By Dean C. Lomis, Ph.D.
Two years ago this coming summer, in July 2010, I attended in Williamsport, Pennsylvania the Roman Catholic funeral of a
ninety-five year old elderly grandmother. Being Greek Orthodox and not knowing any other than the immediate family, I sat at
the last row of the Cathedral’s pews witnessing the solemn ceremony.
Somewhere in the middle of the service I felt jolted when I heard the priest chant: “Kyrie Eleyson.” About a quarter of the
service later he repeated the chant, as he did near the end also. After the funeral and during the ensuing — “makaria”-to-us-
Greek-Orthodox — meal, I inquired of the Roman Catholic priest regarding the use of the Greek Orthodox “Kyrie Eleyson” in a
Roman Catholic Mass. His explanation was that the ‘Anglican’ version of the verse does not provide the real meaning of the
prayer. He went on to inform me that the Roman Catholic
Church was “in the process of making revisions to be called ‘Missal,’ a new text to be used during Mass intended to be
closer to the Faith using New Words of Worship in the ‘liturgical Latin’ used centuries in the past.” As we may now know, of
course, the new “Missal” has been put into practice as of a couple of months ago. Shortly after returning home a couple of days later, I looked
into our Greek Orthodox Liturgy Book and realized that I went to a Roman Catholic Church to hear the Greek Orthodox version
of a prayer which in my Greek Orthodox Church I hear it in the Anglican version, when chanted in English. That is, I noticed
that when “Kyrie Eleyson” is chanted in English it becomes “Lord Have Mercy.” Immediately I recognized that we have a serious difference
with the Anglican version, for the words “mercy” and “eleyson” are not compatible, lacking identical meanings. Also, searching
deeper into the terminology, it became apparent that the Roman Catholic Greek Orthodox version was correct because it
is not possible to translate “Kyrie Eleyson” correctly. Looking up “mercy” we find the meanings of ‘forgive, don’t
punish anymore, have pity,’ etc. However, “eleyson” goes beyond the punishing and asking-for-forgiveness state;
“eleyson” includes ‘blessing, assistance, help, guidance,’ which “mercy” does not. Why then should we Greek Orthodox not have our own
“Missal” by always using the all-inclusive Greek Orthodox “Kyrie Eleyson” rather than the restrictive Anglican
“Lord Have Mercy?”
Etymology, the science of the origin and development of words, came from the meaning of the term. Later generations,
like the Anglicans translating the Greek “eleyson” could not find an all-inclusive equivalent, thus compromising with “mercy,”
which truly shortchanges the praying individual who constantly thinks only of sins and seeks only forgiveness, rather than also ask for
‘blessing and ‘guidance.’ If we look carefully into the Old Testament, we are constantly reminded of God’s wrath and
need for forgiveness only, whereas in the New Testament we notice also blessing and guidance.
Philologists – linguistics specialists – inform us that when we hear a word or a phrase that is not of the ordinary we have the
tendency to retain it because its meaning impresses us. Philologists also tell us that the constant use of ordinary terms
becomes so routine that we often neglect the meaning, or even fail to comprehend because we merely repeat them
automatically without thought, a practice the Greek language calls: παπαγαλίστικα, or parroting in English, thereby
experiencing the proverbial “going in one ear and out of the other.”
