[h/t to Tyler Whatley for mentioning the following article, in which Bishop Robert Barron shares thoughts about the “Thee,” “Thy,” “Thou” language that, as it happens, is part of our Anglican patrimony.]
On the final morning of the November meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, we were treated to a fine sermon by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain. The leader of the church in Seattle spent a good deal of time discussing Pier Giorgio Frassati, a saint from the early twentieth century to whom he and I both have a strong devotion. But what particularly struck me in his homily was a reference to the great St. Catherine of Siena. One of the most remarkable things about that remarkable woman was the intimacy which she regularly experienced with Mary, the saints, and the Lord Jesus himself. Archbishop Sartain relayed a story reported by Catherine’s spiritual director, Raymond of Capua. According to Raymond, Catherine would often recite the office while walking along a cloister in the company of Jesus, mystically visible to the saint. When she came to the conclusion of a psalm, she would, according to liturgical custom, speak the words of the Glory Be, but her version was as follows, “Glory be to the Father, and to Thee, and to the Holy Ghost!” For her, Christ was not a distant figure, and prayer was not an abstract exercise. Rather, the Lord was at her side, and prayer was conversation between friends.
Archbishop Sartain invited us to muse on Catherine’s use of the intimate form of the pronoun, in her Latin tibi (to you), and rightly rendered in English as “to Thee.” As is the case with many other languages, Latin distinguishes between more formal and more informal use of the second person pronoun, and it is the familiar “tu” that Catherine employs when speaking to Jesus. It is an oddity of the evolution of spoken English that today “thou, thine, thy, and thee” seem more rarified, more regal and distant, when in fact just the contrary was the case up until fairly modern times. These were the words used to address family members, children, and intimate friends, in contradistinction to the more formal “you” and “yours.” How wonderful, Archbishop Sartain reminded us, that this intimate usage is preserved in some of our most beloved prayers. We say, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” and we pray, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Again, I realize that to our ears, this language sounds less rather than more intimate, but it is in fact meant to convey the same easy familiarity with the Father and the Blessed Mother that Catherine of Siena enjoyed with Christ.
And all of this signals something of crucial significance regarding the nature of Biblical Christianity. Many mysticisms and philosophies of the ancient world—Platonism, Plotinianism, and Gnosticism come readily to mind—indeed spoke of God or the sacred, but they meant a force or a value or an ontological source, impersonal and at an infinite remove from the world of ordinary experience. These ancient schools find an echo, moreover, in many modern and contemporary theologies. Think of the Deism popular in the 18th century and so influential on the Founders of the United States; or think of Schleiermacher’s and Emerson’s pantheist mysticisms in the nineteenth century; or consider even the New Age philosophy of our time. All of these would speak of a “divine” principle or power, but one would never dream of addressing such a force as “thou,” or of engaging with it in intimate conversation.
Then there is the Bible. The Scriptures obviously present God as overwhelming, transcendent, uncontrollable, inscrutable, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, but they insist that this sublime and frightening power is a person who deigns to speak to us, to guide us, and to invite us into his life. They even make bold to speak of the awesome God “pitching his tent among us,” becoming one of us, taking to himself our frail humanity. And this implies that we can speak to God as we speak to an intimate colleague. Conversing with his disciples the night before he died, Jesus said, “I no longer call you slaves, but friends,” and in making that utterance, he turned all of religious philosophy and mysticism on its head.
I believe that one of the major problems we have in evangelizing our culture is that many Christians don’t walk with Jesus personally. Finally, evangelization is not a sharing of ideas—though this can be very important at the level of pre-evangelization or clearing the ground—but rather the sharing of a relationship. But as the old adage has it, “nemo dat quod non habet” (no one gives what he doesn’t have). If we don’t speak to Jesus as “thou,” we won’t draw others into a real friendship with him, and the establishment of that friendship is the terminus ad quem of real evangelizing.
[The photo is of the abbey church of Fontenay, perhaps the best surviving example of the first generation of abbey churches of the Cistercian reform.]