Loose Ends (on Kissing)
Bill Long 4/13/06
With a Comment on Clarity in Communication
Though I really am ready to leave the rich word osculate, and let the various essays I wrote on it speak for themselves, I have to pause for a moment because of some words I ran into along the way. For example, when researching the history of the "Kiss of Peace," I ran across this sentence:
"Not improbably St. Paul's injunction [i.e., to greet one another with a holy kiss] was so interpreted that any synaxis of the faithful where there was reading of the Scriptures terminated in a salute of this kind, and it is even possible that the appearance of the kiss in certain liturgies at the Mass of Catechumens is due to the same cause" (italics mine).
What is a synaxis of the faithful? The word is obviously Greek, from the verb "sunago," meaning "to gather," but the word synaxis is itself not attested in the New Testament or early Christian literature. I had to check the BIG Liddell-Scott Greek dictionary to discover that there were only about 4 attestations of the term, and these were all in late classical or Byzantine texts. Thus, the anglicization of synaxis is derived not from biblical usage but probably from its use in Justinian's Codex. In any case, the first English attestation of the term is from the 17th century, and it means a "meeting for worship, especially the celebration of the Eucharist." Now our meaning is clear.
But I noticed a near neighbor of synaxis in the OED, synaxarion, which begged me to look it up. A synaxarion, surprisingly at first, is "an account of the life of a saint, read as a lesson in public worship; also a collection of such accounts." Thus, a synaxarist is a compiler of a synaxarion. I suppose that in the list just recently released of top-paying jobs for college graduates that a synaxarion would not have made the top 100, or even the top 10,000, though I didn't check. So, we can see how the word developed. If a synaxis is a gathering, a synaxarion is what is read at the gathering. What are the variety of things that might be read in worship? The great 19th century church historian Philip Schaff tells us with great precision: "In all the existing Greek and Syriac lectionaries or evangelaries and synaxaries.. which contain the Scripture reading lessons for the churches..."
Menology and Menologium
Yet as I read through some other quotations in which synaxarion appears, I ran into yet another term I didn't know. From an 1850 book on the history of the Eastern (Greek) Church: "Now follows the Synaxarion, or extracts from the Menology." Another sentence tells us we have to look up that latter term: "The Synaxaria...are the abbreviated lections from the Menologion, extracted from the Menaea." Aren't you sorry you didn't devote a good chunk of your life to studying the history of Eastern Orthodoxy? Well, if a synaxarion is a narrative of a saint's life found in a menology, we need to understand that word. Menology literally means "the study of the month" or months, and has three significations. First, it can have a "secular" significance, where it means "An account of the Course of the moon, an Almanack" (the word menologion, from a 1727 quotation). Second, menology could mean "any calendrical work in which the dead are commemorated," though it usually has a primary significance in the religious context. Third, in the Orthodox Church a menology or menologion is "a hagiographic collection of a type compiled in the Byzantine Empire from the 9th century onward, in which the saints' lives, usually of substantial length and often interspersed with homilies or verses, are arranged in the order of teh dates on which their subjects are commemorated" (OED, s.v.). Thus, by providing you with yet one more word, a Menologion is a martyrology.
Conclusion--A Point on Clarity
The reason I slowly go through all these words is that I teach graduate students, and I observe the nature of the confusion that washes over them when complex words are used with which they have no acquaintance. When others speakers do this (and I am an co-auditor with the students), I want to stop the lecturer, and shout,
"Please go slowly and define very simply what all these complex terms are that you are using. In fact, the reality to which they all point is probably fairly simple, once the terms are carefully unpacked. Therefore, be so gracious as to take the time to tell us precisely what you mean by the words, so that we will not have words be obstacles to our understanding of concepts."
In other words, the attitude I have at my age (53) is that there really are very few things that I cannot understand as long as the terminology (and sometimes the history) is made clear to me. But terminology is often used as an intellectual barrier to entry, to use terms from antitrust law, or, to use religious imagery, a secret initiatory word that only the gnostics know. My point is that things are really not that difficult to understand, as long as the history and basic terminology are clearly presented. Thus, I hope that by reading these pages you develop not only a patience for shades of meaning between and among words, but you develop a personal style which demands clarity from those who would teach you. Have the teachers tell you all the important words, and have them show you what they all mean. Once this is on the table, the magic and mystery of the field disappears. It becomes accessible immediately to you. And your teachers, rather than appearing like Samson slaying thousands with the jawbone of an ass, become "weak and like any other man." For the good of everyone, to be sure...
Drat. I just realized I still have more loose ends.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long