Is this prayer appropriate today or what?!?
This Sunday’s Collect prayer – in the Vetus Ordo:
Da, quaesumus, Domine, populo tuo diabolica vitare contagia: et te solum Deum pura mente sectari.
So dense! Concise.
The phrase diabolica vitare contagia is a glory of the Latin Church’s millennial life of prayer.
Note the wonder assonance and the separate of diabolica from contagia by the verb, a use of hyberbaton.
This Collect, used for centuries in the post-Tridentine Missale Romanum, is in ancient prayer books such as the Liber Sacramentorum Gellonensis, a form of the Gelasian Sacramentary. It appears as the Collect for the Sunday after the Autumn Ember days (Spring in the Southern climes, though that wasn’t a consideration of the ancients). As such, it would have been a time of prayer and fasting and for ordinations.
Let’s check our vocabulary to see if we can find treasures beneath the surface.
I am sure you know the words “contagion” and “contamination”. In Latin we have, as our steadfast Lewis & Short Dictionary informs us, feminine contagio, onis, and neuter contagium, ii, or contamen, inis, which mean “a touching, contact, touch, in a good or bad sense”. It comes then to indicate “a contact with something physically or morally unclean, a contagion, infection” and thence “an infection, pollution, vicious companionship or intercourse, participation, contamination, etc.”. Surely those of you who were educated by the sisters or brothers lo those many moons ago in Catholic schools were warned to “avoid the company of bad friends”. Not only is your reputation tainted with their stains but you subject yourself to their “contamination” and the near occasion of sin.
Go with bad friends, and you go down.
We won’t get into the complicated idea of mens, which can mean “mind”, but also “heart, soul”, in fact the whole of the human person in some contexts. But we can glance at purus, the adjective for, basically, “clean, pure, i. e. free from any foreign, esp. from any contaminating admixture”. Obviously, this can refer not only to physical cleanliness, but also moral faultlessness. There are juridical and religious overtones as well. For example, for the ancient Romans a thing which is purus, such as a locus purus, a “pure place”, was not just undefiled, it was unconsecrated, not sacer. On the other hand, purus does also mean “undefiled”, in the sense that nothing dead had been there. There had never been a funeral or burial, etc. It is interesting how the Romans got down to brass tacks.
Then we have the verbs vitare and sectari. While a sector, m. is a “cutpurse”, the sort of bad friend you don’t want to follow around, the verb sector, deponent (passive form but active meaning) is “to follow continually or eagerly, in a good or bad sense; to run after, attend, accompany; to follow after, chase, pursue”. On the other hand, a vitor is, in fact, just a “cooper; basket-maker”. We are interested in vito, which is not the name of a character in The Godfather (well… it is and it isn’t). The verb vito means “to shun, seek to escape, avoid, evade”. The word sort of looks like it should be related to something having to do with “life”, vita. In reality, however, vito is shortend from vicito, having the root vic-, related to the ancient root wik in Greek eikô (“to yield”).
The important thing to follow, and not avoid, is that in our prayer there are contrasting pairs: contamination v. purity, avoidance v. association.
Each pair reveals our need to make choices and to persevere in what is right.
Grant, O Lord, unto Your people, to shun diabolical contamination: and with a pure soul to follow You, the only God.
ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
This collect barely survived the scalpel-wielding experts of the Consilium, who sliced and diced our orations under the surveillance of the late then-Fr. Annibale Bugnini. It was not in the typical edition of 1970 or the edito altera of 1975.
Then a miracle occurred.
The third edition, the 2002 Missale Romanum includes this Collect, though in nearly complete obscurity. It took me a while to hunt it up in the 2002MR. If you are interested, look in the section Missae et orationes pro variis necessitatibus vel ad diversa, subsection Ad diversa, 48. In quaecumque necessitate, scheme “C”, “Aliae orationes (shortcut, go to p. 1152). The 1970 and 1975MR, both, had two schemes for Masses In quacumque necessitate (“In whatever necessity”). In the 2002MR a third was added.
The redactors of the newest edition added quite a few things, such as new schemes for vigils of important feasts and the “Prayer over the People” on the days of Lent. It is as if they recognized that too much had been lost to the Novus Ordo. Of course with the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum we can make use of the 1962 Missale Romanum and celebrate the sacred mysteries also in light of all we have learned of the ars celebrandi in the intervening decades.
CURRENT ICEL (2011):
Grant, we pray, O Lord, that your people may avoid the contagion of the devil and follow you, the only God, in purity of heart.
As I read and reread the Latin, and then the literal English version, the Biblical imagery of faithlessness as “adultery” or “prostitution” came to mind. The relationship between the People and God was conceived as an exclusive covenant like a marriage bond.
