This year, Lord, I would like a fatter bank account and a slimmer body. Please don’t mix them up like this past year! New Year’s Day is the one time in secular society when we reflect on our circumstances most acutely. What did we accomplish this past year, and what goals ought we to set for the upcoming year?
This sort of reflection is built in to Catholic worship and theology, and a particular grammatical form is absolutely essential to preserve it: the subjunctive mood. My 1927 copy of H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage informs me, unceremoniously, that the subjunctive is “moribund, except in a few easily specified uses.” Well, I say, Mr. H. W. Fowler is now defunct, but the subjunctive remains. (In his honor, I have unceremoniously italicized all instances of the subjunctive in this article.)
There are a variety of different subjunctives. My mother’s favorite was the so-called “hortatory” subjunctive: Let’s all clean our rooms today! I can’t say I shared her cheerful enthusiasm for cleaning, but If I were to deny her request, she would switch to the imperative mood: “Go clean your room… now!” Indeed, it was a different mood altogether!
The basic essence of the subjunctive mood isn’t flimsy politeness or nicety. My dusty schoolboy’s copy of Wheelock’s Latin teaches “In contrast to the indicative, the mood of actuality and factuality, the subjunctive is in general (though not always) the mood of potential, tentative, hypothetical, ideal, or even unreal action.” (186)
Our Catholic prayers are filled with the subjunctive. Consider the Offertory prayer from the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God: “O God, who in your kindness begin all good things and bring them to fulfillment, grant to us, who find joy in the Solemnity of the holy Mother of God, that, just as we glory in the beginnings of your grace, so one day we may rejoice in its completion. Through Christ our Lord… “
God begins all good things and brings them to fulfillment, but — seems fair to say — not all things are completed yet. To quote the once-popular philosopher Lenny Kravitz, and to offer a gross paraphrase of St. Augustine’s On Perseverance, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.” Isn’t this the reason we’re praying?
It is a basic human hope that everything broken be fixed – even our most secular friends hope this – yet it is the mark of Christian hope to maintain the perfect ideal while observing the imperfect reality. Subjunctive is, as it were, the Christian grammatical mood. We may not say that everything is already fixed, when clearly it’s not. Nor may we say everything is broken, either. We may not say simply that everything will be fixed, because that is presumption. Instead, we say, “May it be fixed, as God has promised.” And then we get to work.
So, dare I say it, may Mr. H.W. Fowler rest in peace. And from all of us at NLM, may your 2017 be a year of faith, hope, and charity… a year of success, growth, happiness, and goodwill.