Apr 15, 2003

"It would be better to stick to Bedlam…"

Online Edition

– Vol. IX, No. 2: April 2003

"It would be better to stick to Bedlam…"

Current concern over translation of liturgical texts seems foreshadowed by British writer Dorothy Sayers in a letter on composing new prayers for worship, written to two Irish priests, dated March 21, 1940. Though there is no copy of the priests’ letter, it apparently enclosed a clipping that announced a competition for composing new prayers — leading Miss Sayers to comment.

I can scarcely imagine anything more frightful than a competition in prayer-making under the liberal auspices of The Spectator…. Prayers should, in any case, appear anonymously — or at most attached to an author whose name is as remote and beautiful as St. Chrystostom’s. And I must say that the efforts to produce modern prayers for national crises are as a rule so ghastly in their results as to send one fleeing back to the "liturgical experts" of the past. It isn’t so much liturgical or theological knowledge that is lacking as the ability to write good English, and I refuse to believe that God is well served, or a spirit of worship promoted, by knock-kneed, broken-backed phrases that sound as though they were written by a tired journalist in a hurry.

So far, the writer of the article is right — it takes a good writer to write good prayers; and they are, as a matter of fact, more difficult to write than anything in the world. T. S. Eliot or Charles Williams might manage it, though goodness knows what children would make of their petitions.

But it’s very unwise to dogmatise about children — how does one know what they make of anything? They don’t tell one.

When I was a youngster, I might have asked the meaning of the phrase, "there is no health in us", but what I should never have mentioned to any grown-up was the secret rapture with which I hailed the all-too-rare appearance in the programme of the Quicumque Vult [Whosoever wills]. I had the feeling that they would not approve of this fantastic preference, and I knew they would say, in their shy-making and unimaginative way, "Oh, but you can’t possibly understand that!" Of course I couldn’t understand it, but it was grand. So mysterious and full of rumbling great words, and it made such a wonderful woven pattern. And it didn’t talk down to me, like those embarrassing hymns about being but little children weak. It was queer and exciting, like the beasts full of eyes, and the people casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea….

I still enjoy the Quicumque, only now, instead of being magnificent and obscure it seems to be magnificent and lucid….

I agree to some extent about the archaic words and unreal sentiments, only I think this is rather a matter for explanation in sermons and instructions than for alterations in the liturgy.

It’s no good running anxiously out with new words, trying to keep pace with changes in language — it takes all the running we can do to make words stay in the same place.

We call a hospital for mad people a Bethlehem, and soon it becomes Bedlam, and a word of fear. We change the word to Asylum, and it goes the same way. We hastily abolish Asylum and call the thing a Home, and the same thing happens again. All we have got by the changes is that three beautiful words have become corrupted instead of one. It would be better to stick to Bedlam, and keep on reminding people of its original meaning…. I do think, though, that parsons and others might bear in mind that language does change, and that the meaning of words like Person, redemption, love, substance, worship and so on is not self-evident to the man in the street….

(From The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers Volume II, 1937-1943: From Novelist to Playwright, ed. Barbara Reynolds, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997, pp. 155-157.)


Dorothy Sayers, creator of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, friend of fellow Anglicans T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis, died in 1957, while in the midst of translating Dante’s Paradiso.



The Editors