When the People of Israel were faithless to God they are described as “going with”, so to speak, false idols, “whoring after” other gods. Think for a moment of Jeremiah 3:6-11 wherein the people go up the mountains or under every tree like a prostitute.
Could that pertain to some leaders and assemblages of God’s Holy People today? But I digress.
It seems to me that we are dealing in this prayer with the time-hallowed warning of Christians to shun the three great temptations that corrupt the rational soul (mens) and pull it away from communion with the Holy Trinity. The three contaminations are mundus, caro et diabolus, “the world, the flesh, and the devil”.
A solid reference to the trio is found in a sermon of a pseudo-Augustine, but it becomes a solid reference in late-antique and mediaeval spiritual thought. The influential theologian Peter Abelard (+1142) puts it succinctly in his Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Tria autem sunt quae nos tentant, caro, mundus, diabolus… For there are three things which try us: the world, the flesh, the devil” (petitio vi). St. Bernard of Clairvaux (+1153) speaks of this deadly trio, as does St. Thomas Aquinas (+1274). It is no surprise that the post-Tridentine Missale would include this prayer, for this was part of the warp and weft of Catholic spirituality. The Sixth Session of the Council of Trent wrote, with heavy reliance on St. Paul, in its 1547 Decree on Justification about perseverance:
He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved, (Matt 10:22; 24:13) which cannot be obtained from anyone except from Him who is able to make him stand who stands, (Rom 14:4) that he may stand perseveringly, and to raise him who falls, let no one promise himself herein something as certain with an absolute certainty, though all ought to place and repose the firmest hope in God’s help. For God, unless men themselves fail in His grace, as He has begun a good work, so will He perfect it, working to will and to accomplish. (Phil 1:6, 2:13) Nevertheless, let those who think themselves to stand, take heed lest they fall, (cf. 1 Cor 10:12) and with fear and trembling work out their salvation, (Phil 2:12) in labors, in watchings, in almsdeeds, in prayer, in fastings and chastity. For knowing that they are born again unto the hope of glory, ( cf. 1 Pet 1:3) and not as yet unto glory, they ought to fear for the combat that yet remains with the flesh, with the world and with the devil, in which they cannot be victorious unless they be with the grace of God obedient to the Apostle who says: We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh; for if you live according to the flesh, you shall die, but if by the spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live. (Rom 8:12ff)
The language, and therefore the concepts, of those formative ages of our Catholic faith and spirituality are very much at risk today. But it is being recovered and reconsidered, especially in the wake of Pope Benedict’s efforts to reinvigorate our Catholic identity in continuity with our profound past.
Of course, there are those who vigorously seek to snuff out all mention of these categories. It is unfashionable in many circles to speak things so distasteful as the sort of temptation to which you can’t, with just a sly wink and hint of naughty struggle, simply give into along with everyone else.
To remind people of sin, guilt, and their eternal consequences is now rude, especially from pulpits in many parishes and cathedrals. If you speak of the devil and sinful temptations, and the contamination of the soul – as if it isn’t always and automatically pure – you are considered a throwback to an era before modern man grew up.
“No longer do we grovel! The old bogey-devil won’t drive us down to our knees! (But then neither does the Blessed Sacrament.) How feudal! I choose what my boundaries are. I choose when to receive Communion, with our without reference to the “official” church.”
As a consequence, what sense does it make in some circles now to speak of “perseverance”?
When we are our gods, what sense does it make to speak of all these distasteful, out-dated categories with which shriveled up old men tried to scare us, as a wicked uncles might terrify mere children?
I respond saying that the Enemy of the soul seeks our destruction.
He seeks to thwart God’s design and our own best destiny of bliss in heaven by guiding us away from the only God down into false gods, created things. The Enemy seeks to accompany us, lead us, delicately into the ways of the world of which he is the prince, tempt us in our appetites and passions, so hard to control after the Fall he originally provoked, draw you into infidelity.
And for what?
In his eternal sickness of angelic malice Satan yearns to crow over your fallen soul, damned to eternal separation from God in hell and amidst the unending agony to boom heavenwards in a twisted oration: “Here’s another victory You will now not have!”
Each day sets choices before us. Most of the time they are rather simple, even black and white. Only rarely are we ever truly at a loss as to what is right or what is the wrong thing to do. Our habits and passions make our choices more difficult, as does the wound to our intellect.
But Holy Church gives us the guidance of authority, which steers our still marvelous ability to reason. We have not just intellect, but our Faith as well. We are not alone, but God gives us graces.
Today’s prayer gives us insight in an important dimension of our lives: contamination in sin v. purity with God – avoidance of sin and the Enemy v. association with God.