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« Labor law abuses in the Gulf Coast ... again. | Main | In India, A Struggle To Pass Down Passover (Norman Costa) »

April 18, 2011


The less you attempt to understand the words of the ritual chanting, the more soothing it is. I watch the beatific expressions of everybody listening to a priest chanting mantras at a pooja, while I'm reduced to wondering what is so edifying about "I offer these flowers and rice and water to you, O Ganesha. I offer the smoke of this incense to you."
The placebo effect of religious rituals is highly dependent on this, hence the fondness for obscure mumbo-jumbo in a language not understood by a vast majority of the listeners.
The songs in languages you cannot understand always sound sweeter- same effect, I guess.

Sujatha has a very good point. Joseph Campbell, author on religion and myth, talked specifically about the ritual of the Catholic Mass. He was raised a Roman Catholic. He was critical of the turn to the vernacular that was instituted by the Second Vatican Council in the mid 1960s. Ritual and myth bring a sense of the transcendent and mysterious to our lives and experiences. Before Vatican 2 the priest faced away from the congregation and spoke in an arcane classical language that most people do not understand. Today the priest faces the worshipers and performs the most sacred and important rituals of the faith in their own language.

I suppose that the question remains as to why mystery, ceremony, ritual, and artifacts of devotion should be perpetuated in a culture and age of Enlightenment and rational science. In and of themselves they may mean very little. They may mean a great deal, however, in bringing a faith community to a transcendent experience. The transcendent and the numinous are very human experiences. These human experiences are, at least, part of what people understand as spiritual.

There is much of life that has no explanation and is now, and perhaps for all time, a mystery. Tapping that mystery does not provide an answer, necessarily, but seeing ourselves as part of that mystery that defies all deep understanding can provide some people with humility and awe and acceptance.

i'm not really qualified to comment on this issue, but i do think i have a couple of points to contribute. in the two cases cited below, the through my fault(3) (or mae culpa, mae culpa, mae maxima culpa)has always been there - not a new edition. true, it did disappear briefly from the missal but was reinstated recently.
"I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault in my thoughts and in my deeds, in what I have done and what I have failed to do."

"I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault."
ever since i remeber, i've said the confeitor with three mae culpas, each said striking the chest.

2.People's prayer: Before communion

"Lord, I am not worthy to receive you."

"Lord, I am not that you should enter my roof."

now these two versions, if i am mistaken, are taken from the same episode narrated a little differently by 2 eveangeslists in their respective gospels. which one said which i dont remember.

like sujatha says, what's left to the imagination is infinitely my case, i feel what's more archaic and poetic is closer to the language of God. the bible i grew up reading is an old little known publication which my father gave when i was around 9. it was already an old edition when i got it, and today it's less that a decade from a century. the language is simply beautiful, and i resented the good news bible with is pedestrian language. my old bible, i feel , has that touch of divinity;-). foolish, i guess, but still it transports unlike the modern version which demystifies everything, and therefore leaves very little to ruminate over.

@ norman costa
i come from the syrian catholic community in kerala. till the mid sixties, the syrian mass was in syrian language and most of the time we saw only the back of the priest(except when he turned around to face the people half a dozen times to give blessing). the malayalam version happened in the latter half of the sixties - i still remember feeling let down by the total demystification brought about by the the late eighties, an effort was made by a small group which partially succeeded in "returning to the sources".some of the elaborate rituals were restored, and certain dioceses which spearheaded the movement use that highly ritualistic mass. of course there was politics in that movement. it was a delatinisation attempt- a move to assert the independence of the syrian church which was 'colonised' by the europeons after the portugeses came to kerala. long story, but very interesting for a post colonial academic buffs.

'I suppose that the question remains as to why mystery, ceremony, ritual, and artifacts of devotion should be perpetuated in a culture and age of Enlightenment and rational science'
i think spirituality lies outside the jurisdiction of science. we tend to be dismissive about the spiritual man cos science can offer no proven explanation for his existence.the microscope of science can make no sense of it, and science believes what cannot survive in its lab is non existent.

centuries have passed since the age of enlightenment,but the spirtual craving of man has not been dulled.

i agree fully with your last paragraph.

The funny thing that I've observed with ritual chanting is that the priest , for the most part, looks bored with his utterances, while everyone else is enthralled. It must lack the joy or creativity expressed by the musician, even if the chant has musical underpinnings of its own, being a monotonous repetition of memorized phrases.

How Protestant of you, Ruchira! Your closing argument echoes in Luther, Tyndale, et al. A wonderful article in Vanity Fair by Christopher Hitchens, regarding the continuing strength of the King James Bible, details the history of biblical translations and of this debate:

That a cantankerous atheist like Hitchens should rely on passages of the KJB at important life events such as his father's funeral speaks to the disjunct between ritualistic language and our rational self-- also articulated by others in these comments.

My own preferences are consistent. I have on occasion sung portions of the evening Hebrew prayer service under my breath to myself (Ashkenazic tunes, Sephardic pronunciation, for reasons of the politics and history of the Conservative Jewish tradition in which I was raised) when walking home in the dusk from the train, just for the comfortingly familiar, mournful tune and rythm of the words. But my mind translates the Hebrew only as something like "blah blah king of the universe blah blah tree of life blah blah loving-kindness." I squirm through Reform services where most of this is translated into English. As Norman, citing Campbell, suggests, the translation loses the poetry, sense of removal from the everyday, and sense of placeless orientation: the ability to summon a memory from my youth and connection to my family no matter where I happen to live. Moreover, it forces me to feed my rational mind, which mutters along in English, with a great deal of content that does not compute. A religious adherent seeking greater purity of faith within the tradition would say that's precisely the point. But for many people-- particularly those from particular ethnic/religious traditions-- religion serves a complicated role outside its role as a belief system.

