Today’s prayer survived the redactors to live on in the Novus Ordo as the Collect for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time. It is an ancient prayer, found in the Veronese and the Gelasian Sacramentary.
Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, da nobis fidei, spei et caritatis augmentum: et, ut mereamur assequi quod promittis, fac nos amare quod praecipis.
The verb assequor, according to our splendid tool the Lewis & Short Dictionary, means mainly “to follow one in order to come up to him, to pursue”, and by extension “to gain, obtain, procure.”
Have you noticed that sometimes in our prayers we call God aeterne or also sempiterne? Our French dictionary of liturgical Latin Blaise/Dumas says aeternus and sempiternus are both “eternal”, that is, not “temporal” or that which endures only for a time. But in the philosophy and theology (indistinguishable from each other in late antiquity) of the era when today’s prayer was composed, much thought was dedicated to figuring out time and God’s relationship to time. If we want to get at what our ancient prayer really says, we must hear “eternity” and “sempiternity” as different concepts. First, eternity can be thought of as completely independent of time, entirely outside of time. Another kind of eternity has no beginning or end. Boethius (+c.526) gave shape to the thought of St. Augustine (+430) on time and distinguished eternity as the simple simultaneous possession of life by God. It is not a drawn out process. It is a simple possession. Sempiternity, a term occurring in ancient Latin but only as a synonym of eternity, was famously redefined by Boethius as the “eternal now”. It is “everlastingness”.
Indulge me, dear readers. Occasionally one of you will write saying that I lose you in what seem to be nitpicking digressions. Let me be clear: I’m not trying to be a psilological doryphore. I drill into these texts to help people understand, after decades of banal prayers purged of content and color, that our language of liturgical prayer is rooted deeply in ancient pondering, man’s great questions before God and the cosmos. The words themselves are treasures, carefully weighed and finely polished, handed down with centuries of love by our forefathers… to you. Every syllable belongs to you. Each exquisite term is your millennial patrimony.
Almighty everlasting God, grant us an increase of faith, hope and charity, and cause us to love what You command so that we may merit to obtain what You promise.
Let’s have a glance at what I believe is the most current draft of the new English translation of the same prayer intended for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time:
CURRENT ICEL (2011 – 30th Sunday):
Almighty ever-living God, increase our faith, hope and charity, and make us love what you command, so that we may merit what you promise.
Pretty close to the WDTPRS version. I think we will be pleased with the new translation, provided that the foot-dragging ceases and the project is completed. As a contrast, here is the lame-duck version from the old incarnation of…
OBSOLETE ICEL (1973 of the 1970MR):
Almighty and ever-living God, strengthen our faith, hope, and love. May we do with loving hearts what you ask of us and come to share the life you promise.
See how the lame-duck ICELese strips the prayer of the concepts “command”, reduced to a request, and “merit”, dissolved into a vague sharing?
In what the prayer really says, we ask God the Father for an increase of the theological virtues faith, hope and charity, given at baptism, with a view to what we merit after doing His will. Let’s get out the theological drill and look into these concepts.
The German writer Josef Pieper (+1997) describes our supernatural life as having three main currents. First, we have some knowledge of God surpassing what we can know about Him naturally because He reveals it to us (faith). Second, we live by the patient expectation that what we learn and believe God promises will indeed be fulfilled (hope). Third, there is an affirmative response of love of the God whom we come to know by faith as well as love for neighbor (charity).
Natural human virtues are acquired through education and discipline. The three theological virtues faith, hope and charity are given to us by God. They perfect and elevate everything virtuous which man can do naturally. Considered one at a time, charity is the greatest of the three, followed by hope and then faith. But they are all three intimately woven together. St. Augustine (+430) says, “There is no love without hope, no hope without love, and neither love nor hope without faith” (enchir 8). The goal of the virtuous life, as we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1803), is to become like God. Living the theological virtues concretely reveals in us the image of God and the grace He gives to His adopted children. “The practice of all the virtues is animated and inspired by charity, which ‘binds everything together in perfect harmony’” (CCC 1827). Virtues must be gained, naturally on our own or supernaturally with God’s help. They can also be lost. That is entirely our own doing. Today we pray for their increase in what God gave us in baptism and what we maintain when we are in the state of grace.
We also pray this Sunday to love what God commands. In the natural spheres of our lives, doing what another commands is not always pleasant. Our wills and passions rebel. We prefer to command rather than to be commanded. It is easy, from the worldly point of view, to think that by being the one who commands we can find peace. Without doubt each one of us desires peace and happiness. We long to find the means to attain them. When we attach our happiness to the created things of this world we are inevitably disappointed. All created things, including people, can be lost. They are all passing, not enduring, temporal not eternal. Not even our most beloved spouses, children, or friends can be the foundation of lasting peace. Even the fear of losing them lessens our peace in this life. God alone provides the lasting peace we desire. Because He alone is eternal and unchanging He is perfectly trustworthy. We cannot lose God unless we ourselves reject Him. God must be in command of our happiness. Our peace must be entrusted to Him alone.
In Canto III of the Paradiso of Dante’s Divine Comedy the Poet is in the Heaven of the Moon. There he encounters the soul of Piccarda. Dante queries her about the happiness of the blessed in heaven. He wants to know if somehow, even in heaven, souls might be disappointed that they do not have a higher place in celestial realm. In response Piccarda utters one of the greatest phrases ever penned and or recited (l. 85):
In His will is our peace.
It is that sea to which all things move,
both what it creates and what nature makes….
We are all made in God’s image and likeness, made to act as God acts. He reveals something of His will to us. When we obey Him we act in accordance with the way He made us and what He intended for us. All things that live and move and have their being must come to rest in God or forever be in conflict with themselves and the cosmos. St. Augustine, who authored the unforgettable “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”, described us and our love as working like gravity, which in the thought of the ancients was a force within a thing that sought to go to its proper place of balance in relation to all other things. “Amor meus pondus meum” (conf 13, 9, 10) said Augustine, “My love is my weight” drawing the restless soul to God, the only source of lasting peace.
E ‘n la sua volontade è nostra pace. In His will is our peace. His peace is His promise.
Our Collect prays that we may “love what You command”. This is a prayer for happiness.