it does it with style.

Psalms better than many other texts

I am glad that I am usually working with the psalms rather than the other readings, because so much of the my text is in the first or second person. ‘I’ is not gendered, and ‘you’ has neither gender nor number in modern English, but in some ways, this makes it all the more shocking when you suddenly come up against something like ‘Such are the men’, because it has not been an issue before.  I have been feeling included in these prayers; suddenly the door is slammed in my face.  I am excluded; I don’t feel that I am part any longer of the company that loves to seek the Lord’s face.  Let’s see what might help.

Hurrah for adjectives

Adjectives can stand alone quite comfortably for a neutral sense : ‘the just’, ‘the poor’; so it’s possible often just to leave out ‘man’ where it occurs.  I should not need to say this, but I am not doing this in order to exclude ‘men’, but to include everybody.  I like men, I even married one, and I have sons as well as daughters.  I want everyone to feel that they are included.

No need to throw the men overboard
The pronoun problem

The big problem is pronouns.  We don’t have neutral pronouns for people in English (because it is a gendered language, just as Latin is), so if the sentence goes on after ‘the just’, ‘he’, ‘his’ and ‘him’ will keep cropping up.  In an ideal world, you could alternate between stanzas, so half the time it would be ‘she’ or  ‘her’ instead.  That is not going to happen.  It need not be a big deal, but some people would still object (though it’s worth asking them why it is such a problem, as the words themselves are translations of translations and not intrinsically magic).  There are in fact many cases in the psalms where the adjectival noun (‘the poor’ etc) is followed by the neutral plural ‘they’, which is on-trend at the moment.

Try it the other way round

I think it would be a good corrective if, maybe once a year, there were a Sunday Mass where, without making a fuss, each occurrence of the word ‘man’ were changed to ‘woman’, ‘he’ to ‘she’, ‘him’ to ‘her’.  I don’t think you would need to do anything else to make some of the men (the ones paying attention) in the congregation feel a little uncomfortable.  Because many (if not all) women do, nearly every Sunday.  We should not be using language which excludes them.

We can all be ‘sons’

‘Sons’ is a particularly tricky case, as ‘sons’ have legal rights (of status and inheritance) which daughters usually didn’t (that’s why we have that dreadfully clumsy ‘co-heirs’ in the Proper).

Acquiring more rights as a ‘son’

Jesus made us all ‘sons’ of God, so no one is a second class citizen.  Maybe we should put this ‘sons’ in inverted commas, so that its significance is a little clearer.

‘Sons of men’ is an expression which annoys me,  as it is a periphrasis (even a cliche) which means nothing more than ‘human beings’, but it’s made up of two unnecessarily excluding words and it totally omits any reference to the woman who has actually done the labour to deliver the child.  You notice in certain psalms, just as in other certain sets of prayers at e.g. Morning and Evening in the Divine Office, that certain writers like to use such expressions repeatedly (Psalm 11/12, for example, Ps 28/29), and it can become a little wearing.

Moving from exclusion to inclusion : Psalm 28/29

To take a specific example : in Psalm 28/29, I’d be very tempted to replace ‘you sons of God’ with ‘children of God’, which has the same syllable count and just needs the stress shifting slightly.  It’s a call upon everyone to praise God; why on earth (sic) should it be gendered?  With good will, this does not need to be a problem, and I do know that it is not the most important thing; but Jesus was all about inclusion, especially of those who might be overlooked by other people.

Jesus talking with woman at the well
The Lord bravely including a woman in the conversation
Age is no excuse

‘Brethren’ is almost archaic enough not to matter, but not quite.  It’s just like addressing a group of students as ‘gentlemen’, something I am old enough to have experienced personally;  nowadays, it’s rude.  ‘Brothers and sisters’ is fine when speaking; when singing, you can substitute ‘people’ for ‘brethren’.  Same syllable count, same stress pattern.

Location can make a difference

Different countries do handle this differently, and if excluding language is bothering you, it might be worth checking the other versions of a given psalm.  There is a sad lack of follow-through, however, and sometimes a psalm starts well and then flounders.   An example from All Souls is the CAN version of Psalm 102/103, which starts so well with ‘children’ and ‘those’, moving on to ‘we’ and ‘us’ as pronouns. Then mid-verse it suddenly switches to ‘he’, ‘his’, and ‘him’, which is disconcerting.  I’d stick to ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘us’.

