Katharine E. Harmon, Ph.D.
Instructor, Catholic University of America and Loyola University, Baltimore
Emma is a novel which must be read backwards. That is to say, one can only understand the now of any given episode in Jane Austen’s early 19th-century novel after one has read its entirety. Not until the end of the book can we correctly interpret its beginning or its middle.
I came to this conclusion because, at long last, I understood the utterly perplexing passage in Volume III of this book, where heroine Emma Woodhouse, incorrigible Frank Churchill, and mysterious Jane Fairfax play at a “game of alphabets.” The game involves one character arranging letters so that another may puzzle out a meaning, putting the mixed-up letters to right order. Frank’s first and curious choice word, which Jane must arrange, spells “blunder.” While Frank and Jane seem to understand precisely what greater reality is pointed to by this word, the rest of the characters, Emma Woodhouse, and ourselves, the readers, are left in the dark. For the first, why should two seemingly un-intimate parties, Jane and Frank, understand each other? For the second, and more puzzling, why the choice word, “blunder,” as the object of the game?
Such is the genius of Austen. It takes the reader much reflection and, in the case of this reader, three readings! to adequately comprehend the extent of the exchange and understanding which Frank and Jane share. We need more information before we can understand why Frank should communicate that he has committed a “blunder.” Only after we know the outcome of the whole novel can we possibly interpret this particular scene. In short, the reader does not and, indeed, cannot know what the story means until the story has ended. Or, at least, until the story is quite far along advanced.
As one may suspect, the parallels to liturgical process are ready. One simply cannot understand where we are now, in the present, until we have the sublime ability of recollecting and reconsidering, in short, applying the gift of retrospect upon the past. The curious mixing of letters, which English-speaking Roman Catholics experience today in our revised translation of the Roman Missal, might appear baffling. For the first, why should the exchange of one set of letters for another have been made? Was there some special understanding between some of the faithful, or some of our holy leaders, and God, to which not all of the faithful (or not all of our holy leaders) were privy? For the second, why should the exchange of letters be such that it is? “Chalice” for “cup” and “the many” for “all”? Like Ms. Woodhouse, some of us novice faithful are left in confusion, or, perhaps, assume that there may be some special understanding into which we were not all invited.
The hope of this comparison is to say that the exchange of letters which we experience in the 3rd edition of the Roman Missal will become more clear as to its purpose, intent, and, fundamentally, its conveyance of the story of the Church, that is, the story of salvation, at some point in the not so distant future. Surely, the pattern of identifying the meaning of the present in the denouement of the past is simply a part of how humans understand the historical process. For example, in more recent history of the Roman Catholic Church, the advocates and devotees of the liturgy in mid-century America, during the many-faceted “liturgical movement,” had little expectation that the various moves for “active participation,” “education,” and “social regeneration” via the celebration of the liturgy would be capstoned by the meeting of the Second Vatican Council. Yet, liturgical historians today would agree that the liturgical movement is the essential context—or mixed bag of letters—out of which the liturgical reforms of the Council arose.
Yet, trying to puzzle out the many facets of renewal espoused by the liturgical movement, including better education, renewed architecture, music, and arts, embracing liturgical praying and, of course, social justice, does not always spell out exactly what Sacrasanctum concilium’s reforms eventually yielded. As liturgical movement advocate, Therese Mueller, recalled:
And then came the Second Vatican Council—the Council, which fulfilled hopes beyond our wildest dreams, but which also brought changes that made many people uneasy and even perturbed (Therese Mueller, “To Dance with God, Review,” Therese Mueller Papers 1/1, Saint Catherine University Library, St. Paul, MN 55105).
Certainly, the Church saw increased singing, increased communal response in prayer, reformed catechetical programs—particularly that of the RCIA—liturgical commissions, and at least some interest in encouraging faithful Catholics to form a “social justice” committee at the local parish. Yet, for many Roman Catholics, the greatest, singular difference came in the language of the liturgy. It seemed that liturgical reform came to rest in reformed structure, words, and style of the central celebration of the Mass. And, though this new reality afforded great benefits, it was also met with consternation amongst members of the faithful, and bewilderment by anthropologists such as Victor Turner and Mary Douglas, who felt that such an “inorganic” change to liturgy completely undermined the significance of ritual experience and meaning.
So, a short forty years later, these letters of the liturgical movement, which were arranged into the documents and practices following the Second Vatican Council, have been re-arranged again. Were they re-arranged incorrectly the first time? Did we mis-read them? Was it wrong to re-arrange them so quickly? Will not this simply create another severe and inorganic rupture to the faithful’s ritual experience?
This is a crucial moment in our Church for not getting trapped in the language of the liturgy on such a micro-level. Perhaps this re-arrangement of the letters of our liturgy will cause us to reconsider the liturgy in a way in which we have grown lax and comfortable in our post-Second Vatican Council status quo. Perhaps it may be time to re-read, with freshened retrospect, the scope and vision of liturgical renewal of our past century, to afford bright prospects for the future.
In a word, the present and pressing questions of the liturgical now will prompt us to re-read and re-interpret our liturgical past. The present translation we experience brings many questions; it seems that there was a desire for reform of the liturgy. Yet why does reform always focus on the language we speak; does the liturgy end in language or does it end in life, in charity and service to the world? Was not this the “blunder” of the post-Conciliar period and the lost vision of the liturgical movement?
Perhaps the present will offer more joy and hope for the future. Perhaps this re-focusing on our liturgy might afford unimagined and joyful opportunities: an invitation to revisit that—as of yet—unread vision of the liturgical movement (Keith Pecklers aptly describes the American liturgical movement, c. 1926-1959, as the “unread vision” in his book, The Unread Vision: The Liturgical Movement in the United States of America: 1926-1959 (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998). And, with hope, our current mixing of letters will not end, as Jane Austen did, simply spelling “blunder.”