Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum, in vanum laborant qui aedificaverunt eam - "Unless the Lord has built the house, they labored in vain who built it" Psalm 127

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Darmok and Jalod Ad Orientem

An earlier version of this Worth Revisiting post was first published 3 December 2016. To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at and Allison Gingras at

Darmok and Jalod at Tanagra

 I recently re-published a post called “Star Trek, Secularism, and Christian Faith”. It had originally been posted on my first blog, Principium et Finis, where it garnered more page views than anything else on the blog – more than anything else I’ve ever published online, in fact.  There seems to be something about imaginative stories (Star Trek is just one example) that captures our attention, and has done so since our far-distant ancestors gathered around campfires to hear story-tellers recount the communal tales that defined them as a people.
Tamarian Captain and Captain Jean-Luc Picard
     In my earlier post I was somewhat critical of the creators of the television science-fiction franchise on the grounds that they didn’t really understand what religious believers mean by "faith", which was supposed to be a major theme in episode I was discussing.  They are on much firmer ground in the episode called “Darmok”, from the fourth season of the series Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Not only that, I think that this particular story throws an interesting light on some current issues in the Catholic Church.
      In “Darmok” the (mostly human) crew of the starship Enterprise encounters an alien race called the Tamarians, with whom humans have previously had several frustratingly unsuccessful attempts at communication.  It seems that the Earthling’s Universal Translators (ah, the wonders of science fiction!) are able to discover the meaning of the Tamarians’ words, but can’t figure out how the words combine to express meaning.  What is one to make, for instance, of utterances such as “Shaka, when the walls fell”, or “The river Tamarc, in winter”? The aliens seem to be talking in metaphors and allusions drawn from stories known to them and to nobody else.

Data and Troi explain Tamarian Language

     Jean-Luc Picard, the Enterprise’s captain (played by Patrick Stuart) experiences the same frustration as his predecessors in his attempts to communicate with the commander of a Tamarian ship, a frustration clearly shared by his alien counterpart.  Finally, the Tamarian captain holds up two daggers and declares “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra!”, at which both he and Picard are transported (more sci-fi wizardry) down to the surface of a planet below.  Picard soon learns that the captain is not challenging him to a duel as he at first supposes, but what he does intend, or what he means by his insistent repetition of “Darmok and Jalod at Tanagra!” remains a mystery.
     Finally, after the two captains together encounter a deadly creature (which mortally wounds Picard’s Tamarian counterpart), Picard puts the puzzle together.  Darmok and Jalod were two heroes, perhaps rivals or enemies, who together fought a beast on an island called Tanagra, and formed a bond of friendship.  The alien captain had hoped that, by putting himself and Picard in a similar situation, they might likewise achieve through shared experience what they couldn't find through mere words.  Understanding too late his counterpart's intent, Picard is able at least to comfort the dying Tamarian by recounting to him the ancient epic of Gil-Gamesh.

We Are Formed by Experience

    The Tamarians, as are all Star Trek aliens, are really humans in disguise (literally, of course, but figuratively as well).  In this particular story the creators of the television show have put their finger on something that goes to the very heart of what it is to be human: we are formed by our experiences, not only as individuals but as peoples.  The “aliens” they have created here view the world only through the lens of the stories that have been passed down about the history of their people, and in their everyday experiences they consciously relive the experiences of their forebears. Their only way to communicate abstractions is through the concrete: people, places, and events.

Picard tells Tamarians about death of their captain

    Now, we Earth-dwellers may not look very much like them at first.  We have a wealth of language that communicates abstractions and ideas . . . and yet we are more Tamarian than we might appear at first glance.  Notice how easily, for example, the name of the Nazi’s hand-picked Norwegian puppet Vidkun Quisling has become the common noun “quisling”, a synonym for “traitor” . . . or how easily we use a metaphorical term such as “puppet”, as I did just now. Often,  we quickly forget that the expressions we are using are metaphors at all.  I remember, for instance during the 1992 presidential campaign when former (and future) California governor Jerry Brown was asked about the “anointed front-runner” Bill Clinton.  Brown asked whether he was running for president, or running for pope. Some allusions are even more deeply buried: how many people even know when they use the word “mentor” they are alluding to Homer’s Odyssey, where the goddess Athena, in the guise of a wise old man named Mentor, accompanies Odysseus’s son Telemachus to provide guidance (or, to speak metaphorically, “show him the ropes”).  

It's a Mystery to Me

    There’s even more going on here than the use of language.  The Tamarian captain understands that actions, experiences, can communicate in ways that words cannot (a point I also discuss in a post I republished this week, “Christ, or Anti-Christ? Art & the Power of Imagination”), which is of course true of human beings as much as it is of the fictional “Children of Tamar”.  This is a large part of why so many religions rely on ritual and formal rites: the actions communicate to us much more deeply than mere words, because we are actually living out what they want to convey.  The true meaning of the term “mystery” (from the Greek μυστήριον) in fact, is not something unknowable, but something that can only be known experientially, through doing. Traditional Christianity tells us that God uses these mysteries as a means not only of imparting His Grace, but of revealing himself to us. Once we understand that, we can more easily see why μυστήριον translates into Latin as sacramentum, because sacraments involve not only knowing or thinking, but acting.

