With a minor variation this week’s Collect was in the ancient Gelasian Sacramentary. It survived the cut to live on in the Novus Ordo Missale Romanum as the Collect on the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time.
Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui abundantia pietatis tuae et merita supplicum excedis et vota: effunde super nos misericordiam tuam; ut dimittas quae conscientia metuit, et adicias quod oratio non praesumit.
Our information-oozing Lewis & Short Dictionary, says votum means “a solemn promise made to some deity; a vow.” It is therefore also the thing promised or vowed. In a more general sense it is a “wish, desire, longing, prayer.”
Supplex is an adjective, used also as a substantive, meaning “humbly begging or entreating; humble, submissive, beseeching, suppliant, supplicant.” This and other derivative forms are commonly used in our Latin prayers; for example, now and again we see the adverbial form suppliciter. I never get tired of this word. As we have seen the L&S says supplex is from sup-plico, “bending the knees, kneeling down”. The article on supplex in the French etymological dictionary of Latin by Alfred Ernout and Antoine Meillet offers that supplex comes not from plico but from plecto, “to plait, braid, interweave”. E&M offers also the possibility that it is from placo, “to reconcile; to quiet, soothe, calm, assuage, appease, pacify”. The former describes the physical attitude of the suppliant. The latter describes his moral attitude. The more probable plecto gives us much the same impact as plico. L&S also says plico and plecto are synonyms. Thus, the imagery I have invoked in the past of the supplicant being bent over or folded in respect to his knees (i.e., kneeling or bent low toward the floor) works well. Also, in the ancient world it was usual for the supplicant to wrap his arms around (plecto) the knees of the one from whom he was begging his petition.
Let’s keep drilling into supplex for a moment. In many places during Holy Mass instead of abasing ourselves humbly before the Real Presence of Almighty God, we celebrate ourselves in remembrance of Jesus our non-judgmental buddy. The concept of humility, inherent in supplex, was systematically expunged from translations of prayers, contemporary music in parishes, and (in churches now lacking kneelers) architecture.
One of the most “Catholic” of prayers, nearly eliminated after Vatican II, underscores an important dimension of healthy spirituality. In the once familiar Dies irae, the haunting sequence of the Requiem Mass by the Franciscan friar Thomas of Celano (+ c.1270). Sung amidst the inky vestments symbolizing our death to sin and the things of this world, in the Dies irae we contemplate our inevitable judgment by the Rex tremendae maiestatis… the King of fearful majesty, who is iustus Iudex, our just Judge. In two of the verses we pray:
“Once the accursed have been confounded,
once they have been delivered to the stinging flames,
call me with the blessed.
(Knees) bent and leaning over (supplex et acclinis),
My heart worn down like ash, I pray:
Have a care for my end.”
The use of supplex in our Catholic prayers conveys an attitude of contrition for our sins which then shapes other more joyful and confident prayers. This lowly attitude keeps in close view the reality of our sins, God’s promises of forgiveness, the ordinary means of their cleansing (confession) and thus the joyful comfort we have when we surrender to this merciful plan.
God takes our sins away, but only when we beg Him to.
We retain the memory of actual sins, but not their stain. When we reduce ourselves to the ashes of humility and confess our sins we know those sins are not merely covered over; they are washed away clean. Before modern times, soaps were made partly from ashes.
The Dies irae is not forbidden in Masses with the Novus Ordo, it simply is no longer obligatory. The Church’s documentation on the use of sacred music establishes that suitable (i.e., truly sacred and truly artistic) pieces can be substituted into the Mass for the proper purpose and occasion. Nothing is more suitable for Catholic piety than the use of the Dies irae.
LITERAL WDTPRS TRANSLATION:
Almighty and everlasting God, who in the abundance of Your goodness surpass both the merits and the prayerful vows of suppliants, pour forth Your mercy upon us, so that You set aside those things which our conscience fears, and apply what our prayer dares not.
That last line of the Collect is consoling: adicias quod oratio non praesumit…add that which prayer does not dare… or rather … anticipate. Praesumo also means “foresee” or do something “in advance”. With our limited powers of discernment we cannot see or pray about every contingency we must face in life, but God knows them all. He can mitigate our fears, both about the sins we remember as well as the things we worry over and can only guess at.
