Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Sacramentary of Charlemagne's son Drogo c. 850COLLECT
Actiones nostras, quaesumus, Domine,
aspirando praeveni et adiuvando prosequere,
ut cuncta nostra operatio a te semper incipiat,
et per te coepta finiatur.

First, do not be fooled by prosequere, which is an imperative, not an infinitive.  Prosequor is deponent and means "to follow" or "to accompany".  It can also be "to follow up".   Neither is it to be confused with Italian prosecco, by the way.  On the other hand, praevenio is "to come before, precede" and thus it is "anticipate".  Actio can refer to an "action" or, more precisely, to liturgical celebrations of the sacred mysteries.  Sometimes the Eucharistic prayer is called an Actio.  In a sacristy you might see a little pro memoria card framed for priests indicating the name of the local bishop so that the priest can say his name properly "infra Actionem … during the Eucharistic Prayer".  Interestingly, operatio is not simply a "work" or "labor" but also a "religious performance, service, or solemnity, a bringing of offerings".  That meshes nicely with the deeper Christian meaning of actio and gives us a hint as to how to translate this prayer with something more than just a superficial rendering.

We beg You, O Lord, by instilling them anticipate our actions,
and by helping follow up on them,
so that our every service always begins from You,
and what was begun is brought to conclusion through You.

This subtle prayer cuts two ways.  The words actio and operatio, conceptually related "doing" connected to the verbs ago and operor, both have a connotation of sacred liturgical service.  At the same time, they can simply point to our own daily undertakings.  These layers of meaning overlap and show us how there must be a continuity between how we participate at Holy Mass and how we act outside of the sacred precincts of the church or chapel we frequent.   The highest form of active participation is the reception of Holy Communion in the state of grace following a willed, active receptivity to what has been carried out in the sacred action of the Mass.  Christ is the ACTOR par excellence in the Mass.  In the actions of the priest, Christ is acting as the Head of the Body.  In the actions and receptivity of the congregation, Christ is in action as the Body, responding to and being directed by the Head.  Both together form Christ, Christus Totus, raising sacrifice on high to the Father.  Our participation then must be first and foremost active receptivity so that we have what is good to give back to God.

The dynamic implied in active receptivity is also found in the play of the pairings of aspirando praeveni and adiuvando prosequere.  God initiates every good thing in us.  If we knowingly and willing cooperate with what He initiates, He Himself them brings to conclusion through us by making our hands strong enough to grasp hold of the good things He has given for us to accomplish.  Thus, each good thing we have and do is simultaneously God’s, first and foremost, but also authentically ours.   As the great St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) said, God crowns His own merits in us.  

This is a magnificently elegant prayer.  Note the braiding of the words and concepts.

actio <–> operatio with both secular and liturgical overtones
adspirando praeveni <–> adiuvando prosequere
a te
<–> per te
<–> coepta

Charlemagne and Pope Hadrian IWhere does this prayer come from?  It is present in the Hadrianum and Paduense manuscripts of the so-called "Gregorian Sacramentary".  "What on earth is that?" you ask.  The Roman usage over a couple centuries had an influence on Gallican (French) practice.  This blending of rites was superseded when the Emperor Charlemagne asked Pope Hadrian for a Roman Sacramentary to impose on lands under his control, for the sake of unity.  So, in about 786, Hadrian produced what we know call the Sacramentarium Hadrianum a version of the sacramentary or missal used by the papal court in Rome, called the Gregorian Sacramentary.  This formed the basis of the sacramentary produced for use in the Carolingian realm.  As a result, our prayer today represents the very best of ancient Roman liturgical tradition.  It is elegant, erudite and hand picked for use by Charlemagne in his project to create liturgical unity.

Here is some more trivia: Priests who are so inclined as to be a bit old fashioned and recite the classic "Prayers after Mass" will recognize this right away as belong to the conclusion. This prayer was used during the last Synod of Bishops focusing on the Eucharist for the beginning of the 17th General Congregation.  The translation on the Vatican web site is: Inspire, we beg You, Lord, our actions and accompany them, so that all our prayers and work always begins with You and through You we have fulfillment.    This prayer was also the last of those concluding the Litany of Saints in the older way of singing it, and it is sometimes translated as: "Direct, we beseech Thee, O Lord, our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance; that every prayer and work of ours may always begin with Thee and through Thee be happily ended."   Another translation I found is: "Go before us, O Lord, we beseech Thee, in all our doings with Thy gracious inspiration, and further us with Thy continual help, that every prayer and work of ours may begin from Thee, and by Thee be duly ended."

This is a great prayer to recite before beginning a project…. such as we are now doing with Lent!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Don Marco says:

    Prompt our actions, we beseech you, Lord,
    by your inspiration, and further them by your help,
    that all our works may begin always from you,
    and through you be brought to completion.

    The prayer, in this translation, asks God to prompt our actions where the Latin text says, “praeveni.” The Book of Common Prayer (!) translates this same verb quite literally as “prevent.” Prevent, in this case does not mean “to impede,” but rather to “precede” or to “go before.” “Prevent our actions, we beseech you, O Lord, by your inspiration.” We are asking God to go before us, to be a step ahead of us all the way.
    Again, where the Latin text says “aspirando” — breathing — our English prayer says simply “inspiration.” There is an immediacy and a warmth to the Latin text that, if we dared, we might render, “Go before our actions breathing, O Lord, and follow after us helping.” “All who are led by the Spirit, says Saint Paul, are children of God” (Rom 8:14).
    I like the image of a God who goes before us, breathing his Spirit into our actions, and follows after us ready to help. Such a God is very close. Like a mother teaching a child to take his first steps, God breathes encouragement and shows the way. He follows after, ever watchful, ready to catch us should we stumble.
    The collect asks “that all our works may begin always from you, and through you be brought to completion.” A more literal translation might say, “that every doing of ours may have its beginning in you, and, once begun, through you be brought to completion.” Total dependence on grace: on grace that, like a breeze, or a breath, or a gust of wind, stirs us to act; grace that is as much before us as after us, helping and, at the same time, giving us the space and security we need to move in freedom.
    Why this particular collect today, on the second day of Lent? While still on the edge of the Lenten desert, we are asking God to go ahead of us, breathing his Spirit. “For we are his workmanship, says Saint Paul, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10).
    Is it unreasonable to hear in that breathing verb, aspirando, something that resonates with the gospel we will hear on Sunday? “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mk 1:12). It seems to me that this is precisely the deeper meaning of the prayer the Church gives us to day. We are asking for a Spirit-driven Lent. “Those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit . . . to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:5 6). A Spirit-driven Lent will be a Lent sustained by the grace of the Cross, and brought to completion in the joy of the Resurrection. I’m grateful to the Church for today’s collect. It makes us ask for all the right things.

  2. Henry Edwards says:

    ICEL version:
    Lord, may everything we do
    begin with your inspiration,
    continue with your help,
    and reach perfection under your guidance.

    ICEL has preserved the intent (for once) but not the “magnificent elegance”?

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