The Mystery of the Eucharist
     Most religions rely, to some degree or other, on mystery.  At the very core of Christianity we find the Profoundest Mystery, the Supreme Sacrament: The Infinite God become Man in order to experience our humanity, and to invite us, in turn, to share in His Divinity.  We live out this mystery concretely when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist which is, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us, the summit and source of the Christian life.  While Catholic Christianity includes countless lesser ways of living out spiritual realities as well, including the other Sacraments, sacramentals, devotions, and so on, the Eucharist, and the Sacrifice of the Mass in which we receive it, is the most important thing we do.

Turning Toward The Lord

    It can be helpful, I think, to bear these considerations in mind when we look at the suggestion recently made [5 July 2016] by Cardinal Sarah, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, that priests start re-introducing the practice of saying the Mass ad orientem, “toward the rising sun”, which is to say facing the altar rather than the congregation.  The Cardinal made the suggestion in a talk delivered at a liturgical conference in London this past summer (full text here).   Cardinal Sarah asked his fellow shepherds in the episcopy to support him in this matter, saying:

I very humbly and fraternally would like to appeal also to my brother bishops: please lead your priests and people towards the Lord in this way, particularly at large celebrations in your dioceses and in your cathedral. Please form your seminarians in the reality that we are not called to the priesthood to be at the centre of liturgical worship ourselves, but to lead Christ’s faithful to him as fellow worshippers united in the one same act of adoration.

Implicit in the part of the quote I have italicized above is the idea that what we do, and what the priest does, during the Mass is a part of the message.
Ad Orientem: facing The Lord Together
    I first came across a similar suggestion in regard to ad orientem worship some years ago in an article by Fr. Joseph Fessio called “The Mass of Vatican II”. In his essay Fr. Fessio explains what the documents of Vatican II actually say about the Mass; for instance, that it should remain mostly in Latin, and that Gregorian Chant “should be given pride of place in liturgical services", and various other directives that appear not to have much influenced the post-conciliar revision of the liturgy. Fr. Fessio points out that one thing that was done does not appear, anywhere, in the Council’s documents, just as it had never been part of the tradition of the Church over the previous 18 centuries: turning the priest at Mass around to face the congregation, rather than having him face the altar, the liturgical East, along with the people he is leading in prayer.  In defending the traditional practice Fr. Fessio more explicitly makes some of the same points that Cardinal Sarah does in his London talk:

It's true that when the priest faces the people for the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, there may be a sense of greater unity as a community. But there is also a danger of the priest being the performer and you being the spectator - precisely what the Council did not want: priest performers and congregational spectators. But there is something more problematic. You can see it, perhaps, by contrasting Mass facing the people with Mass facing East or facing the Lord. I don't say Mass "with my back to the people" anymore than Patton went through Germany with his "back to the soldiers." Patton led the Third Army across Germany and they followed him to achieve a goal. The Mass is part of the Pilgrim Church on the way to our goal, our heavenly homeland. This world is not our heavenly homeland. We don't sit around in a circle and look at each other. We want to look with each other and with the priest towards the rising sun, the rays of grace, where the Son will come again in glory on the clouds.

The Medium is the Message

    Marshall McLuhan famously said of television that “the medium is the message”.  The same can be said of all media, including sacred media.  How we celebrate the Mass sends a message.  The symbolic “message” of the ad orientem Mass is clear: that all of us together, priest and people, are making an offering to God; we all face our Lord together.  When priest and people face each other, who is offering what to whom? The message seems to be that we are there to see each other, not to turn to Our Lord. The little cartoon to the left (which, I confess, I stole from Fr. Z’s blog) gives a good illustration of the problem. Cardinal Sarah himself recently made the same point in a talk delivered to the bishops of Sri Lanka,

In recent decades in some countries the Sacred Liturgy has become too anthropocentric; man not Almighty God has often become its focus.

But that’s not how it’s supposed to be.  Instead,

In every Catholic liturgy, the Church, made up of both minister and faithful, gives her complete focus – body, heart and mind – to God who is the centre of our lives and the origin of every blessing and grace.

    That’s the beauty of the traditional ad orientem celebration of the Mass: we don’t merely read or hear but experience for ourselves the Truth that God is the center of our lives, and our in our worship we all turn to Him together.

It's Greek to Me

    Which brings me to one of my few real quibbles with “Darmok”. In the final scene of the episode we see Captain Picard reading a book when his first officer, Commander Riker, enters the room.  Riker looks at the book curiously, and says, “Greek, sir?” (did I mention that Captain Picard is the consummate Renaissance man? Starship captain, interstellar warrior, student of Latin and Greek, etc.), which leads to this exchange:

PICARD: Oh, the Homeric Hymns. One of the root metaphors of our own culture.

RIKER: For the next time we encounter the Tamarians?

PICARD: More familiarity with our own mythology might help us to relate to theirs. The Tamarian was willing to risk all of us just for the hope of communication, connection. Now the door is open between our peoples. That commitment meant more to him than his own life. Thank you, Number One.

Now, the Homeric Hymns is not a bad place to start, as far as it goes, but if Picard really wants to get at the “root” of what it is to be human, I have a better suggestion for him, one that goes like this:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν  Λόγος καὶ  Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν Θεόν καὶ Θεὸς ἦν  Λόγος

In the beginning was The Word, and The Word was with God, and The Word was God (John 1:1)

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