Wednesday, November 29, 2017
There is a three-way tie for the shortest word in the English language composed entirely of vowels, because three of the vowels themselves are complete words: a, I, and o.
What are you, the giraffe asked the zoo-keeper?
O, I am a man.
My favorite two-letter, two-vowel word is ai. That’s a three-toed tree sloth that inhabits mainly the Guianas and crossword puzzles. There’s no doubt about the longest such word: euouae. This shaggy-dog lexicography brings me to my subject.
We have an excellent adult education program at our parish church, which often exploits the resources provided by the faculty and students of the Princeton Theological Seminary. Just at the moment we have four student “interns” on intellectual loan, and for the brief Advent season they are offering a four-part course on the Advent antiphons—antiphon being the fancy, churchy word for the short musical embellishment of a psalm. The Advent antiphons are sometimes called the “O” antiphons on account of their monoliteral beginnings. They were developed in the early phase of the Benedictine tradition, in which the psalter in its entirety is communally recited during the course of each week. There are seven of them, and, addressing Christ by various of his poetic names, they express the fervent desire that he come into the world. The antiphon under consideration this week happened to be my favorite, Oriens (dayspring, dawn, sunrise, sun of righteousness, light from the East).
O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Dawn of the East, Brightness of the Light Eternal and Sun of Justice, come and enlighten them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
It is hardly surprising that a metaphorical vocabulary of solar illumination is to be found in the world’s great religious texts and in its myth systems, but its saturation of early Christian texts is so prominent that one famous anthropological philosophe, Charles-François Dupuis, concluded that Jesus Christ was not an historical personage but a sun myth. I myself choose to stop short of this conclusion, though I certainly admit the ubiquity of the vocabulary of light and dark. To view the pattern, we need look no further than the most famous of medieval poems, Dante’s Divine Comedy. It begins with the pilgrim-narrator lost in a dark wood at the beginning of “Hell” and bathed in a sea of photons at the end of “Paradise”. In Dante’s poem, the moral valences of benightedness and illumination are probably too obvious to require comment, but I won’t let that stop me, for they have a vivacity that is probably unavailable to us. The potency of poetic metaphor, after all, cannot be far removed from some apprehension of the material reality in which it is grounded. Ancient texts, codified in the material conditions of pre-modern agrarianism, grow farther from us with each generation. The Lord may be my Shepherd, but if I don’t see sheep on a daily basis and perhaps have never seen an actual shepherd, there is a certain ethereality to the idea. And when it comes to the dark, practically none of us in the modern West has ever actually been there.
I mean, of course, really in the dark—hours upon end with no access to light switch, flashlight, matchbox, or at least some little button on our keychains or watches to create a feeble flicker or beam. But if the year were 1400, and you were living at near-subsistence level beneath the cloudy sky of a Flemish village, you did indeed know what the dark was. This was also true of the monks who were singing “O Oriens,” though even the poorer ones could usually scrounge up a candle for the night office. When the Carmelite John of the Cross wrote of the dark night of the soul, we have to presume he knew what he was talking about.
The invention of the electrical light has for many of us essentially erased the distinction between night and day, leaving us in a state of almost pathetic technological dependence in comparison to which the mere impoverishment of metaphor may seem slight. The Great Blackout of November 9, 1965 in the northeastern United States—a temporary and partial failure of the main electrical grid that left untouched huge resources of battery power and emergency and reserve capacity for electrical generation, caused chaos and in some instances panic that is remembered to this day. It shut down America’s greatest city, called out the National Guard, fostered a rich anthology of urban legend, and led to a noticeable uptick in the birth statistics for August, 1966, among other things.
But the darker the night, the brighter the dawn. That is what Advent and its antiphons are all about. O, what about euouae? (Note the ending of the musical passage at the top.) Well, I’m being a bit fast-and-loose in calling it a word, let alone an English word. In fact, it is a kind of coded directive to the monks chanting the antiphon. The formulaic end of many ancient prayers is “…world without end, amen.” This is a translation of the more vivid Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum, amen. In monastic chant, there were various “tunes” that might be used for this formulaic conclusion. The euouae tells the chanter what particular notes to use for the final six syllabus: saEcUlOrUm AmEn. Cunning fellows, those old monks.