The Church thinks in centuries, we are told, and is still to catch up with Jesus’ ease of manner when dealing with women.  We don’t so much need a separate theology of women as a realisation that what the sexes have in common is far more than what divides them.  Women are people too.  We can all be people!  Our liturgical language won’t be perfect for a long time yet, it’s a work in progress; but let’s try to make it including rather than excluding where we can, and remember our sestren as well as our brethren.

we can all sing together if no one is pushed out

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The psalmist’s confidence (and Jesus’ sidelong look)

Confidence and clarity

The world of the psalms is very black and white. There is the just man and there are enemies. There are still waters and raging torrents. There is lavish plenty and there is starvation. There are green meadows and barren deserts. Sometimes the psalmist is celebrating, sometimes he is lamenting; sometimes he is in danger, sometimes shouting in victory. He can be troubled, but he is rarely confused, and his attitude towards God is one of serene confidence.  Sometimes God takes a while to answer or lay on a rescue, and the psalmist feels free to use a tone of reproach or even scolding: it’s God’s duty to save him and restore his fortunes (e.g. Pss 6 and 12/13, but there are lots of examples).

black and white like the sheep
Confidence in virtue

This goes along with an enviable confidence in the psalmist’s own goodness. He keeps telling us that his foot has not stumbled, that he has not forsaken God’s ways (‘ever’, or ‘since my youth’).  ‘I have never neglected his commands./ I have always been upright before him;/I have kept myself from guilt’ (Ps 17/18).  He has found all his pleasure in knowing God’s laws, and following them. He can indeed be a little irritating, and we are happy to come across the rare psalm (e.g.Ps 24/25) where he admits that maybe things have been difficult, though, nearly always, the difficulties he has encountered or is worrying about are coming on him from outside (enemies, extreme weather events, illness). His confidence clearly lies in himself as well as in God.

Just men : Abel and Abraham, just like me?
Uncomfortable words

This can lead to difficulties for the modern reader/singer of the psalms.  People express discomfort over the revenge verses, and they are often left out when the Church prescribes the psalms for liturgical use (e.g. the last verse of Psalm 136/137, the psalm I called ‘one of the best song lyrics ever‘, but it ends with that terrible line about ‘dashing your babies against the rock’).  People agonise about whether verses like this should even be allowed in the Bible, whether they should be edited out; but if this is God’s word, do we have a right to leave bits out?  We insist upon context, we stress the difference between the Old Testament and the New, but the words are there in the canon.

soldiers pillaging house
Dreadful things that war can lead to
Overweening confidence…..

However, we can also feel very uncomfortable singing the smug psalms or declaring how perfect we are in the sight of God.  There are psalms which talk about the psalmist’s/our failings, but they are outnumbered by the ones which stress our virtue.  The distance between what we are singing and what we know to be true gives us pause.  It does not seem to worry the psalmist.  Why not?

…and what it’s based on

I think there are various reasons for this.  The original Jewish covenant is based on a system of rules.  If you obey the rules in the Book, you are a just man and God will favour you (Ps 118/119, at great length).  If you are a son of the covenant (shown by circumcision), then the rules apply to you, and you must keep them (this is why Paul goes round and round the same arguments in Romans about how the covenant brings sin, because it sets the rules and people then break them).  If there aren’t any rules, then you can’t transgress them (you can see how this might lead to trouble).  What you are thinking does not matter so much as your observance of the rules.   Motive is not so important; the Bible is totally pre-Freudian.

Another element is that when the psalmist talks about how good he is, it’s partly aspiration and ‘a firm purpose of amendment’, as we used to say.  He’s looking forwards not backwards, and giving himself the benefit of the doubt, as we all do (Ps 100/101).  We don’t have definite dates for any of the psalms, but it’s a fair bet that mostly the psalmist is living in a society where, even if he’s not actually a slave, there are lots of other powerful people around with differing world views, and the psalmist is quite convinced that he and his people are the good guys in the narrative (Ps 78/79 is a good example).

Autres Testaments, autres moeurs

But we are looking at all this through a Christian prism.  We are supposed to be worrying about what is in our heart, and loving our enemies.  We are aware that Jesus demands perfection (Mtt 5. 48), and with him as our example, we cannot help but be aware how far we fall short.  Sometimes he does this overtly (‘…but I say to you’ six times in the Sermon on the Mount, Mtt 5), but he’s often much more subtle.

Jesus talking with woman at the well
Jesus talking and listening
Parables and the sideways look

Parables are a very subtle way of teaching, and Jesus seems to have enjoyed using them.  When you speak a parable, you’re telling a story, a very attractive and in-bringing way of talking to an audience, and you have the opportunity to influence the way your audience will receive the story, through clever techniques like shifting the point of view.

