Working up a translation of a liturgical text is many layered. For many years I wrote a weekly column comparing the Latin and the translations. This blog was born of that effort, for I originally thought that it would be an archive for my columns. HAH!
I regularly still post some of this work, so that you can see what can be found in a prayer, when you open the hood in look inside. Language difficulty: isn’t a hood also a bonnet? Make a choice. Choices limit what we can convey in the text. Hoods and bonnets are parts of cars but they are both “head wear”, but the words have different connotations.
We can find lots of varying connotations in our LATIN texts, some of which are ancient and which need to be recovered or made available to our modern ears.
So, there’s a lot going on in these Latin texts. Let’s have a look at the Collect for this Sunday, the 14th after Pentecost in the traditional calendar.
I’ll get to “the finger” below.
This Sunday’s Collect for the Vetus Ordo survived the snipping and pasting of the Consilium and the late Annibale Bugnini’s liturgical experts to be used in the Ordinary Form on Tuesday of the 2nd week of Lent. Figure that one out.
Custodi, Domine, quaesumus, Ecclesiam tuam propitiatione perpetua: et quia sine te labitur humana mortalitas; tuis semper auxiliis et abstrahatur a noxiis, et ad salutaria dirigatur.
Propitiatio, in its fundamental meaning, is “an appeasing, atonement, propitiation”. The dictionary of liturgical Latin Blaise/Dumas also gives us a view of the word as “favor”. This makes sense. God has been appeased and rendered favorable again towards us sinners by the propitiatory actions Christ fulfilled on the Cross. We have renewed these through the centuries in Holy Mass. Propitiation is a concept nearly eradicated from the orations of the Novus Ordo.
Mortalitas refers, as you might guess, to the fact that we die, our mortality. Inherent in the word is the concept that we die in our flesh. So, you ought also to hear “flesh” when you hear mortalitas. Another concept not so popular in the post-Vatican II prayers.
Labitur is from labor. This is not the substantive labor but the verb, labor, lapsus. It means, “to glide, fall, to move gently along a smooth surface, to fall, slide”. How about this idea?
Auxilium, in the plural, has a military overtone. There is also a medical undertone too, “an antidote, remedy, in the most extended sense of the word”. Pair this up with noxius, a, um, which points at things which are injurious or harmful. There is a moral element as well or “a fault, offence, trespass”.
Salutaria is the plural of neuter salutare which looks like an infinitive but isn’t. Our constant companion the Lewis & Short Dictionary says the neuter substantive salutare is “salvation, deliverance, health” in later Latin. The adjectival form, salutaris, is “of or belonging to well-being, healthful, wholesome”. Think of English “salutary” and O salutaris hostia in the Eucharistic hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas (+1274).
When this word is in the neuter plural (salutaria) there is a phrase in Latin bibere salutaria alicui … to drink one’s health” or literally “to drink healths to someone”.
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet during the famous “Queen Mab” speech Mercutio declares that a soldier dreams, inter alia, of “healths five fathom deep,” (I, iv) and in Henry VIII the King says to Cardinal Wolsey, “I have half a dozen healths to drink to these” (I, iv).
Wine and health are closely related in the ancient world. In the parable of the Good Samaritan the good passerby pours oil and wine into the wounds of the man who was assaulted (Luke 10:25-37). St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy:
“No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim 5:23).
Apart from its resemblance to blood, it is no surprise that Christ should choose this healthful daily staple as the matter of our saving Sacrament.
Wine was often safer to drink than water in the ancient world, though it was nearly always mixed with water to some extent. To drink uncut wine, merum in Latin (from the adjective merus “unadulterated”, giving us the English word “mere”) was considered barbaric. Cicero (+43 BC) and others hurled that accusation at Marcus Antonius (+31 BC) who was a renowned merum swiller.
Catholics sing the word merum in the hymn of the Holy Thursday liturgy, Pange lingua gloriosi, by St. Thomas Aquinas: “fitque sanguis Christi merum… and the wine becomes the Blood of Christ”. The Angelic Doctor could has used vinum, but that wouldn’t have rhymed.
Verbum caro, panem verum
Verbo carnem éfficit:
Fitque sanguis Christi merum,
Et si sensus déficit,
Ad firmándum cor sincérum
Sola fides súfficit.
In sacramental terms, there is a link between wine and health in the sense of salvation. During Holy Mass, we offer gifts of wine with water to become our spiritual “healths” once it is changed into the Blood of Christ. These archaic and literary references help us drill into the language of our prayers.
Let’s drill some more. Did you know that the index finger was called digitus salutaris, and that the ancient Romans held it up when greeting people? We don’t do that very often these days. I believe modern usage, at least on roadways, more commonly employs a different finger.
The special designations of fingers in Latin are pollex (thumb); index or salutaris (forefinger); medius, infamis or impudicus (middle finger); minimo proximus or medicinalis (ring finger); minimus (little finger, “pinky”). The priest, during Mass, always held the consecrated Host only between his thumb and the digitus salutaris.
One way to harm a priest, our mediator at the altar and in the confessional, was to chop off his index fingers. Priests without those fingers were forbidden to say Mass without special permission from the Holy See. Those fingers were clearly understood by those who hate the Church, priesthood, and the Eucharist as being especially important. North American martyr missionaries were mutilated like this.
Let’s push this a little more.
The adjective medicinalis, “medicinal, healing”, comes from the verb medeor or medico, the original meaning of which has to do with “to heal” by magic. The verb traces back to the stem med– or “middle”. So, medicus, “doctor” is associated with “mediator”. We can think of this in terms of the English word “medium”, who is a mediator with the spirit world. The Latin poet Silius Italicus (Tiberius Catius Asconius Silius Italicus, +101) called a magician “medicus vulgus” (Punica, III, 300).
The ancients saw what we call the “ring finger” as having magical powers. Talk about “rings of power”. This is reflected in the name digitus medicinalis, the “medicinal/magic” finger.
One of the most important Patristic Christological images in the ancient Church is Christus Medicus, the “Physician”. St. Augustine does amazing things with this image, and Christus Mediator. He is the doctor of the ailing soul. He is the only mediator between God and man.
SUPER LITERAL RENDERING:
Guard your Church, we beseech You, O Lord, with perpetual favor and, since without You our mortal flesh slides toward ruin, by means of your helping remedies let it be pulled back from injuries and be guided unto saving healths.
Watch how the old incarnation of ICEL ruined the imagery.
OBSOLETE ICEL (1973):
Lord, watch over your Church,
and guide it with your unfailing love.
Protect us from what could harm us
and lead us to what will save us.
Help us always, for without you we are bound to fail.
We won’t ever have to hear that one again! No wonder we have so many problems now in the Church of the Anglophone world.
CURRENT ICEL (2011):
Guard your Church, we pray, O Lord, in your unceasing mercy,
and, since without you mortal humanity is sure to fall,
may we be kept by your constant helps from all harm
and directed to all that brings salvation.
We all know the image of the slippery slope. Once you are on this slope, scrabble and scratch with your weak hands as you can, and you can’t get a purchase.
You slide and slide, faster and faster. Down.
Our fallen nature and our habitual sins drag us onto the slope from which we cannot save ourselves. Sometime we only hang on to the cliff by our fingers.
In the sacraments and teachings of Holy Church, Christ extends the fingers of His saving hand.
I just had the mind flash of a baby grasping his father’s finger with his tiny hand.
God extends His hand to us in love. He draws us back from a deadly slide with His Almighty touch.
Never doubt that the digitus Dei, the finger of God is upon you, to move you in your vocation upon the immense chess board of salvation history towards His final victory.