What Does the Prayer Really Say? Third Sunday of Lent – Station: St. Lawrence outside the walls
ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2001
LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum):
Deus, omnium misericordiarum et totius bonitatis auctor,
qui peccatorum remedia
in ieiuniis, orationibus et eleemosynis demonstrasti,
hanc humilitatis nostrae confessionem propitius intuere,
ut, qui inclinamur conscientia nostra,
tua semper misericordia sublevemur.
I like that parallel of confessionem … conscientia inside the brackets of misericordiarum … misericordia. There are some very nice cadences to this collect. It is very singable.
O God, author of all merciful gestures and all goodness,
who pointed out the remedies of sins in fasts, prayers, and acts of almsgiving,
look propitiously on this testimony of our humility,
so that we who are flagging in our conscience
may be sustained by your mercy always.
While misericordia means generally “tender-heartedness, pity, compassion, mercy”, in the plural is can refer to works of charity. Bonitas, on the other hand, is the “good quality of a thing” and also all sorts of good, benevolent and virtuous behaviors. When used in reference to a parent bonitas can also mean “parental love, tenderness.” Demonstro is not dissimilar from English “demonstrate” but in Latin it first means, “to point out” as with the finger, “indicate, designate, show.” In this collect we have a shortened form for demonstravisti, which helps it to flow. Inclino means in its active sense, to cause to lean, bend, incline, turn.” In a more neutral sense it signifies, “to bend, turn, incline, decline, sink.” By extension it means to decline, as in a fever, or sink down in troubles. Sublevo literally means to lift up from beneath, to raise up, hold up, support.” Thus it comes to mean also, to sustain, support, assist, encourage, console” and also, “to lighten, qualify, alleviate, mitigate, lessen an evil, to assuage.” This word is in the beautiful 10th century Mozarabic lenten hymn:
Attende Domine, et miserere, quia peccavimus tibi.
Ad te Rex summe, omnium Redemptor,
oculos nostros sublevamus flentes:
exaudi, Christe, supplicantum preces.
Give heed, O Lord, and be merciful, for we have sinned against you.
To you, O high King, Redeemer of all,
we raise up our eyes weeping:
hear, O Christ, the prayers of those bent down begging.
The complex word confessio needs some attention. Confessio is from confiteor (con-fateor – the first word in the expression of sorrow concerning ours sins which we make at the beginning of Mass). Confessio means several things, however. First, it is a “confession or acknowledgment”. The Latin Vulgate (Heb 3:1) and St. Gregory the Great (Ep. 7,5) use it for “a creed, avowal of belief” in the sense of an acknowledgment of Christ. The most famous use of confessio, however, must be that of St. Augustine of Hippo, whose stupendous autobiographical prayer has come to be known as Confessiones. According to the excellent Augustinus Lexicon, in the Bishop of Hippo’s works confessio mainly means three things: profession of faith in God, praise of God, admission to God of sins. In a certain sense, we can say “testify” or “give witness to.” As a matter of fact, Augustine uses the word testimonium twice in the Confessiones second sentence. So what we are seeing here is not “confession” in the sense of criminal admission of guilt, nor can we restrict it merely to Christian confession of sins. It is an entire way of giving witness to our Christian character put on in baptism. It is a living response to what the Lord has done in us. Sometimes that response requires humble admission of sins, sometimes it requires humbly giving glory to God. It always demands humility.
Our collect reminds us of the God-designated remedies for sin: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Jesus refers often to prayer and also to fasting (e.g., Matthew 9:14) and almsgiving (e.g., Matthew 6:1; Luke 12:33). In the Latin Vulgate version of Mark 9: 27, when Jesus is curing the epileptic demoniac, He says that that sort of demon is driven out only by both prayer and fasting. That episode occurred between the Transfiguration (our Gospel readings last week) and the second prophecy of the Passion. In Acts 10, the angel tells Cornelius the centurion that his prayers and charitable gifts have been seen favorably by God (literally, have ascended as a memorial before God in the manner of a sacrifice). St. Augustine once said: “Do you wish your prayer to fly toward God? Make for it two wings: fasting and almsgiving” (En. Ps. XLII, 8).
In an lenten Angelus address on 16 February 1997, the Holy Father said:
The Church points out to us a path (of moving from a superficial life to deep inferiority, from selfishness to love, of striving to live according to the model of Christ himself, that) … can be summarized in three words: prayer, fasting, almsgiving. Prayer can have many expressions, personal and communal. But we must above all live its essence, listening to God who speaks to us, conversing with us as children in a "face to face" dialogue filled with trust and love. In addition to being an external practice, fasting, which consists in the moderation of food and life-style, is a sincere effort to remove from our hearts all that is the result of sin and inclines us to evil. Almsgiving, far from being reduced to an occasional offering of money, means assuming an attitude of sharing and acceptance. We only need to "open our eyes" to see beside us so many brothers and sisters who are suffering materially and spiritually. Thus Lent is a forceful invitation to solidarity.
Here we have a prayer which might aptly describe many of us at this point in Lent: we started out with good resolutions and they are getting hard to keep. If it is not hard to keep to our plan, then perhaps we are not getting the point of Lent. We at times struggle not to fall down and flag in our resolve to gain mastery of sinful habits and tendencies. The powerful threefold Christ-recommended discipline is arduous indeed and our wounded nature rebels against the restraints, seeking the false freedom of license. Maybe we have already slipped and violated our private resolution for Lent. As a people united before Christ’s altar of sacrifice, humble and cast down low, we raise our eyes upwards to the Father who tenderly sees our efforts. Since we are kneeling and cast down (inclimamur) we beg Him to pick us back up, dust us off, and help us stay upright for the rest of the journey (sublevemur). In pleading for help from Him in this way we are acknowledge our helplessness in a way that does not violate our own role and free will. We are also giving witness (confessio) to others of our faith in Him.
you have taught us to overcome our sins
by prayer, fasting and works of mercy.
When we are discouraged by our weakness,
give us confidence in your love.
This prayer touches something of the attitude expressed in the Latin. There remain some problems, however. Notice how ICEL always breaks the collect into different sentences. I think that makes the prayer choppy resulting in a disconnect between the concepts. Also, whenever you see an English translation which is shorter than the Latin original, you know right away that something is wrong. ICEL omits entirely the first clause of the Latin and seems to try to integrate the concepts of mercy and loving goodness into other parts of the prayer. It entirely ignores the language of confession and humility and the attitude of a begger. I don’t have a problem with translating eleemosyna as “works of mercy”, though I would have preferred “corporal works of mercy.” How would you rework this so that it had the same impact of the Latin? Continue your prayers for excellent translations in the future.