The Prodigal Son : three viewpoints

Take the Prodigal Son as an example (Luke 15).  The story starts off totally identified with the prodigal.  We see his frustration at home, his arrogant request for his share of the money to use for his own benefit.  Here’s a man who is totally confident in his own abilities.  He wallows in delight and fleshpots.   Then come debt and famine.  We feel his hunger and disgust as he feeds the pigs and wishes he could eat as easily as they do, then his coming to his senses and repentance.  He sets off for home; – and our viewpoint shifts: now we are waiting with the father, equally hungry for a sight of his son, and over the moon with delight as he hoves into view.  The father doesn’t wait for him to arrive and apologise, he rushes out to meet him.  Now our viewpoint shifts again, to the older son, who is full of resentment and jealousy when he sees how welcoming his father is to this unsatisfactory little brother.  The Prodigal Son, main character and eponymous hero, isn’t even on stage (he’s taking a much-needed bath) for the last part of the story, the conversation between the father and the elder son.

Jesus finishes the parable, and naturally we ask ourselves which of the protagonists we are.  It’s not easy or straightforward.   Three sections, three viewpoints.  The prodigal has broken the rules; the elder son has kept them, but he’s not the confident ‘just man’ we see so often in the Psalms.   The father behaves like God, with stunning generosity and love, so we aspire,  but don’t identify.   Jesus’ point is surely that what matters is what is in people’s hearts, not just rule-keeping.

Everybody is here in this picture except the pigs
The Good Samaritan

Similarly with the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), there are various roles, and we get to choose which one we would play.  The Levite and the priest keep to the letter of the Law and avoid pollution; but the despised Samaritan has a good heart and behaves accordingly.  Jesus turns the question of who is doing the right thing (behaving as a ‘neighbour’) back on the questioner.  He answers by a circumlocution because he doesn’t want to criticise the Levite and the priest, still less admit that a Samaritan might be the hero of the story; but the point is made.

(I love these pictures which tell the whole story at once)

The same thing occurs in other parables where there are several characters.  Sometimes it can even be confusing (the man without the wedding garment who gets into trouble at the banquet he is invited to at short notice, Mtt 22), but I think Jesus is deliberately using this sideways look to keep us slightly unsure, so that we pay attention.

The need to pay attention

The Lord’s technique is incredibly skilful.  The truths he is offering us about ourselves are not particularly palatable, and it would be very easy to alienate the listener immediately.  A very wise priest of my acquaintance always says, ‘Christ did not come to save us from sin, because that would have been a total failure.  He came to save us from ourselves.’  As it was, many people found Jesus’ message impossible to accept, and the rich young man goes away sorrowing (Mtt. 19.22, Mk 10.22).  But parables give Jesus a way to engage people with the story and possibly only later think about the implications.  We see this happening when the apostles get him to themselves and ask more questions, as in Luke 8.9.  Repeatedly he asks people to pay attention (all the remarks about having ears), and it’s always worth dwelling on what he actually says, as there is invariably more to it than we catch at first (I think this is why so many people find Lectio divina works for them).  Mary at Bethany is commended because she is concentrating on nothing except what Jesus is saying.

Not anointing feet, just listening
Sure foundations and over-confidence

Human nature means that the promise of salvation leads very easily to smugness and over-confidence.  This is why Jesus constantly keeps us just off-balance in what he says.  Even in the Our Father we see this technique in operation.  We start with praise and (literally) pious hopes.  But there are two cunning phrases in the text.  ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven‘ – who is supposed to be actually doing it on earth?  Er, we are, and as beautifully and efficiently as the angels do their job in heaven.  Similarly later on : ‘forgive us our trespasses’, which we can all pray knowing how much we need it,’as we forgive those who trespass against us‘.  It always surprises me that we don’t pause or go a bit quieter at that bit.

The Responsorial Psalm comes after the Old Testament reading for a good reason.  It reflects a simpler response to a simpler world view.  The psalmist’s confidence can be very comforting, but we have to be aware that Jesus’ harshest words are for those who become too confident and complacent.  We need to strike a balance, so that we are not troubled by anxiety, but play the part that God needs us to play.

There is an old paradox, attributed to St Augustine, Saint Ignatius and John Wesley  (I haven’t yet seen it attributed to Disraeli or Oscar Wilde), which I think probably sums it up best.  ‘Act as though everything depends on you; pray as though everything depends on God.’  If that is our attitude, then we can confidently say with the psalmist, ‘in my justice, I shall see your face’ (Ps 16/17) and rest on God’s lap like ‘a weaned child on its mother’s breast’ (Ps 130/131).  This is a confidence that will never let us down: ‘The Lord protects the simple hearts;/ I was helpless so he saved me’ (Ps 114/115).


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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