Elizabeth Julian rsm
5 April 2011
When I was a child in the 1960s I learnt many answers to questions I didn’t have. I learned that calumny and detraction are forbidden by the eighth commandment; that a sacrifice is ‘the offering of a victim by a priest to God alone’, and that faith ‘is a supernatural gift, which enables us to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed’ – very weighty material for a nine-year-old. My young brain could easily memorise three catechism questions a night in order to recite them the next day.
Of course, I had no idea what they meant but that didn’t seem to matter. I also learnt to spell words that I never used and to recite obscure grammar rules. I remember my excitement on discovering that the ‘quotient’ was the answer to a long-division sum even though I insisted to my mother that it was kwashant in Sr Kevin’s strong Irish accent! – in short answers to questions that someone in authority thought I should know.
Praying the Nicene Creed at Mass recently, I realised that the new translation of ‘consubstantial’ instead of ‘one in being with the father’ was the answer to a question that I don’t have now and probably never will have. Obviously the translators had the problem otherwise they would have left the translation as it was. I feel like a nine-year-old again, memorising responses (and my memory is not nearly as good as it used to be) some of which don’t make much sense to me but are necessary because someone in authority has said so.
However, I also learnt as a child why God loves me. It was very easy to parrot the answer: ‘God made me to know, love and serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next.’ Like all the other catechism answers it was an answer to a question that a nine-year-old more interested in reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series didn’t actually have. But I have the question NOW and sometimes I am completely overwhelmed by the enormity and complexity of it.
As for the answer, it seems to me that I have spent 50-plus years trying to unpack and live out each part of the statement: What does it really mean to know God, to love God and to serve God in the ordinary circumstances of my everyday life? Is there a next life? If there is, what will it be like?
If I follow the same logic, perhaps in 50 years I will have lived into ‘consubstantial with the father’ and ‘it is right and just’ etc. I will have stopped my present wondering about what this obscure word actually means and will have accepted that God is beyond my thoughts and concepts.
This realisation has saved me from losing sleep over the new translation. Meanwhile, I am left with the question raised for me by the Christchurch earthquakes: What words do people pray during such an experience? I suspect it is probably the ‘Our Father’ or the ‘Hail Mary’, or a quick ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’ or pleas for help in people’s own words, rather than the Creed, new or old.
In such situations the language of our personal relationship with God is our first response though not necessarily our best response. We have seen the importance of a communal response of moving and meaningful ritual. We have learnt as a nation that we can ‘do’ silence. Sometimes we don’t need words, we just need to be together. The Mass gives us that opportunity every day regardless of the translation.