WHAT DOES THE PRAYER REALLY SAY? 1st Sunday of Advent
Welcome to the first offering of WDTPRS.
In this series we will examine the Latin texts of the Collects (Opening Prayers) taken from the Church’s official text for celebration of Holy Mass for the Latin Church: the typical edition of the Missale Romanum promulgated by Pope Paul VI which can into force on the 1st Sunday of Advent, 30 November of 1969 (the so-called “Novus Ordo” or 1970 Roman Missal). Translations into vernacular languages were to be made from this Latin text. I will below offer my own translation of the Latin and then compare the Latin and my translation with the version provided by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) in use commonly in the English speaking world. It is the one you probably hear in your parish church in the USA. (More on ICEL in a later offering.) A new edition of the Roman Missal in Latin will be issued soon by the Holy See. The conferences of bishops are constantly faced with the task of finding good translations for Latin texts. In this series perhaps we can seek to understand in faith the prayers of Mass ever more deeply and also commit ourselves to support positively the bishops in their difficult pastoral mandate regarding translations of liturgical texts. They have an unenviable challenge. Without further comments, let us plunge in.
COLLECT: LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum)
Da, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus,
hanc tuis fidelibus voluntatem,
ut, Christo tuo venienti iustis operibus occurrentes,
eius dextrae sociati, regnum mereantur possidere caeleste,
The wonderful thing about Latin, not so easy to convey in English, is how the style of the prayer itself helps the attentive listener to package together concepts and how it delights the ear. Latin allows words which go together, such as a noun with an adjective, to be separated from each other even by a significant distance. This is because Latin is an inflected language, with tell-tale case-endings indicating the functions and relationships of words. This use of endings provides a greater flexibility for word order than English does. Words can be rearranged in many different patterns and, while nuances of meaning shift and vary, the basic meaning will remain the same. However, this same flexibility in Latin requires the listener to hold all sorts of concepts in the air, almost like a juggler or a man spinning plates, until the final piece, such as an all important main verb, is provided. The separation of words permitted by this flexibility also allows other concepts to be packaged within these connected words as if within bookends. This flexibility of Latin allows for words to be moved around subtly in a sentence and a beautiful rhythm to be accomplished, a sublime poetry to be attained, perfect for singing and listening. In the prayer above, we see how the separation of the words hanc…voluntatem, which go together, embraces tuis fidelibus and how regnum….caeleste envelops mereantur possidere. …operibus occurrÃƒÂ©ntes and possidÃƒÂ©re caeleste have a beautiful cadance.
A LITERAL TRANSLATION:
Almighty God, grant, we beg,
to your faithful this disposition of will,
(namely) that those rushing with just works to meet your Christ who is coming,
having been united to His right hand,
may merit to possess the heavenly kingdom.
This is where I get to defend my translation. First, I am not trying to make a poetically smooth translation. Second, other translations are possible and you are welcome to come up with your own: explore these prayers on your own too. Third, moving from Latin into English requires some agility. As in English, words in Latin can have many meanings, some conveying slight differences, some very divergent. Also when hearing a Latin prayer remember that we can be picking up Biblical imagery, old prayers or theological traditions, technical vocabulary and a raft of other influences from the past. Sometimes we get the allusions. Sometimes allusions are subtle and we miss them. I won’t pretend to exploring every possible reference or source for every phrase in all the Collects during this series. Space wouldn’t permit that, even if I could do it. That said, when I make a choice for a literal translation into English I will at times hedge my bet and attempt to get at more than one possible meaning of a word: often there is no good one-to-one correspondence in English. A perfect case in point is found above in that Latin word voluntas. (I will usually give the Latin word in the form you will find it in the dictionary, the “lemma” form, though in truth it will usually be in some other form in the prayer itself… but that’s Latin for you.)
Voluntas means basically “will” as a first meaning in a decent dictionary. My dictionary of choice is the so-called Lewis and Short Latin Dictionary published by the Oxford University Press. In the invaluable L&S, voluntas can also mean things like “freewill, wish, choice, desire, inclination” and even things like “disposition towards a thing or person”. I chose “disposition of will” in this prayer. I have a theological starting point for this.
