Friday, September 25, 2020

Unity versus the Devil: The Collect for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Michelangelo, The Torment of Saint Anthony, 1487-8

Lost in Translation #18
In former ages this Sunday was called the Sunday of the Love of God because in the Gospel reading (Matt. 22, 34-46) our Lord proclaims that the two greatest commandments are to love God with one’s whole heart and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. It could, however, just as easily be called Unity Sunday or Oneness Sunday, since it is this theme that unites so many of its propers. The love of God and the love of neighbor may be listed as two separate commandments, but they are not two separate and disconnected loves. Rather, the love of God grounds the love of neighbor and makes it possible, for true charity (agape or caritas) is a single, supernaturally infused love that, proceeding from God and aiming at God, bubbles over into a love of our fellow man. The Christian love of neighbor is clearly a superhuman achievement impossible to achieve without grace. Think of martyrs forgiving their torturers, saints kissing the sores of lepers, and the old religious orders whose members offered themselves up as slaves in order to free Christian captives. In his commentary on this Sunday, Ildefonso Schuster contrasts the goods works of the Church with the efforts of secular powers and concludes, “The so-called philanthropy which aims at being Christian charity de-christianized never rises to this supernatural level.” [1]
In the Epistle reading (Ephesians 4, 1-6), St. Paul is all about oneness. “Keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” he exhorts the Church at Ephesus. “One body and one spirit, as you are called in one hope of your calling. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God and Father of all.”
The theme of a single God uniting us may explain the inclusion of this Sunday’s Collect, which makes a similar reference to “the only God”:
Da, quáesumus, Dómine, pó­pulo tuo diabólica vitáre con­tagia: et te solum Deum pura mente sectári.  Per Dómi­num.
Which I translate as:
Grant, O Lord, to Thy people for us to avoid all diabolical contagion, and with pure minds to follow Thee, the only God. Through our Lord.
Whether or not solum Deum is meant to introduce the theme of unity for this Mass, it is surprising to see mention of the devil in a Sunday Collect; in fact, it is the only mention of the devil in a Sunday Collect. Dom Gueranger does not address this peculiarity but ties the Collect to the theme of  love: “The most hateful of all the obstacles which divine love has to encounter upon earth is the jealousy of Satan, who endeavours, by an impious usurpation, to rob God of the possession of our souls--souls, that is, which were created by and for Him alone.” [2] 
The noun that “diabolical” modifies is also interesting. Contagium is in the plural as contagia, and so it contrasts nicely with the one true God (solus Deus). We cannot follow the one God, enjoy the unity of the Spirit, or be infused with the unifying virtue of charity when we are distended by a myriad of spiritual pollutions. But since the word contagia only appears in Latin literature in the plural , we can also translate it as “contagion” in the singular. Contagia is kind of like the English word “news,” which is used in the plural even when it is meant in the singular, as when we say “The evening news is on.”
“Contagion” in modern English has a clinical or medical ring to it, but interestingly in Latin contagia was only used by poets in the post-Augustan age. I wonder how that colored the Christian reception of the word during the late Patristic and early medieval periods.
What is diabolical contagion? For those first generations of Christians, it was quite straightforward. The early Church took seriously Psalm 95 (96), 5 — “All the gods of the gentiles are devils” — and viewed the Greco-Roman deities accordingly. Pagan shrines and temples were obviously diabolically contaminated, but so were groves and other natural locales. John Henry Newman sums up this attitude well in his novel Callista when a Christian character from the third century is out in the woods and declares:
O that I did not find the taint of the city in these works of God! Alas! sweet nature, the child of the Almighty, is made to do the fiend’s work, and does it better than the town. O ye beautiful trees and fair flowers, O bright sun and balmy air, what a bondage ye are in, and how do ye groan till you are redeemed from it! [3]
Reading this Sunday Collect almost a century ago, liturgical commentators identified “spiritualism” and “theosophy” as the diabolical threats of their day. Our own age, of course, can boast of so much more: New Age spirituality, the occult, neopaganism, witchcraft (Wicca), and even explicit Satanism, the “temples” of which enjoy the same legal status under U.S. law as the Catholic Church. And, of course, if we take “diabolical” in its broader sense we can include all sin, starting with those acts committed under the influence of the “spirit of fornication,” a spirit from whom we pray for deliverance in the Litany of the Saints and who seems particularly busy these days. The fact that the Collect also contrasts diabolical contagion with “pure minds” suggests perhaps this broader, moralized view.
But whether we speculate narrowly or broadly, it is right and just that we do so. The Time after Pentecost corresponds to the age in which we live, the age in between the first Pentecost and the last Judgment, and already by the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost the season is beginning to become more eschatological in tone and content as it anticipates the Last Sunday of the Year and its foreshadowing of the end of the world. It is as if the Church were inviting us, in light of impending Doomsday, to recognize the reality of our invisible enemies and identify them right now in preparation for the final struggle, a struggle that relies on the armor of one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and on one double-edged sword of the love of God and neighbor.

[1] The Sacramentary, vol. 3 (Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, 1927), 148.
[2] Gueranger, The Liturgical Year, vol. 11 (Bonaventure Publications, 2000), 373.
[3] Callista, (Cosimo Classics, 1856; reprinted 2007), 8.

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