Back to basics

Let us turn to the final task laid out in the introduction:  the potential for a reading of the Eucharistic text in which an unordained person acts as celebrant.  From the perspective of the magisterium's teachings or the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this may seem an impossibility.  However, let us draw on one other scenario in which (iterative) translations play out.

Constance Garnett

Constance Garnett

In the 1890's an English translator named Constance Garnett began a prolific career, producing 71 English volumes of 19th century Russian authors such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol. Her herculean efforts introduced the giants of Russian literature to the English-speaking world, but not without some loss in translation.

Garnett worked with remarkable speed, sometimes skipping passages that proved too awkward to translate quickly without stopping to sort through an author's style. While she sometimes went to great lengths to accurately translate the names of certain flora and fauna from the Russian context, she also smoothed out the idiosyncratic speech mannerisms of various characters – especially in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – until everyone spoke the same, even Victorian English.

Joseph Brodsky would later comment, "The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett."[1] As a result some translators have subsequently used Garnett's translations as a base text to be edited and corrected, while others have returned to the Russian editions to render entirely new translations that more closely model Derrida's idea of economy that balances both quantity and quality.

Similar pitfalls appear in biblical translation where the King James Version presents a Mark who writes in perfect English and the differences between the syntactic structures of Paul and the pseudo-Pauline author(s) are rendered in such a way as to sound more or less homogenous.

Some recent English translators have attempted to retain the familiar cadence and beauty of the King James translation while updating content with older (and presumably less adulterated) manuscripts, while others have gone back to the drawing board, opting for modern locution and, in many cases, different qualitative meanings based on research into the context of the original authors.  This kind of translation is a relatively recent innovation, as Derrida himself suggests when he characterizes the modern use of the word as having an "Abrahamic and post-Lutheran Europe[an]" context.[2]

However, within the Protestant milieu such revisions and visits to earlier textual iterations go unnoticed much of the time.  For example, when discussing Marion's insistence on the bishop as the theologian, Scott David Foutz moves seamlessly in two sentences from a mention of Marion's Roman Catholic context to the bishop as laid out in 1 Timothy and Titus, suggesting that "[i]t is without question that Marion understands these letter[s] to be at least the origin and foundation for the office of bishop of which he speaks."[3]

While I am not suggesting that a return to the primitive church and its practices is an acceptable variant for every context, it seems reasonable that this move, embraced by various groups since the Reformation, would be useful for our particular project.

Edward Foley notes that early post-resurrection churches met in homes where the host or hostess would offer a meal. In these earliest stages either the host or the local bishop served as celebrant, before the Eucharist was separated from the commensal context to become a separate ritual.[4] There was no monepiscopacy or a pope whose blessing would be required for a formal ordination process.

As evidenced in the previously mentioned pseudo-Pauline passages, bishops were chosen by the discernment of the local Christian community.  Only later would bishops begin to come together as a sign of unity in the church to bless the ministry to a new bishop and the concentration of authority with these overseers of the Church.

By stripping back the accretions, we find an early understanding of the Eucharist as memorial meal, performed in obedience to Christ's instructions.  While perhaps not endorsed by the magisterium, retired Catholic priest Edward Hays encourages disenfranchised parishioners to continue this ancient practice.  Like Marion, Hays returns to the Emmaus meal, citing the episode as proof positive that the unordained disciples were able to share in the Eucharistic hermeneutic, receiving spiritual insight from the risen Christ without the intervention of a bishop or priest.[5]

While clerical roles are crucial to the functioning of the Church, Hays reassures those who find themselves outside of their local parish that they have already learned what they need to continue in Christian community, having been taught Sunday after Sunday in the School of Holiness "how to pray and love God, ways to be instruments of justice and peace, and to care for the poor."  But now their instruction is complete, leading to a graduation from the institutional church.[6]

With these opening remarks he then moves on to a series of letters designed to help these Christians to celebrate the sacraments in their own homes among a community of Christian friends, reminding his readers that before the rise of the ministerial priesthood every baptized Christian was recognized as being fully incorporated into Christ, "empowered to baptize, forgive sins, and break bread."[7]

With nearly 70 percent of Roman Catholics worldwide no longer attending services on a regular basis, Hays suggests that a shift in the traditional ways of embodying the community of faith is underway, citing the doctrine of the sensus fidelium or "sense of the faithful" that serves as an ongoing guide to the Church's theology.[8] This appeal to the consensus of believers will prove an important safeguard in the remarks offered in the next post.


[1] As quoted in David Remnick, "The Translation Wars," New Yorker 81, no. 35 (2005).

[2] Derrida, "What Is a 'Relevant' Translation?," 179.

[3] Scott David Foutz, "Postmetaphysic Theology: A Case Study - Jean Luc Marion,"  Quodlibet Journal 1, no. 3 (1999), http://www.quodlibet.net/articles/foutz-marion.shtml.

[4] Foley, From Age to Age: How Christians Celebrated the Eucharist: 9, 44.

[5] Edward Hays, Letters to Exodus Christians (Notre Dame, IN: Forest of Peace, 2008). 37.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Ibid., 43.

[8] Ibid., ix, 2.

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