I never do this, but there: I just did it. Did what? Begin a sentence, a paragraph even, heck my whole column, with the word I. Always conscious of the effects words have, I have been wary of this word for as long as I can remember. English teachers and writing instructors taught me that starting with the first-person singular, the “perpendicular pronoun,” is the worst and weakest way to write, not only in a paper or article, but even in a personal letter. Among other deleterious effects, it repels the intended audience with its announcement of self-assertion.
Lately this little word with a big impact has come to my attention in the context of the Holy Mass. When we are in this perfect act of worship, which both shapes and expresses our faith, how often does the first-person singular pronoun cross our lips, and how? I hope you will find it fruitful grounds for examination as we enter into Advent, the season these columns reflect on the Sacred Liturgy.
Two major cases leap to mind: one is in the Penitential Rite at the very beginning of Mass, when we all say together, I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned… The other is the Creed, the profession of faith, in the restored translation: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…. I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ… I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord the Giver of Life… I believe in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church… One is a confession of sin, the other a confession of faith. In neither case can such confession be made in someone else’s behalf, but must be offered by the soul who owns, or takes responsibility for, what is confessed.
These two confessions express the ground on which we stand when we present ourselves to the Lord. We identify ourselves personally and individually to be sinners in need of mercy, and believers in the God who has mercifully revealed His salvation. In these, no one else can speak for us, nor can we speak for anyone else. Both require us to affix our I to what follows.
More frequent in the Mass, and more comforting, are the first-person pronouns that are plural, most notably, Our Father… but also the exhortations addressed to the assembly: Let us pray, let us acknowledge our sins; let us offer, etc.; and the prayers themselves, addressed to God: We pray, we beseech you, we offer you, we ask you, grant us, help us, have mercy on us, grant us peace. By our worship and prayer, and most fundamentally by our Baptism, we are bound into a living body, a corporate identity that is the People of God. In this identity, there is no benefit to individual self-assertion.
Sins we own and faith we profess individually; but forgiveness and grace we receive corporately, as members of one Body, the Communion.
As if to bring spiritual depth to my grammatical obsessions, our Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, once offered these words: Faith is a liberation of my I from its preoccupation with self, a liberation that sets me free to respond to the Father, to speak the Yes of love that sets me free to say Yes to being… Faith is breaking out of the isolation that is the malady of my I. The act of faith is… a breaking open of the door of my subjectivity.
This exhortation marks our task for Advent, as we prepare for the coming of our Savior. How much more does it mark the fundamental preparation that makes possible our participation in the Holy Eucharist, which is nothing other than the coming in our day of this same Savior! We will examine more how pronouns can be a problem for participants next week. Meanwhile, keep your eyes open for I’s.