For us and for our salvation : inclusive language

Inclusive language

I have been ducking writing this blog because I know it’s an issue which creates heat and not much light. But with the All Saints psalm coming up, that feels cowardly, so I’m going to try and explain why I think the Church has got this wrong.

Unlike some people whom I respect, I do follow the official line on non-inclusive language as given when I am writing tunes for the Psalms and Gospel Acclamations.  For the website to be reliable and useful, I have to follow exactly the words as given in the relevant Missal.  I do not change things, or leave words out; but I do wince quite often.  If I am reading at my church, I check with the parish priest whether he is happy for me to add ‘and sisters’ to the exhortations made to ‘brothers’.  Mostly it’s not a problem, although a couple of years ago one priest said to me that there were far more important things to be concerned with in the readings.

Why does it matter?

And of course he was right.  The substance is what matters.  What he didn’t understand though, and what I think the authorities in the Church have equally failed to grasp, is that if you deliberately exclude what is usually the majority of the congregation, this is a stumbling block for many of them, and they can’t engage with the substance because they feel as if they have been told that it is not meant for them.

Women as a small minority in the past

When I went to university, women were a relatively small minority.  I remember being addressed, at lectures and seminars, as ‘gentlemen’.  One didn’t react.  Politer and more aware (maybe less myopic) lecturers gradually became the majority, though it took some time.  When I was doing postgrad research my supervisor consulted me about what to do with a new (female) student who burst into tears whenever criticised.  I suggested sending her to a female don, which completely nonplussed my supervisor, as the college he belonged to, though it had female undergraduates, did not have any women on the teaching staff.

This isn’t me; but maybe this is what I should have done

That’s a while ago now, and thank goodness the situation has improved.  But the issue of inclusive language (or rather of non-inclusive language) is still a painful one for (most) women Catholics.  Even more damagingly, a wholly male hierarchy does not even notice that half the body of Christ is being excluded, because the language actively misrepresents the reality.

Awareness of language, inclusive or not

I am very language-aware, I always have been.  It’s like having an acute sense of smell, something you are born with.  Because of writing music to go with a fixed set of words, I think I have probably become even more sensitised.  I look up pronunciation on-line to check whether the US ‘toward’ is one or two syllables (it’s one, and there’s a man who spends seventeen minutes explaining it). I understand how the UK psalm can have ‘power’ or ‘heaven’ on one note, but you need two for the US – and I’m still trying to find out which side of the fence Canada and Australia come down on.  I have to arrange the melody so that ‘tormented’ is stressed on the first syllable for the US and Philippines, but on the second syllable for UK, Ireland and OZ.  (The same is true for ‘frustrated’, but luckily that’s not a word that comes up in the psalms, only in Saint Paul’s Letters.)  I look at the words really carefully, and work on them for some time.  It is an enormous privilege to be able to do this, and I love it; but shoddy translation makes me cross.

It’s not Latin’s fault

I’m lucky enough to be also comfortable with Latin.  I grew up with it, partly because our parish was a very old-fashioned one, so even after Mass in the vernacular had been introduced, we were still having a lot of it in Latin.  I studied it at school.  I can sing chant, I can do Credo III and Salve Regina without book.  I’m not trying to boast or show off here, just explain where I’m coming from.  Crucially, I know that ‘homines’ is not the Latin for ‘men’.  It means ‘people’.  In French, it’s the difference between ‘les hommes’ and ‘les gens’.  So ‘for us men and our salvation’ , to go back to my headline example, is simply wrong.  You might well not want to use the word ‘people’ because it has two syllables, and disturbs the rhythm.   You could just leave it out.  This should offend no-one.  It includes all of us.  Because there is time for a tiny break after it, it actually helps to make you think about what you are saying.  ‘For us men’ is quite deliberately excluding.   And in Latin it would be ‘propter nos viros’.

The Church isn’t even consistent on this.  If ‘men’ means ‘men and women’, why do the advertisements for vocations to the priesthood always invite ‘men’?   Any woman aspirant would be rebuffed at a very early stage and told it did not mean ‘and women’ at all.  ‘Man’ is slightly more tricky, because we don’t have (unlike Czech, Serbian and no doubt some other languages) a genderless noun for a human being except for ‘person’, which has a special weight of its own.  ‘Homo’ and ‘vir’ both translate as ‘man’.  I am a ‘homo’ but I am not a ‘vir’.   For those who get agitated about in persona Christi, Jesus was made man: ‘homo factus est’.  He happens to be a ‘vir’.  I have no problem with that.  We are both ‘homines’.  As the hymn City of God says, ‘we are sons of the morning, we are daughters of day’, a very fine example of inclusive translation (Cf. ‘You are all sons of light and sons of the day’, 1 Thess 5.5).

