A thought-provoking article on the importance of the arcane but useful study of Latin was recently published by Commonweal, a Catholic magazine that informs both mind and soul. The author, Cathleen Kaveny, a theology and law professor for the University of Notre Dame, laments quite cogently the recent action of the Classics Department of Princeton University to scuttle the requirement of their majors to know (I presume that means understand and translate) Greek or Latin. Kaveny thinks the decision might have something to do with Greek and Latin being “inseparable from today’s racism,” or being a source of Western hegemonic thinking.
Horrors!! Just horrors, I thought. How can you be a classics department and not require at least a reading comfort with one of these two languages? Would you not require Spanish majors to understand Spanish? Italian majors understand Italian? You get my drift.
My minor in college was Latin so when I was assigned to teach high school after receiving my degree I was given a fair share of Latin classes to teach. I was nervous about this endeavor because Latin was not my major but I soon fell in love with it. The mellifluous flow of the words; the dramatic imagery and the muscular strength of words which in English just didn’t cut it, didn’t convey the depth of meaning that enchanted me toward more study and research. I even secured a fairly ancient book of psalms and canticles in Latin, alongside an English translation, which I still use, occasionally, for prayer. I might add here that I had a Latin teacher in high school who was amazingly gifted and she would tutor me outside of class just to help me catch up in the challenges of this language. I admired her immensely and her cheerful explanation of Latin declensions along with the vagaries of grammar that included verb cases, the pluperfect, and the ablative absolute! She was deft, sharp and superb in imparting a love for the sport – yes, the sport of Latin translation.
To my surprise, the diocese in which I taught Latin required that second year students delve into Julius Caesar’s, “The Gallic Wars.” I could see this was not going over with an all-girls class so I decided to parse Virgil’s “Aeneid” into interesting sections and ask the students to create soap operas in which they would translate into English the poetic Latin they had read. The assignment was a smashing success. Students worked in pairs and the pair who translated the most beautiful and accurate poetry would win first prize. The winning segment was the description of Aeneas leaving his lover Dido so he could continue “…to seek the kingdom which is (my) destiny.” Dido is Queen of Carthage who had taken in the shipwrecked Aeneas and his crew and while caring for them, she and Aeneas fell in love. Following a wrenching scene of farewell, Aeneas is out to sea when he hears more than waves behind him; he hears human cries lifting to the sky along with flames. He watches, unknowingly, as the burning funeral pyre consumes his beloved Dido who has taken her life. She prays: et nunc magna mei sub terries ibit imago…(and now my great ghost will go beneath the lands).
Yes, Latin is beautiful. In fact, all languages are beautiful and learning any of them expands our minds and souls. The nuance of language brings from the depths, the true meaning of folk lore and emotion that somehow is weakened, or shall I say, lost in translation.
I applaud Pope Francis’s recent call to end the practice of using the Tridentine Mass, commonly referred to as the Latin Mass, in place of Mass in the vernacular, or in our case, English. Too many believers have accepted the Latin Mass as the real thing instead of realizing that when we pray in community, we pray together in our common language, our common heart, our common soul. The words should mean something to us that they cannot sufficiently convey in another language, particularly in one we do not understand beyond the terse responses during the Mass. Jesus uttered his words of consecration in Aramaic, not Latin. His words meant something to his community as they should mean to ours. And Latin is not the language for any culture celebrating the liturgy in today’s world.
But I do encourage you to read the classics – after you take a course in Latin – if you want a real dose of Latin. Cathleen Kaveny took a course on how to read St. Augustine in Latin because Augustine wrote in Latin and was a brilliant rhetorician in the language. As I said above, I sometimes read the psalms in Latin but that is not their original language which is Hebrew. Yes, I am getting a Romanized version!!
This week take the readings of our liturgy, perhaps the Sunday readings, and place them into prayer by taking sections of them out and reflecting on them.