In a previous post considering the history and spirituality of Eastern Christians in the United States, I pointed out that our churches rightly embraced the local American culture in that they translated our liturgical services into English. This progress of moving to the vernacular might lead some to assume that older languages such as Church Slavonic would be better left discarded. Or at least, one may feel that when we continue singing songs in the languages without knowing what the words mean, this practice has little meaning or spiritual value. It is clear that there may be great nostalgic value to singing in old languages that were sung by relatives who were immigrants from the Old Country. One may remember one’s childhood if one were raised in our churches in the bygone days when its founding members were not native English speakers. But does that mean that later generations without this experience (and converts, for that matter!) have nothing spiritually benefiting in singing in the old languages such as Slavonic?
In this present reflection, I would like to focus on a mystical angle to the use of ‘dead languages’. To start, I should say at the outset that singing words is not a magic formula or spell. Thus, no matter what language one sings, connecting to the meaning is ultimately key. On the flip side, everyone knows that one can lose focus even if one is singing words in their mother tongue. One can sing words that one understands with no understanding at all. But it must be admitted that as one sings in a language like Church Slavonic, understanding the basic meaning of the songs (though not necessarily grasping the fine tunings of its grammar and lexicon) is of critical importance. If one thinks that “Preterpivyj” or “O kto kto” are about the Resurrection, for example, one would be missing great meaning in not knowing what these songs are really about . Of course, most of the time today our parishes that use Slavonic in songs also sing the song with English verses/refrains, and that is one important qualification which can help one grasp what is being said during the Slavonic sections of a song. There are certainly other qualifications that could be made from a linguistic perspective, but again this misses the current point of consideration.
Instead, there is a more transcendent approach that one can take which is the goal for this reflection. Let’s imagine that it is no special feast on a particular day, there is a song being sung in a “dead language”, and you have no idea what the words mean. Is there nothing to be gained from such an experience, spiritually speaking? Are these songs only beneficial to older people in our day and age?
This is where I think that the mystical perspective is so critical . My own affinity towards singing in Slavonic comes from no childhood experiences or stories from my “Baba”. But when I sing in this old language, I do experience a closeness with older people who are so old that I cannot see them with my earthly eyes. Mystically, however, I see the faithful who are now in the presence of God, who sung these same melodies-and these same words!-while they once lived on earth hundreds of years ago. I feel the mystical communion of the saints when my own Mother Tongue, which is not rich in the tradition of the Christian East, sings these hymns in a “dead” language. But when I sing, albeit feebly, in this more ancient tongue with even a little bit of understanding, the far off saints of yore are closer to me as we share the same language. Just as icons are visible windows into heaven, there is a sense in which singing in an old language is an auditory icon which represents the time-transcending nature of our church. It is a profession that our faith is so much more than what we may profess today, and how we profess it. By singing in languages such as Church Slavonic, we have the opportunity to profess linguistically that we are one with those faithful Christian of all ages.
In closing, to pray and sing in an ancient language is something which may be viewed as unnecessary if we have those words translated into English. However, if we look through a mystical lens we can see that we might be missing a special closeness to those who have gone before us, when we share in their language. In so doing, we can grow in love and communion with our spiritual ancestors, and see a broader perspective than just the here and now. As we grow to be faithful to our American 21st century identity as Eastern Christians, may we simultaneously grow in a deep love of our past. This will, I believe, give us our most bright future.