First, this prayer is really Catholic. Imagine for a moment, a fundamentalist Christian saying a prayer like this. Herein we find all sorts of issues of faith versus “just works”, “meriting” to possess heaven, and so forth. Just what does a “disposition of will” mean for us, fallen human beings as we are? Is our nature wholly corrupt as some Protestants think and therefore anything good in us is only imputed to us through the alien merits of Christ? Is the “voluntas” we are begging for really going to be our will or will it be only someone else’s will covering us over? Let make this more complicated by saying that this voluntas is grammatically a little ambiguous in the prayer, for we can’t tell if this will is God’s or ours. It is like the old question wrapped up in that phrase we will hear a lot at Christmas, “Peace to men of good will”. Whose good will? God’s or ours? This is the difference in Latin between the subjective and objective genitive. Sorry about the technical stuff, but that’s what we are faced with here, folks. You can’t have just any Caius, Titius or Sempronius stumble in off the cobbles and think they can easily put these prayers into English. ICEL had a tough task. At any rate, in order make my choices I use a Catholic starting point. “Disposition of will” indicates to me that, although it is truly from God, it will be really ours once God grants it. We are not wholly corrupt. We are fallen and sinful, true, But once we are baptized and live in the state of grace, we are New Creations. Christ is at work in us. We recognize that everything that is good in us comes from God, but this does not mean that we also are not real agents in this salvific gift, cooperators with the grace He gives us. That proper “disposition of will” is made possible by God, but after it is made possible it is really ours. Our works do not by themselves merit anything, but once we are transformed and renewed by sanctifying grace our work on earth counts for something and merits heaven.
Many many more things can be said, as you can imagine, and we cannot tease it all out here. But we cannot pass over occurentes and then dextrae sociati.
Occurrentes: Here we are listening to the first Collect prayer of the liturgical year! It is a new season, Advent, and we are preparing for Coming of Christ. Christ comes in many ways, of course, and Advent is as much about the Second Coming as about the First at Bethlehem. It is also about how Christ comes in Holy Communion and in actual graces and so forth. Christ is coming and we pray for Him to come: Maranatha! In our collect we have an image of a faithful people rushing to meet Jesus. “Make straight the paths!” the liturgy of Advent cries with the words of Isaiah and John the Baptist. We are surging as a whole Church excitedly out along the way, smoothing the path for the feet of the Coming Christ. And that takes work, just works, just by their origins: they are of those united to the right hand of Christ…dextrae sociati. We know that Christ, having ascended to the Father, sits at His right hand and will come from thence at the ending of the world. But our humanity sits in Christ at the Father’s right hand. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (John 12:32)” He draws. We dash. The image of the “right hand” points to the eternal glory of God and the inauguration of the Messianic kingdom… regnum…celeste (cf. CCC 663-4).
How rich is this prayer! And it is all framed in language of deep humility: “Grant, we beg…”
increase our strength of will for doing good
that Christ may find an eager welcome at his coming
and call us to his side in the kingdom of heaven,
where he lives and reigns….
I won’t always comment on the ICEL version, but I would be remiss to pass this prayer without observation. First, I think it clear that many of the concepts of the Latin prayer are found somewhere in the ICEL version. But the way they are worked together does not really do the Latin prayer justice. It seems to me there is a difference between God simply “increasing our strength of will to do good” and God giving us a transforming disposition of will. “Increase” implies to me that the reality is there already but it just needs to be made stronger. Also, is there a difference between “to do good” and “rush with just works to meet your Christ”? Perhaps that comes up with the “find an eager welcome” image. Still, I think we lose that exquisite image of us dashing forth to meet Him. And in the Latin we have that poignant “your Christ”: there is a close Father and Son relationship being expressed in the Latin. It is not emphasized in the ICEL version. “Doing good” is nice, but “just works” says a bit more. I don’t get the total dependence on God here that sings forth in “Grant, we beg….” All in all, perhaps it could have been better. Keep in mind that the Collect prayers in these special seasons like Advent and Lent, Christmas and Easter, in general resonate more clearly with the Latin than those of Ordinary Time. These things will be looked at in due season.