The mystery of faith

by
31 January 2020

Ted Harrison finds that learning a new language has unexpected benefits for worship

Jean Williamson/Superstock

St Govan’s Chapel, Pembrokeshire, built on the site of the sixth-century hermit’s cell and holy well

St Govan’s Chapel, Pembrokeshire, built on the site of the sixth-century hermit’s cell and holy well

TRIPADVISOR does not recognise the Welsh language, a recent news story suggests, and Welsh speakers are justifiably miffed that this popu­lar review website has no facility for them to post reviews of local places in their native language.

Welsh is one of the two official languages of Wales, which is part of the UK. Yet fewer than two per cent of the British popula­tion has any know­­ledge of Welsh, and the London-based media have little realisation of the fact that, in some parts of Britain, Welsh is a language of everyday life.

Since moving, four years ago, to live in Ceredigion on the Welsh coast, my wife and I have been learn­ing the language. Although she has childhood memories of words and phrases from staying with her Welsh-speaking grandparents, we both in effect came to the language as beginners.

It is not easy to get an English-thinking brain around either the grammar or the pronunciation. Welsh is not structured in the same way as most other European languages. There is a system of muta­tions, in which words change their opening letter according to rules relating both to gender and juxta­position to other words. In terms of vocabulary, there are words that can be traced back to the ancient lan­guage of these islands, as well as those that are derived from the French and Latin languages. These, inter­est­ingly, are often words con­nected with the Church, or educa­tion. The Welsh for church is eglwys.

 

WELSH, it is said, is the lan­guage of heaven, and this I can believe. It has beautiful sounds and rhythms. Perhaps, should I eventually get there, I will be further tutored in their mother tongue by some of the country’s great saints of old — David, Illtyd, Non, or Teilo. What I have discov­ered, while still here on earth, is that, as a Welsh learner, appreciating the language has given me new insights into worship.

On a Sunday, I can choose between going to a service in English or Welsh. On occa­sions, there are services in which both languages are used alternately and the congrega­tion are invited to say the Lord’s Prayer in the language of their choice. Some start “Our Father”, others prefer “Ein Tad”, but, after “for ever and ever”, or “yn oes oesodd”, we come together with “Amen.”

Going to the Welsh service is a challenge, but being fa­­mil­­iar with the Anglican structures of worship helps. Sermons can be a particular hurdle, and I usually follow only the drift — but, then again, when some preachers are using English, I find my mind drifting off in another sense. Many Welsh hymn-tunes are well known in the English-speaking world, but that does not mean that the English words that I know are direct transla­tions from the Welsh, and so — instead of singing, and not really thinking about the meaning of the words — I now find myself getting to grips with the true intent of the hymn-writer.

At Christmas, as well as some of the familiar carols sung in Welsh, we were introduced to another repertoire of popular carols, with tunes that were previously unknown to us. They made a refreshing change from the hardy favourites of the season.

 

WHEN the Church translated the mass from Latin to the common tongue of gathered congregations, it was to make the language under­stood. When the Book of Common Prayer was largely superseded by alternative services in England, it was to make the worship more readily accessible. It was deemed a good thing that worship should be expressed in everyday words, and that obsolete and obscure terms (which might be misinterpreted) should be avoided.

The trouble is that modern trans­lations remove mystery. They oblige people to think of liturgical language not as poetry, but as literal state­ments of doctrine. I have often found the flow of worship inter­rupted by my rational brain asking awkward questions. The joy of worshipping in Welsh, for me as a learner, is that the mystery has returned. I can delight in the
sound of the words of the Creed without being bothered by their meaning.

Duw o Dduw, Llewyrch o Lewyrch, Gwir Dduw o Wir Dduw, wedi ei gnhedlu, nid wedi ei wneuthur”: it is a wonderful sound to let wash over and through oneself — and it saves me from having to wonder, what on earth (or in heaven) “begotten, not made” actually means.

 

OVER the years, I have attended many services across the Anglican Communion, in many different languages. I recall one in Chinese, at which I understood not a single word. There was one recurring phrase that sounded like “sing ling”, and I asked afterwards what it meant. It was the word for “Holy Spirit”, I was told.

So, if you find worship getting a bit stale, a bit too familiar, and the modern English rather too mun­dane, I recommend worshipping, this Sunday, in a new language. Come to a Welsh service, perhaps, and listen out anew for the Ysbryd Glân.

 

Ted Harrison is a writer and artist.

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