An example of this occurred to me a few months back when my eight year old granddaughter – ten times my ‘junior’ to my
eighty years – enlightened me by teaching me a lesson, endorsing another proverbial saying: “we’re never too old to
Angelikoula — as she loves for me to address her and as she prides herself announcing her name to the priest when taking
Holy Communion – asked me to teach her a Greek Orthodox prayer, since she is baptized Greek Orthodox. I proceeded to
teach her «Άγιος ο Θεός, Άγιος Ισχυρός, Άγιος Αθάνατος, ελέησον ημάς. Αμήν!» which she now recites every night as the
beginning of her bedtime prayers. When she asked me to translate in order to gain the meaning, I showed her the
translation in our Greek Orthodox Liturgy Book: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us. Amen!” Then
she asked me to go over the entire prayer, word-for-word, in order to comprehend what she would be saying. So, I said:
“Holy the God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, ‘forgive us and bless’ us. Amen!” defining for her the difference between
“mercy” and “eleyson.” And, that’s when she taught me the lesson. She could not understand as an early third grader why
the English version of “Holy God…” contained only two words, whereas the Greek version of «Άγιος ο Θεός…» contained
three. And when I explained that article omicron pertains to the One Omnipotent God, she excitedly responded; “Oh, the One
God,” for that little omicron provided to her so much meaning. A couple of days later I found out how impressed she was, by
having brought the subject to discussion among some of her ‘private school’ schoolmates, emphasizing the meaning of that
little omicron article. It was a blessing of course that the discussion was at her private school, because had it been at a
public one she might have been expelled. Does all this therefore suggest that we should have our Greek Orthodox Liturgy
in the ecclesiastical language that it was written, which perhaps only the educated people of Greece – secondary school
graduates whose high school curriculum includes religion and tertiary education graduates – understand
and therefore comprehend? I, personally at least, think not. Does this then mean that we should have more English as
many advocate, or maintain the Greek as others desire? Or, as yet some others suggest, we should place some kind of
percentages to each. Well, how much: 50% : 50%; 60% : 40%; 70% : 30% — I can go on. And what would this accomplish, for
then we shall have portions that may be understood by neither. Times have indeed changed. We, the offspring of our
immigrant parents – and a good portion if not most of them with limited education (my own father coming to America in
1899 at the age of fourteen with a third-grade education), were provided with some pretty good and fairly solid
foundations in our Greek Orthodox Faith and in the language. But, as the inevitable assimilation and inter-marriages – along
with our own mistakes – have taken their toll, it is indeed very difficult to maintain intact the language of our Greek Orthodox
Liturgy’s Founding Fathers.
Yes, we do need more English in our Greek Orthodox Liturgy; and, yes, we do need more Greek in our Greek Orthodox
Liturgy; but the ‘percentage’ theory does not hold water. We all know that there are and will continue to be advocates
for the complete elimination of the Greek language from our Liturgy. There are also many who advocate the renaming of the
“Greek Orthodox Church” to the “Orthodox Church of America.” I, for one, cannot adhere to this, for if so, we shall lose our
identity. The Greek Orthodox Church is considered the First Christian Church. Yet, the Roman Catholic, or the Anglican, or
the Russian or other Slavic “orthodox” churches are not contemplating forsaking their identity. Why should we, the
First Christian Church!
Let us for a few moments look into the liturgies of all the “Christian” churches. Since Christianity emerged from the
Jewish monotheistic faith, there are Hebrew language elements contained in the original, since appropriate equivalents cannot
be found, if at all. Similarly, in our own Greek Orthodox Liturgy, we have those terms which have neither Greek nor English equivalents: Amen
(“yes, we all agree that it is right and true”); Cherubim (“guardian angels of Paradise with ‘flaming swords’”);
Hallelujah (“exclamation of joy, praise and gratitude to ‘Yahweh’); Hosanna (“’please save us now’ in praise and
adoration in that ‘Blessed is He – the One (Ο Ένας) – who comes in the name of the Lord’”); Seraphim (“the ranking
angels standing in the presence of God”); Savaoth (“the Hosts Lord of Special Armies” – ‘very difficult to attempt to translate
or even describe’).
And just for emphasis in comparison, unique and untranslative terms are found in every language, borrowed by others who
just cannot coin their own; just a few examples should suffice: eleyson, leventis, palikari, philotimo from the Greek;
fait accompli from the French; casus belli, ipso facto, ipso jure, from the Latin; macho and machismo from the
Spanish; or the recent one, Tsunami, from the Japanese, not to disregard the myriad medical, technical and social terms from
the Greek and the legal terms from the Latin.