A related anecdote: my sister strenuously resisted everything having to do with Hebrew School, but managed to become, kicking and screaming, a bat mitzvah at age 13. The ritual requires that the bat mitzvah read a torah portion. The torah scroll is written in ornate calligraphy without vowels so novices must memorize it to read it, and gabbaim (rabbi helpers/synagogue elders) correct any misprononciations by readers. So after much procrastinating, my sister did memorize her torah portion. She did not, however, learn the related readings she was also tasked with reciting. When it came time for those related readings, she just invented and sang Hebrew-sounding nonsense words to fill in the many spaces she couldn't remember. To her credit, she kept this a mortifying secret at the time. By my memory and her account, though, while the rabbi and gabbaim scowled, most of the congregation smiled in blissful ignorance.


You reminded me of what happens, sometimes, when we turn to someone for an explanation or an answer - someone who is knowledgeable or experienced. Very often we hear back, "It's complicated."

I fully understand the connection to the "cultural" side of religion. I remember with great fondness my mother's chantings in archaic Bengali and Sanskrit emanating from her prayer room. My reading of the two great Hindu epics in Sanskritized Bengali verse is among my most enjoyable literary experiences. And I "understood" both the books as well as my mother's recitations. I even love attending Catholic Mass. I have heard it in Latin as well as English and both were quite beautiful and soothing. But I am not religious. So, it is like attending an Italian opera or a Japanese Kabuki show - pretty, well choreographed, incomprehensible, mysterious, an elaborate drama. Why would the genuine believers wish to have the same superficial "cultural" experience with their own faith? Don't they want to understand the message? I am not speaking about rationality, debates, microscopes or dissections. Just plain comprehension of what one believes. Or is that not important? Are then the rituals all that matter and not the core idea of what constitutes faith?

Also, going by the comments here, must we presume that educated Italian or French Catholics, Arabic speaking Muslims and Hindus trained in Brahminic traditions will not have the same numinous experience as their uncomprehending faithful counterparts during religious liturgy because they do understand the words? (See Anna's example during her sister's bat mitzvah) What about the priests? Are they the most prosaic and the least moved of all, before religious text and chantings? Enlightenment may not be magical but it is not such a bad thing if one claims that life is shaped by certain ideas and tenets.

Norman, please meet Anna, one of our earliest and most interesting (ex?)writers. It is too bad that she doesn't show up here more often.


It is probably impossible to see some of these issues as universal - ritual chanting must be in an incomprehensible language. In my view, it is not that religion, or its trappings, must be incomprehensible. Life and living, in many ways, are incomprehensible. Life provokes us with questions that have no answers. Unfortunately, some religions feel they have to supply answers where, in fact, none will do. The Roman Church is big on this. Q. Why does God make good people suffer more than bad people? A. Because he loves them more.

The writer on religion, Karen Armstrong, has a view on this that makes sense to me. She said religion has got to stop trying to supply answers to people about things that have no explanation. Their role - and I agree with this - is to try to bring comfort and compassion to people who are dealing with the very difficult things in life that have no rational answer.

A very good example of this problem is the book of Job in the Hebrew sacred literature. What is interesting about Job is that it has three endings. Scholars of ancient sacred texts tell us that two different redactors appended their own ending to the story of Job. The 'original' text presents the great problem of life very clearly. Why does God permit the suffering of good people? The original author asked the right question, but he supplied no answer. In my opinion, and in the opinion of others, the author did not answer the question because there is no answer. In fact, that is the answer.

In succession, the two redactors where so unhappy with the absence of a palatable answer that they each added a happier ending. The second redactor thought the first did not go far enough and added the worst kind of happy ending. The last ending gives back to Job his fortunes and health and large family and the restoration of God's favor - many fold more than what he had before. It is a Hollywood (now a Bollywood) ending. Q. Why does God permit the suffering of good people? A. Because if they stay true to God, they will get lots of stuff.

I like the first ending better.

Called upon to intone the law, I, like Anna's sister, once resorted to a variety of glossolalia. The sacred event was called the bar examination, on an essay question involving the First Amendment, which to my mind is about as otherworldly an utterance as one can find. My Bar-Bri catechism instructed me under such conditions to "make it up." So I did. I must have been inspired.

Dean: I hear you. During my first college degree as a chemistry major, there was no opportunity to get away with "glossolalia." But later while training to be a teacher with an "Education" degree, I did very well with "blah, blah, blah."

Sorry everyone once again for sounding the discordant note in the midst of a harmonious melody. So "mumbo-jumbo" is more soothing, edifying and transcendent than clarity and comprehension. Kinda suspected that all along :-)

Ruchira, I am sure you are very competent in chemistry, education, and teaching. You might not endure as a Buddhist monk, though. I made a separate post of an interview with Andrew Newberg who has done research on brain imaging of meditative states. It is fascinating stuff. No "mumbo-jumbo," really.

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