Coming Home to Church Greek

The Mystery of Holy Language

Sacrifice of Able and Melchisedek. Mosaic from San Vitale in Ravenna.
Sacrifice of Able and Melchisedek. Mosaic from San Vitale in Ravenna.
In 1981, Australian-born, Canadian-educated Dimitrios Christopolous and his wife Aliki moved back to Ioannina, Greece to establish themselves in their parents’ homeland. Thirty years later, Dimitri shares with the editor of Road to Emmaus the challenge of a native Greek-speaker engaging his liturgical language.

I grew up in Australia and am an English teacher myself, so I’ve thought quite a lot about Church translation. If you take, for example, the phrase, “The Lord is with us,” in Greek it is O Theos Methimon. It resonates with such grandeur that you feel as if you are offering something beautiful to God, that this language is worthy of the Lord. You can also say this in modern Greek, O Theos einai mazi mas, but it sounds as simplistic as the English translation, almost as flat. When I hear it in old Greek, it is magnificent, like a beautiful brush stroke. It’s the difference between going to church in jeans and going to church in a suit.

I’ve been told that Slavonic is just as beautiful. I don’t know if English has the possibility of creating a beautiful Church language that separates itself from ordinary speech, but I believe that when you come to the Lord you have to offer something better than everyday things—in clothing, in attention, in language. Just as Abel gave Him the best fruit of his labor, we try to give Him the best of our language. Modern Greek and modern English might be more understandable, but there is little poetry or beauty in the words. There is something missing that leaves you flat.

RTE: We have some beautiful translations that are very clear and also uplifting, such as The Lenten Triodion and The Festal Menaion by Metropolitan Kallistos and Mother Mary, and other of Mother Mary’s translations from the convent at Bussy-en-Othe. But in some translations, the English can be very colloquial and common-sounding.

DIMITRIOS: Yes, these beautiful old services are like old Byzantine icons. Besides their original depth, they develop a patina of centuries of use. Saint Romanos the Melodist and the Nun Cassiani wrote extraordinary things. Their hymns are a part of Church tradition, which has been passed down and prayed with for many centuries. You might have a sense of the fundamental meaning in a good translation into modern Greek or English, but I don’t believe you will have the magnificence, the beauty, nor the layers of meaning that come from the plays on words and the versatility of old Greek grammar. Perhaps I’m biased because I’m Greek, but I didn’t grow up with the Greek Church language. I grew up in Australia with English and modern Greek, and only became interested in my native Orthodoxy as an adult. Now, when I go to church, it’s as if I am transported to another world.

RTE: In some English translations, we aren’t even left with the beauty of a modified King James type of English. Instead, everything has to be modern: God is addressed as “You,” and the grammar and syntax are reduced to a fourth-grade level. For many people formerly used to older translations or even good literature, these new versions sound pale and simplistic.

DIMITRIOS: A few churches in Greece are also trying to use this everyday language because they say that people don’t understand the older Greek, but people will understand even less if they do this because simplification doesn’t stimulate deeper thought. An example that comes to mind in English is the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Now, “You must not kill” or “Don’t kill,” are standard modern English translations. “Shalt not” carries serious authority, while “must not” sounds like a class in good manners, and “Don’t kill,” is simply a rule. I understand what it means, but it doesn’t touch the soul. “Thou shalt not,” comes from above, from a God with authority, and our souls respond differently.

RTE: Is it true that most modern Greeks don’t understand the words of the liturgy and the services in Byzantine Greek?

DIMITRIOS: My wife has never had a single course in Byzantine Greek or theology, but she has sung in the choir in Greece for years, and because of her love for God and the Church, she has come to understand everything. Also, it is not a matter of simply understanding, it is also a matter of participating. You can read the service before or after, but to be present in the Church is to pray “Holy, holy, holy” with the angels to the Lord. If you haven’t experienced that, all of the words in the world won’t help you.

RTE: As an English-speaker in mostly Slavonic services, which I am glad to attend, I also take my English service books along to read. I don’t have the advantage of your wife in being able to learn a church language that is an older form of what I already speak, and I would miss much of the meaning of the festal services if I didn’t have a translation.

DIMITRIOS: I wasn’t implying that one shouldn’t use translations. I felt the same at the Bulgarian, Serbian, and Russian monasteries on the Holy Mountain, where they do services in Slavonic. I was so bored that my mind wandered everywhere. But for a Greek, these phrases in the Byzantine Greek services come to you. They are not completely dark and many words are close enough that you can glimpse their meaning, even if you are new to church. These words carry two millenia of prayer, and when you hear them you feel that you are in the presence of holiness. I’m sure that Slavonic is the same. If you come to church and hear it week after week, it becomes more familiar and accessible; the Lord opens your ears.

If someone wants to understand, he will. He will do what he must to learn. I remember when I first began attending church regularly, I would read the Gospel or parts of the services the night before in more modern Greek, so that I would have a clear understanding when I heard the passages in Byzantine Greek. After awhile those passages and the older words became familiar and dear to me. But, I had to go through the trouble of finding the translations and becoming familiar with them before I could really appreciate the much higher beauty of the Byzantine Greek.

It’s like all spiritual life—you don’t get anywhere by just sitting down and waiting for enlightenment. When you love someone, you dress up, you buy gifts, you use nice language… and it is the same with our love for Christ and His Church. You don’t say, “I’m going to church and it had better be there for me, completely understandable.” There is a synergy in the Church’s services that lifts you to heaven, but you have to work for it.

One day, when I was new in church, I took a modern Greek translation to follow the service, like in a Protestant church. My spiritual father came out of the Royal Doors to cense and took the book out of my hand. Afterwards he said, “We don’t do that. We listen, we pray, and we concentrate on the Lord.” I said, “But I don’t understand.” He said, “You will understand. Just wait.” Another priest said, “We are all together in the Holy of Holies—the Lord, the angels, the priests, the worshippers. It’s as if all of the other worshippers are going down one path, and you are trying to find another. What are you doing reading?”

RTE: But if you were going to a Slavonic-speaking Church…?

DIMITRIOS: As I said, I wouldn’t last a moment if it wasn’t in a language that had some relationship with a language that I know.

RTE: And that’s the problem most English-speaking converts to Orthodoxy have.

DIMITRIOS: Yes. When Sts. Cyril and Methodius translated all of this from Greek into Slavonic, they did it with care and reverence, and even created Slavonic words to express the Greek theological meanings. I believe we need righteous men and women, linguistically-educated Orthodox to do the same with English and other language translations. We need this harmony.

From: Road to Emmaus Vol. XI, No. 3 (#42). Reprinted with permission.

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