(Non-)inclusive language in the Psalms

Moving on to the Psalms, the situation becomes clearer, because there, our translations distinguish between ‘man’ (‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him,’ (Ps 8/9) and ‘a man’ or ‘the man’, but a lot of the time, the psalms are so direct that it isn’t a problem: we are using ‘I’ and ‘you’.  When the discussion is between God and the psalmist, we can all use the words of the psalm without any obstacle.  When, however, the psalmist discusses other people in general terms, we do have a problem, as he tends to talk only about ‘the just man’ and ‘the wicked man’.  As soon as the word ‘man’ has an article, definite or indefinite, it seems to be talking to only half the human race and ignoring the other half.

Here’s another one, better than the real thing
But these are the words in the Bible

Some of the translations I set are aware of the problem and try to work around it.  ‘Man’ is a single syllable which can be difficult to replace.  ‘The just one’ (occasional, US) is a bit clumsy, as is the use of ‘their’ for a singular subject (occasional, CAN) to avoid ‘his’ (but probably better than ‘one’s’, unless you are the Queen of England).  The recommended wedding psalms nearly all focus on the joys of the just man, with his wife as an occasional desirable add-on, and this is why I would myself choose a different sort of psalm, one which speaks to both central figures.  (Have a look at my earlier discussion on wedding psalms, if you are interested.) Here is where the psalms’ directness is very helpful : ‘May the Lord give you your heart’s desire’ excludes no-one and is highly appropriate (Pss 19/20 and 36/37).

The Canada translations vary wildly, sometimes trying really hard to be inclusive and sometimes seeming deliberately to avoid doing so.  The UK/Ireland translations, being closest to the original Grail versions, are of their time, as of course are the Psalms.  Now, changing the Grail versions is difficult, because they were ‘Englished’ (and that’s her word) by a genius woman, Philippa Craig, who understood not just her own language but also that the psalms were meant to be sung, so the rhythms are good;  and if you upset them, you must produce something at least as good (this is why a lot of nineteenth-century hymn word revision is poor).  And the psalms are really old; Christianity has been around for two thousand years, but the psalms were already old when it started.  They are the product of their time, their culture, their context…….

So can we change them for the Lectionary?

…….but they are also new for us every time we sing them. So a bit of careful alteration can be justified, I think, and determined non-alteration is wearing on the ear of (some) female listeners.  All Saints always brings this topic to the front of my attention.  The Responses for the All Saints psalm are interesting. US and OZ (sorry, technical term for ‘Australia and New Zealand’) have ‘Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face’, which is OK.  The UK/Ireland version is taken directly from the text: ‘Such are the men who seek your face, O Lord’, which is not good. The Canadian one is inspired: ‘Lord, this is the company of those who seek your face’ – good rhythm, arresting, leaves no-one out, neat allusion both to the Church Militant and the eucharistic community; but then, sadly, subsides into the same verse words as OZ and UK, ‘the man’ and ‘he’. The US has ‘the one’ and ‘he’, but substitutes ‘race’ for ‘men’ in the last verse (which is where the UK Response is from).  I respect the effort, but that’s not a good alternative.  All four Lectionaries do adapt the psalm words quite freely when they choose, including the UK one, so keeping it exact is not a justification for exclusionary language.  I think it is justified to change the words slightly for a psalm that is designed to be sung by the whole congregation, especially in the Response because it is repeated.

I want to walk in Jerusalem just like John
Other writings more problematic

The Psalms are not (usually) the problem at Mass for those of us with sensitive ears, though I reserve the right to point out where alterations could easily have been made (I need a good picture, like my mediaeval Yoda for when the US psalm words are too inverted, but I haven’t found one yet).  So much of the language of the psalms is simple, direct and uses ‘I’ and ‘you’ rather than the third person, which is where the problem usually arises.  We could make better use of adjectives, which are gender-neutral in English : ‘the poor’, ‘the just’ etc.  The bigger problem is paradoxically in the more modern translations of prayers where non-inclusive language has been retained or even put back.  When you see translations of Vatican documents or Papal sermons or prayers in Morning and Evening Prayer (one of the worst offenders) which use the word ‘men’ (or sometimes ‘sons’ or ‘brothers’),  it is rarely necessary.  It could just be ineptitude or shoddy translation, but it often seems to be part of an agenda.

I have been at many Masses where the congregation was almost exclusively female, or even where it was all nuns except me and the priest.  ‘For us and for our salvation’ is a better version of the words, and not just in those situations.  It is what I say.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. 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.

Clouds and darkness are his raiment

One of the benefits of a fine early autumn is some beautiful sunsets. They are often better than summer sunsets, and this is because they include clouds. I have been a (very proud) member of the Cloud Appreciation Society since 2008, which, given that it takes me ages to get round to joining anything on-line, means that I have been admiring and enjoying clouds for a long time. They are dynamic; they are infinitely various; you cannot encompass them, but you can create one if you are really lucky and gifted. They are silent, but they look as though they are creating waves of sound.

cloud patterns by the sea
Surging chords above a steady bass

We can categorise them, but we keep having to find new terminology, because of their variety; we added a new one only this year. The one thing we can say with certainty about them is that they are beautiful. Even a seemingly uniform layer of grey stratus cloud turns out to have amazing potential when underlit by a setting sun (see below).

