Friday, September 18, 2020

The Overstepping Collect of the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Lost in Translation #17
Those who think that liturgical language should be easy to understand and readily accessible would do well to contemplate the Collect of the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The Collect is not the most ancient prayer in our treasury, but it employs a distinctive figure of speech that is found several times in the so-called Leonine or Verona Sacramentary, the oldest collection of liturgical prayers of the Roman Rite.
Tua nos, quáesumus, Dómine, gratia semper et praeveniat et sequátur: ac bonis opéribus júgiter praestet esse intentos. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
May Thy grace, we beseech Thee, O Lord, forever come before us and after us: and may it make us ever intent on good works. Through our Lord.
The author of the prayer has used a literary device called a hyperbaton, the separation of a noun or pronoun from its modifier. [2] Word order in English is everything, but in Latin the author can play more with syntax. Putting the noun and its modifier next to each other makes the sentence easier to understand, while separating them makes it a little harder. Hyperbaton, which comes from the Greek for “overstepping”, has several rhetorical uses, but instant access to meaning is not among them. 
In this Sunday’s Collect, the adjectival tua (Thy) is separated from its noun gratia (grace) by three words. That may not sound like a lot, but it is enough to create an initially disorienting experience as the Latin listener or reader first encounters an adjective modifying Lord knows what, then the direct object of again Lord knows what (nos or us), then the plea, “we beseech, O Lord.”
Huh? We are halfway through the prayer’s protasis or prelude, and we have no idea what the subject is or the action. Even a native ancient Roman hearing this prayer would experience temporary befuddlement before the pieces fall into place and he delights in comprehension (which may have been the author’s intention, since putting in extra effort deepens comprehension once attained).
The meaning of the Collect, by contrast, is straightforward. The Church prays that God’s grace be in front of us and behind us. In his Moralia St. Gregory the Great describes how the great sin of pride can ensnare the soul before we do something, as we are doing something, or after we do something. I can become proud as I am about to do an action, I can become proud as I do the action, or I can become proud afterwards as I think about what a great action I did. We therefore need grace to flank us every step of the way to keep pride from ambushing and spoiling all of our good works.
And good works is the prayer’s final petition, or rather that we remain ever intent on them. How great indeed it would be to have a purely good intention, not one subtly mixed with a proud self-love or self-promotion. How great it would be to be intent on doing good--nothing more, nothing less.
Good works and good intentions also occupy our attention in the Gospel of the day (Luke 14, 1-11), in which our Lord cures a man on the Sabbath while the Pharisees watch on. After the Pharisees refuse to answer Jesus’ question about whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath day, He asks them a second question: “Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fall into a pit, and will not immediately draw him out on the Sabbath day?” They won’t touch that question, either. Rescuing an animal from danger is a compassionate and selfless act, but since it is also one’s livestock (and therefore a possession of value), it is also a self-interested act. That, of course, does not mean that one should let one’s ox languish in the pit, but it does point to the complexity of human intentions. Jesus’ curing of the man with the dropsy, on the other hand, is purely selfless. Our Lord is ever intent on good works, as we wish to be.

[1] Sacramentarium Leonianum (Cambridge University Press, 1896), 77, 116, 133.
[2] Sr. Mary Gonzaga Haessley, Rhetoric in the Sunday Collects of the Roman Missal (Ursuline College for Women, 1938), 179.

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