We should glance at what must be used on the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time in the Novus Ordo. First, the bad old days.
OBSOLETE ICEL (1973):
your love for us
surpasses all our hopes and desires.
Forgive our failings,
keep us in your peace
and lead us in the way of salvation.
I actually had to double-check to make sure I matched the correct Sunday in the respective editions of the Missal.
CURRENT ICEL (2011):
Almighty ever-living God,
who in the abundance of your kindness
surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you,
pour out your mercy upon us
to pardon what conscience dreads
and to give what prayer does not dare to ask.
Try reading these versions, my literal version and the old ICEL’s, bit by bit, alternately: “Almighty and everlasting God” becomes “Father”; “abundance of Your goodness” is reduced to the nebulous ICEL catch-all “love”; “the merits and the prayerful vows of suppliants” is banalized into “our hopes and desires”; “pour forth Your mercy upon us” becomes “Forgive our failings” (not sins! … they’re just boo boos); “those things which our conscience fears” (our sins, the everlasting punishment of hell and having offended God) is rendered down to the amorphous “keep us in your peace”; and “what our prayer dares not” veers away from the misery of our true state into “lead us in the way of salvation”.
Some Collects we have encountered seem to refer to the Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps this one does as well. First, we have the word oratio. In Latin the Lord’s Prayer is oratio dominica where dominica is an adjective, “lordly; of or pertaining to the Lord.” In our Collect the “prayer”, oratio, is grammatically the subject of that last verb adicio. After the Eucharistic Prayer the priest introduces the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer saying “audemus dicere…. we dare to say….” On our own we could never presume or dare to raise any petitions to the Father if the Son had not already enjoined them on us, given us permission, nay command, and made us members of His own mystical Person as coheirs. A noble and even courtly style of speech our prayer helps us avoid being presumptuous. The banal, humility-stripped style of the obsolete ICEL versions? Not so much.
In today’s Collect we must make a tricky translation choice. In dimitto (used also in the Lord’s Prayer) we have “to send away; separate” and thus logically “to forgive”. The verb ad(j)icio is “place a thing near; add as an increase, apply”. It is hard to get the impact of this “spatial imagery” into English without circumlocutions. We want to have sins and their lethal effects separated far away from us, but we want God’s favors and promises to stick to us.
Our Latin Collect gives us a model for an attitude of prayer. We see the figure of one who is bowed down, folded, knees bent (supplex, – plico). This suppliant is frightened by what the just Judge will apply to him because of the sins which bother his conscience. This lowly beggar prays and prays, entwining (– plecto) his arms about the knees of his Lord. He petitions the Almighty Father, merciful and good, to allay his fears by totally removing his damning sins and then supply him with whatever he dares not ask or does not even know he ought to beg for (non praesumit). He simultaneously has the humility of the kneeling suppliant but also the boldness of sonship. He can dare what is beyond his own ability because God the Father Himself made him His son through a mysterious adoption. He is emboldened to ask many things of the Father with faith and confidence (cf. Mark 11:24 and 9:23).
The Gospel of Luke recounts (cf. ch. 11 and 18) three parables of Jesus about persistent, even audacious, prayer of petition. When we pray with the right attitude, particularly during Holy Mass before the altar of sacrifice, turned in hope to the liturgical East with our mediator the priest, Christ makes up for what we are cannot do. He takes our hearts, minds, voices, gestures and makes them his own so they may be raised to the merciful Father.
St. Augustine (+430) says that Jesus
“prays for us as our priest, prays in us as our Head, and is prayed to by us as our God. Therefore, let us acknowledge our voice in Him and His in us” (en Ps 85, 1).
Holy Mass is all about what Christ does for us.
Mass is a sacred action in which God is the principal actor. By our baptism we participate actively in His sacred action. Christ is the Head, we the Body. He takes our voices and makes them His own. Our actions become His. We must therefore never usurp the liturgy, change it around to suit our tastes. With Christ’s own authority Holy Church gives us the Mass. She alone provides the proper prayers and rubrics.
When we pray as Holy Church directs, bending our will to hers, our earthly voices ring authentically with the celestial, and ecclesial, voice of the Risen Christ.