Today’s Collect survived the long knives of the Consilium to live on the in the Novus Ordo editions of the Missale Romanum on Monday of the 3rd Week of Lent. Figure that one out. We find it in the 8th century Gelasian Sacramentary for a Sunday, with a minor spelling variation. It is thus ancient. There are other reason to think that the prayer is even more ancient. But first here is the text:
Ecclesiam tuam, Domine, miseratio continuata mundet et muniat: et quia sine te non potest salva consistere; tuo semper munere gubernetur.
First, we cannot pass over the sound of the prayer. The Roman Latin prayers, particularly those which were handed down intact from earlier centuries, such as the time of St. Pope Leo the Great (+461), are elegantly sculpted both in their rhythm and their sounds. Notice the wonderful alliteration throughout. Tying the whole thing together from top to bottom are the glottal sounds (made in the back of the throat with the tongue), on the voiced or unvoiced “k” sound of Ecclesiam… continuata…quia…consistere…gubernetur. . Then we have an interlocking series of alliterations. There are many humming “m” and “n” sounds: Ecclesiam tuam, Domine, miseratio continuata múndet et múniat…. Keep in mind that in ancient times, the final “m” was pronounced in a very nasal way, which survives in many instances in French and Portuguese. So, this pray begins with a deep hum. Then you shift to sibilants, the hissing “s”, with snappy “t”s along the way: et quia sine te non potest sálva consístere; tuo semper…. Then we go back to our humming “m” and “n”, but with a lovely rhythmical closure or clausula: semper múnere gúbernétúr. Speak or sing this to get at the real beauty of this gem, with its glittering facets of phonemes.
We still have space linger over some vocabulary. Gubnero was a favorite word of the great ancient Roman orator Cicero. Our thick and juicy Lewis & Short Dictionary, that feast of Latin lemmata, says guberno is “to steer or pilot a ship”. Logically, it also means “to direct, manage, conduct, govern, guide”. The Liddell, Scott, Jones Greek Lexicon, or LSJ, says that kubernao is “steer”, “drive” and metaphorically “guide, govern” and then “act as a pilot, i.e., perform certain rites in the Ship of Isis”. I can’t quite imagine what those “rites of Isis” are. I suspect they might still be used in odder versions of the newer Mass in some places, but this lies outside of our sphere of interest and it is too irritating to speculate about. We can leave that the liturgical abuse office of the Congregation for Divine Worship.
The super-charged word munus is a little hard to get at in English is this Collect. A munus can be “a service, office, post, employment, function, duty”. Should we avoid reducing God to a functionary? It is true that God is often said in our prayers to have pietas, which carries a strong sense of “duty”, but in Latin prayers pietas, when applied to God, is really more like “mercy”. For man the term pietas is “duty”. In this instance of munere, we ought to lean toward another, less common meaning in the L&S, namely, “a service, favor”. In fact the liturgical Latin dictionary we call Blaise/Dumas has, “don, faveur (de Dieu)”. There is a connection between munus as “duty, service” and as “gift”, in that munus stood also for a public work given to the city by an individual. For example, a great Roman might put on public games and feasts for the people, or erect a temple or public building as a munus given from civic duty as well as to increase his and his family’s gloria, that is, his share in the honor of the state.
The verb consisto is “to stand still, stand, halt, stop, make a stop” but also many other sorts of “taking a stand”, such as what soldiers do when about to fight, or what you do in court to defend your position. There is a “moral” stand one takes, as well as “stand with” someone. However, both in the L&S and Blaise/Dumas we see that consisto can simply mean “to be, exist”. In fact, this notion of “standing” (sisto) is also the root for existo. It is as if, in the case of the later, that as things come into being, they “stand forth” (ex-sisto) from nothingness.
It seems to me that our author was also having a good time with the similar sounds of mundet, muniat, and munere, all very different but with phonic hooks that pull them conceptually together.
This week allow me also to play around with some alliteration in rendering our prayer, still sticking to a slavish version of the Latin lines. I will also try to capture something of the nautical imagery.
Let Your continuous compassion, cleanse and defend Your Church, O Lord, and because without You she cannot stand to safe, may she forever be steered by Your favor.
In nautical parlance, to “stand to” means to “stay on a certain course”. This is how I try to unpack the meaning of consisto, which aims at the concept of “consistency” and “staying” firm. Because in this world the Church is on a journey, as a pilgrim, I didn’t want simply to say “stand firm”. But gubernator, as the master of the ship’s course, who “governs” where the ship goes, helped me think of “stand to”. Also, I could have said “safely”, but salva is an adjective, not an adverb, and I am feeling a bit more archaic than usual as I write today.
One of the meanings of munio, which gives us the muniat in the prayer (“to build a wall around, to defend with a wall, to fortify, defend; to guard, secure, strengthen, support”, for munio stems from moenia “walls”) is also “to open a road”, viam munire. Maybe we can get our heads into this prayer by thinking of the Church, often portrayed as a ship, as in Peter’s Barque or the sailing ship in the vision of St. John Bosco, as that fortified way through the heaving waters of the world, with its distractions both sensual and diabolical, that threaten to blow us off our course. As they sail in dangerous waters, ships need a well-prepared steersman to govern her through the shoals and currents, to avoid the reefs and rocks hidden beneath the waves. There are times when we have a following wind, that favors smooth and direct sailing. At other times, we must tack back and forth to make slow headway, or even run before the wind, when the sea and the storms rise in frightful force against us. In all these conditions, the captain and navigator and steersman seek the best course for the good of the whole ship and all who sail in her, according to the charts available, personal experience, the smell of the wind, the look of the sea, and the map of the sun, moon and stars.
In many ways these images of the ship at sea exemplify the experience of the Church. Our Popes, bishops and pastors seek the best course as they know how, seeking to guide the barque in perilous waters and times. In human terms we do our best to steer our course and we can make mistakes. But in divine terms we know that no matter how terrifying are the winds and seas which buffet us and threaten to bear away our spars and sails, Christ’s sure hand rests on the wheel. Nothing contrary will prevent Holy Church from finding safe harbor in Him. We will come home to a safe landfall.