What am I advocating, therefore? I am suggesting that all – and I mean all – passages of many words and long phrases and
paragraphs recited by the priest be spoken only in English in order to be understood, even though they may not be well
comprehended unless fully explained in Sunday School, a system today lacking widely. However, the few words and the
very short phrases which bear so much deep meaning in the Greek unequalled in English should remain intact and be taught
with detail in Sunday School. Sunday School can be a yet additional instructive element in the liturgical process. After learning
the Greek words and short phrases, and their meanings, Sunday School pupils brought to the church for Holy Communion, remain for the duration,
taking their designated places by classes, with each grade chanting the short prayers; for example: first grade: Αμήν; second grade: Σοί, Κύριε;
third grade: Παράσχου, Κύριε; fourth grade: Κύριε, ελέησον. In such a manner they can become contributors to the liturgical process quite delighted at
the ages anxious to participate.
And in regard to Sunday School teachers, it should be of tremendous advantage if at the biennial clergy-laity conferences Sunday School teacher sessions
were held, giving the opportunity for Sunday School teachers to interact and learn from each other and of their methods. Although there are many issues
requiring and deserving attention and discussion, there is one more which I like to bring to attention: the chanting of the choir.
Greek Orthodox liturgical chanting emanates from Byzantine musical sounds. The Greek tongue is a language of vowels and
therefore elastic, contrary to the English of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic of consonants structure and therefore ‘rough’ and
‘rigid.’ Can the roughage and rigidity of the Anglo-Saxon Germanic-influenced music match the heavenly melodious sounds of the Byzantine?
I wonder, for I as one have not yet found one, though some are worse than others. Choir chanting of Byzantine echoes are slow and precise,
unlike the necessarily-lengthy priestly recitations which are also quite fast and difficult to follow. Chanting choir hymns can be adequately
mastered to be followed and to sing, as both the beauty of the melodies and the meaning of the words add to the spiritual experience.
Yes, adjustments can and should be made so that the upcoming generations may become accustomed with knowledge and desire, unlike
many of the “baby boomers” and especially their offspring of today’s teenagers and young adults who seem to have lost a significant if not
a major part. I don’t know if the national rate is as dismal as it seems to be in our rather large community of 750 families – although I fear
that it might be, but we were recently informed that of about 65 inter-marriages in recent years only 4 come to church, and of approximately
67 baptisms of inter-marriage couples only 9 attend Sunday School.
I understand that recent research reveals that it is mostly the wife and mother who promotes church attendance. Perhaps
that is why the Old Testament of the Holy Bible adopted the Greek gender for “wisdom,” the feminine: «Η Σοφία» as
revealed in the Book of Proverbs: chapter 1, verses 20 and 21: “Wisdom cries loud in the street; in the market she raises her
voice; on top of the wall she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.”
And possibly the Greek philosophical thought – η ελληνική φιλοσοφική γνώσις – was perhaps so clearly and distinctively
revealed in the New Testament of the Holy Bible, in John: chapter 12, verses 20 to 23: “Now some Greeks were among
those who had gone to worship at the feast. So these approached Philip…and requested, ‘Sir, we would like to see
Jesus.’ Jesus replied, ‘The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’”
Ladies and Gentlemen: “Kyrie Eleyson!”
Glossary of Terms
casus belli: an act that provokes injustice leading to justification for war.
fait accompli: a deed that has been accomplished and decided, and is presumedly irreversible.
ipso facto: the very fact of an act, and the inevitable result and consequences.
ipso jure: phrase describing the operation of law and legal consequences.
philotimo: “love of honor” – impossible to translate sufficiently as it describes a complex array of virtues. In essence, it is the right and expected way of the Socratic code for “quality of life.”
tsunami: catastrophic ocean waves generated by submarine movements caused by various occurrences such as trembling, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides beneath the ocean, or asteroid strikes. Seismic waves or tidal waves won’t do because “seismic” refers solely to earthquakes, whereas “tidal” provides neither specific nor general references.
eleyson: forgive, don’t hit, have pity, feel sorry, etc. and/or bless, guide, assist, do not forsake, help, show the way, etc.
palikari: tough soldier, young fighting lad, best things in a man.
leventis: positive connotations of fearlessness and gallantry.
machismo: strong or exaggerated sense of masculinity.
macho: man of physical courage, virility, aggressiveness, and domination of women.