Sunday, May 20, 2007

God's Entrails (or how to reach young men)

Every morning, if you pray the Liturgy of the Hours, we say the "Benedictus", Zachary's exclaim and prophecy at the birth of his son John (the Baptist).It's a very beautiful and powerful canticle and its one of the few biblical texts of any length that I have committed completely to memory.

The topic of interest concerns the last few verses which read thus:

And you my child shall be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way to give His people peace and knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us and shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1: 76-79)

(Just in case you're wondering which translation of the Bible this comes from, it doesn't. It's a product of the International Committee on the Use of English Texts)

Out of curiosity I often will look up biblical passages that I am reading in other versions of the Bible. As good students of our Faith we should have a variety of translations and good Catholic commentaries that aid us in deepening our study of Sacred Scripture.

One particular translation I like to refer to is the Douay Rheims. Few folks have heard of it but it has been around since the 16th century and for many years was the only Catholic translation in English. I like it because it is a close literal translation of our Church's official version of Scripture which is the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome.Thus, when I read the DR translation, though some of its passages may seem a little archaic, I know I'm getting a pretty close translation of what the Church holds to be true and authentic.

This does not negate the authenticity of other Church approved translations, but until the Church changes its official translation to something else, I'll stick with Jerome when I want to look deeper into Sacred Texts.Well, pardon all that background, but it's important to have that information for the sake of our "word for the day".

And that word is "tender", as in the "tender compassion of our God". The NAB, which we use in the Liturgy, translates it "tender mercy", but "tender" is still there.

The Latin Vulgate uses this phrase: "per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri". Let's do a word for word translation minus "viscera" (which is the word of interest")

  • per = through
  • misericordiae = mercy, or really mercy from the heart, or pity, or compassion
  • Dei = God
  • nostri = our

So we have "through the compassion (mercy) or our God"But what of "viscera"? As we have seen, our modern versions translate it as "tender".

Viscera is also a word in English. Whenever we come across a word in our own language that is the same word in an antecedent language, it means that the word is so strong and specific in its meaning that it defies translation, and should attract our interest and inspection, especially when we find such words in Scripture.

A case in point is the word "Hallelujah". Ever wonder what that really means or what language that is? It comes from two Hebrew words: "hallel" "to praise" and "yah", which is the shortened form of Yahweh, the name of God.

Now we certainly can say, "Praise God" and we do, but when we really want to praise God, we say "Alleluia" or "Hallelujah" when we want the extra "umph"! Anyway, point is that some words just lose something in translation so we end up keeping the original word though we might anglicize it a bit.

Now, back to "viscera". The English definition is: "The soft internal organs of the body, especially those contained within the abdominal and thoracic cavities." In other words, your "guts", your "entrails".

So God's mercy and compassion is from His "guts", from His "viscera", from his "entrails", or "intestines" even! Wow! That's powerful!

Guys, ever get kicked in the ________(tender parts)? Well that's just the beginning of how much God "hurts" for us. The Douay Rhiems actually translates "viscera" as "bowels". Here's what it says: "Through the bowels of the mercy of our God". Wow!!

I probably won't change the way I say the "Benedictus" since I have it memorized, and at my age (over 50), if you change a word in something you've memorized you'll forget the whole thing! But I will say that after this short discovery and investigation, I will have a renewed and deepened appreciation for how much God loves me.

But perhaps this is once again instructive on how important translations are to our Faith formation. We complain how people today, especially kids, don't pay attention to God the way they should. And we wonder what has happened to our present generation, why we don't practice the Faith the way our parents and ancestors did.

We blame television and all the other products of technology that keep us busy, but perhaps it has something to do with how the Faith is presented. We hear no end of "God loves you", but, if we're honest, those words are increasingly irrelevant to our self-obsessed society.

We are not allowed to write off the wayward and go back to our little self-absorbed devotional enclave. "Go and teach!" said He as His last instruction. But what to do? Well, perhaps it's time we start looking at the official version of Catholic scripture and see what it has been saying for over 1600 years.

As a man (and once a boy) I am highly moved by the image of a God who loves me with his guts, from his bowels! Yes, my innermost parts are certainly "tender", but I believe the use of the word has the effect of making God soft, at least in the eyes (and hearing) of young men whose hormones are just beginning to scream for manly expression.

Perhaps that's why we see young men turning to fights, to sexual impurity, to foul language, to whatever they think makes them more of a man. Why turn to a God who is typified as "tender" (though He is that too of course) when everything about you (a young man) is rough and tough, and guess what, centered (at least in adolescence) around the bowels.

Perhaps it's time to re-present the God of the Bible who loves us from his bowels - since that is what it ACTUALLY says.

By the way, I have no formal education in this field. I just have an excellent book called the PRACTICAL COMMENTARY OF HOLY SCRIPTURE which was used as a tool for catechesis in Germany and in England for many years. Its original intended audience was grade school but when you read it you'll have an appreciation for how much more well-informed and literate people were 100 years ago.

I am going to write a separate article on this but the thing I love about it is that the formula for instruction follows the pattern of Jesus who, when instructing the masses, would often first tell a story (parable), then elicit the lesson, and then instruct those who heard Him to apply that which they had just learned.

This book does exactly that and uses the stories from Scripture as the beginning point of catechesis. If it was good enough for Jesus then it's good enough for me.

God Bless You (from His bowels)

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