Pictures of God

If you want to paint God, and not only in the Western artistic tradition, you tend to picture him surrounded by, or resting upon clouds.  It is the clouds which indicate that it is God, not just an old man.  They are the symbol of divinity (because of course, we have no idea what God looks like).  It’s partly because clouds are above us (unless we go up a high mountain or in an aeroplane), so you have the whole idea of aspiration, for reaching for something higher than ourselves.  Clouds are one of God’s most frequent accompaniments in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, his natural element once the gates of Paradise are shut.

Old Testament clouds

‘Clouds and darkness are his raiment’ is from Psalm 96, and it is a thrilling description of God.  There are lots of clouds in the Old Testament, sometimes as tools of God (the cloudy pillar in Exodus, the screen in Egypt Ps 104.39, the ‘little cloud […] like a man’s hand’ 1 Kings 18, which turns so quickly into a skyful of louring cloud and torrential rain), but mostly there to veil the Lord from human sight.  Simply the cloud itself can represent God: ‘the cloud filled the house of the Lord […] the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord’, 1 Kings 8.11.

Moses finding God in a cloud

God appears to Moses ‘in a dense cloud’ (Exodus 19.10), he calls to Moses ‘from inside the cloud’ (Ex 24.16), and Moses’ authority is established beyond question when he goes up and into the cloud to be with God (24.18).  One of the things that strikes me about this narrative is how disoriented Moses must then have been.  If you climb (or usually nowadays, for most of us, fly) into a cloud, you lose all your reference points.  There is no up, no down, no where from, no where to.  There is only presence and there is now.  This is the only place to meet God.  This is completely different from Adam and Eve’s easy relationship with God when he walks in the garden in the cool of the day.  After the Fall, when God is present, he is usually veiled in a cloud, and this continues in the New Testament.

New Testament clouds

The Holy Spirit overshadows Our Lady and she conceives Jesus.  God’s voice comes out of the cloud when he is baptised by John.  At the Transfiguration there is a ‘bright cloud’ with God’s voice. Clouds mean God’s presence, mean heaven; and the disciples’ hearts must have sunk when they saw Jesus disappear into the cloud at the Ascension, because instead of the cloud being above or around all of them, it now divided him from them.   And of course, they would have known about the prophecies in Daniel (the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven) even though the similar clouds in Revelation had not been written about yet.

stacked different clouds
So much room among the clouds
Clouds in the Psalms

The clouds in the psalms are a bit different, because they are not just symbols of God’s greatness, but real observed clouds, which make the psalmist think about God.  God rides on the clouds (Ps 67).  He answers, concealed in the storm cloud (Ps 80).  Clouds and darkness are his raiment, as we’ve already seen.  He makes the clouds his chariot (Ps 103; I hope this is the psalmist recycling the Helios and Phaethon myth, because I’ve always loved it, but I have to admit I don’t have any grounds for that!).  Some of the references just seem like exuberant appreciation of natural phenomena: he summons clouds from the ends of the earth…..from his treasuries he sends forth the wind (and there’s Aeolus with only a bagful) Ps 134.  He calls the stars by their names and covers the heavens with clouds (Ps 146).

Real clouds

These clouds bring rain, seen as a blessing (Ps 83; cf. the Irish superstition that every drop of rain that falls on a wedding brings a blessing, just as well, really);  they make shade, which is both respite and refuge (Pss 62, 120).  But they aren’t only real clouds, as there is a rather nice version of the pathetic fallacy here, long before the Romantics : when God is angry, he conceals himself in a dark cloud, a black cloud (Ps 17), a storm cloud (Ps 80);  the clouds that take people to heaven or bring them back down again are white.  Darkness is as effective as clouds as a covering (that’s why we can only see clouds at night if they are noctilucent), so God can use either or both.  Clouds bring a dynamism to our idea of the Almighty.  When he walks upon the wings of the wind (Ps 103), I imagine him like a power skater with each foot on a blade of cloud (Ps 17: ‘a black cloud under his feet [..] he flew on the wings of the wind’), like one of those skaters in the park that you need to get out of the way of, as Ps 67 warns: ‘Make a highway for him who rides on the clouds’.  Riding on the clouds is exciting.

Other weather events

I was surprised to find that there are more earthquakes and storms associated with God in the Psalms than there are clouds, but I think this is because we do tend to take clouds for granted except when their beauty catches us unawares.  Obviously if you are calling for God to come and sort out your enemies, you are hoping for earthquakes and tempests as being more destructive and certainly more showy.  But when Elijah goes to meet God, first there is a mighty wind, then an earthquake, then fire, and the Lord is not in any of them.  He is a still small voice, or a gentle breeze (choose your translation).  When you are the Almighty, you don’t need to shout, you just be. I am who am.

Like the clouds.  They are just there, raising our hearts because we look up to see them.  If you are ever feeling at all down, go to the Cloud Appreciation Society , click on the gallery of photographs, start the slideshow and just watch.  Artists try to paint cloud and rarely succeed.  God does it every day.

stratus at sunset
Here’s one he made earlier…

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. 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.