What Does the Prayer Really Say? Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2001
This is the Quinquagesima Sunday according to the Latin Church’s traditional calendar. This week will bring the beginning of Lent. Once upon a time we would be getting ready for our season of fasting by clearing out the animal fats from the house by “fat Tuesday” and Ash Wednesday and also firming up our lenten resolutions. Just because the terms of our season of fast have been somewhat softened in recent years does not mean that we should not be preparing well to enter into the spirit of Lent. The joy of Easter is not something to be missed. When we prepare well by fasting, our joy will be increased. The contrast of serious penance and elation and celebration is part of the Christian paradigm of life. We ought not cheat ourselves and those who depend on us out of the kind of joy that comes only after a period of penance. This rhythm of the year also helps us to read and hear our prayers at Mass.
LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum):
Da nobis, quaesumus, Domine,
ut et mundi cursus pacifico nobis tuo ordine dirigatur,
et Ecclesia tua tranquilla devotione laetetur.
Grant us, we beg, O Lord,
both that the course of the world be set by your methodical peace producing plan for us
and that your Church may be made joyful by means of tranquil devotion.
Some vocabulary: cursus can mean anything from “course, way, journey” to “course of a ship”, the “flow of conversation” and “postal route”. Dirigo is “to give a particular direction” or “to lay or draw a straight line”. It was used, among other things, to indicate ordering an army to march to a certain point or to direct or steer a ship on its course. Ordo means too many thing to get into in depth. Suffice to say that it can refer to the “methodical arrangement, class or condition.” By extension it is applied to everything from the “orders” of the clergy, the way trees are planted, the lines of an army, or the banks of rowers in a ship.” Pacificus is a composite of pax and facio meaning “peacemaker” or “peaceable”. The problem with that laetetur is that it could be from the deponent laetor or passive from laeto. Because of those ablatives in that clause, I am opting here for the passive, like dirigatur. Among the things that devotio means are “fealty, allegiance, piety, devotion, zeal.”
Despite the wordy literal translation I have given, I will lend to this a rather poetic aspect. Notice that in our collect’s vocabulary there are traces of military and nautical imagery. Try reading this prayer with the mental image of a ship. Its great Captain sets its course upon the sea. So great is the Captain that He can command calm waters and a favorable wind as well. The ship can be seen as the word. In this case I see the ship as the Church in the world, the Church Militant, which is not an unfamiliar image to those familiar with the Barque of Peter. The sea it sails upon is the deep and turbulent world we live in. The Captain is our Lord Jesus Christ, who calmed the stormy waters and commanded Peter to walk to Him upon them. He entrusted His ship to Peter, to steer it in His stead. Once all has been put into proper order, made “ship-shape and Bristol fashion”, our own sense of loyal zeal, our devotion, is the wind that the Captain uses to steer the ship upon the course He sets, carrying us its crew to the port and safe haven. Perhaps I adopt this nautical image from the fact that I write this on the 192nd birthday of Abraham Lincoln and the Whitman’s great encomium is echoing in my mind:
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
The Christological imagery perhaps helped me make the connection. The word pacificus brought to mind an antiphon of First Vespers of Christmas: Rex pacificus magnificatus est, cuius vultum desiderat universa terra… The peacemaker King, whose glance the whole world longs for, has been exalted. Is not the sight of God, “in whose will is our peace”, our true desire? Is that not the port and safe haven we journey towards in the turbulence of this world?
A further word about that devotio…devotion. Before the creation of the universe God knew each one of us and desired us and loved us. He called us into existence as a precise point in His great plan, His economy of salvation. He gives us a part to play in that plan and gives each of us the tools and talents we need to fulfill it. If we devote ourselves with real devotio to our state-in-life and strive to carry out His will, God will give us every actual grace we need since we are furthering His great plan. This is why I suggest above that our devotion can be like the wind that the Captain uses to direct our great ship. More than just being the “hands on deck”, we play a vital part in the actual forward motion of the ship. We are not merely being hauled along upon the alien merits of another. While we truly depend on Him and Him alone, while we truly do not merit what He provides, mysteriously it is His plan and will that His work becomes ours and ours His.
guide the course of world events
and give your Church the joy and peace
of serving you in freedom
It is very hard to strike a balance between the literal, which can be awkward and wordy, and the simple, which can be banal and miss the real impact of the prayer. Now and then I receive some feedback from you, gentle readers. Some of you point out that my literal versions are pretty clunky and ask for something smoother and more poetic. I respond saying that I know they are clunky and I was not pretending to provide anything poetic. I am studiously trying to avoid providing alternatives to the ICEL version, as if I were some who could properly do so. Only the Holy See and our bishops should do that. I just want by these articles to dig into what the prayers really say. Hopefully these offerings will inspire you to pray for our bishops and encourage them to give us better translations! Still, always obedient to my readership, rather than critique the ICEL version this week (which stands or falls on its own), this time I will offer something of a smoother translation.
A Somewhat Smoother Version:
Grant, we beseech you, O Lord,
that the course of the world be steered by your plan for peace
and that your Church be filled with joy from tranquil devotion to that plan.
Or a bit more poetic:
O Lord, we beg Thee to grant
that the peaceful steerage of the world’s course be set according to Thy plan
and that Thy Church be made full with joy from our tranquil devotion.
May you all begin and benefit from a grace-filled season lenten penance. Do not forget as part of your good works during this time to pray for our Holy Father and all our bishops. They give us the liturgical texts that help keep our ship and we who are bourne by it upon its course towards the port and safe-haven of heaven.