Friday, November 13, 2020

Reasonable Meditation and the Collect for the “Twenty-Fourth” Sunday after Pentecost

The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1635, by Rembrandt van Rijn -- An act of reasonable worship? Kind of...

Lost in Translation #25

In this year of Our Lord 2020, the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost is a Movable Sunday, and as such it is a liturgical mutt: the orations and biblical readings are from the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (which, because of the date of Easter, was not celebrated this year) while the antiphonary (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, and Communion) are repeated from the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost.

The result is a fascinating lesson in how context can shape the interpretation of a text. When hearing this Sunday’s Epistle (1 Thess. 1, 2-10) during the Time after Epiphany, for example, the verse about having just “turned to God from idols” might assume greater prominence, since the Time after Epiphany indirectly continues to celebrate the conversion of the Gentiles that began with the visit of the Magi. But during the apocalyptic leg of the Time after Pentecost, other verses from the same reading, such as Jesus delivering us “from the wrath to come,” will naturally exert a stronger gravitational pull.
One prayer that is fascinating both on its own and in different contexts is the Collect for this Sunday:
Praesta, quáesumus, omnípotens Deus: ut semper rationabilia meditantes, quae tibi sunt plácita, et dictis exsequámur et factis. Per Dóminum nostrum.
Which I translate as:
Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that ever meditating upon reasonable things, we may thoroughly carry out the things that are pleasing to Thee both in words and in deeds. Through our Lord.
Exsequamur (“we may thoroughly carry out”) is a robust verb. Sequor means to follow after, chase, or attain-, but because the prefix ex has a perfective force denoting “completely,” “thoroughly,” or “to the end,” the Church is here petitioning for “a complete and generous ‘following out’ of those things that belong to God and His service.” [1]
But the most intriguing word in the prayer is rationabilia (“reasonable things”), for it goes against the grain of our sensibilities. Even though we Catholic Christians maintain that faith and reason are compatible, we tend to put them in two different containers, at least where worship and study are concerned. We act as if “reasonable things” are for the classroom, whereas worship is more for the heart than the mind. And yet here in the midst of our worship is a plea for constant meditation on reasonable things.
What constitutes the rationabilia can be discovered with a little effort. We may infer from the rest of the prayer that at least some of the things found in the category of the reasonable are the things that are pleasing to God and are to be carried out like, we may presume, the double love of God and neighbor or the Ten Commandments. But meditating on reasonable things may involve more than ruminating on things to do like the divine law or works of righteousness. According to some scholars, the term was once synonymous with “spiritual” until its meaning migrated to “reasonable, conformed to the essence of a thing” and spiritalis took its place. [2] By this reading, reasonable things would include objects of the speculative intellect (to put it in Thomistic terms) as well as objects of the practical intellect.
It may sound odd to think of “reasonable” and “spiritual” as synonymous until one considers Romans 12,1:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercy of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God, your reasonable service.
The Greek logiké latreia (rationabile obsequium or “reasonable service”) captures the fact that Christian latreia or worship is logocentric or centered on the Word (Logos) that is Christ. As Pope Benedict XVI observes, “the celebration is not only a ritual, it is not only a liturgical game, but is intended to be ‘logiké latreia’, a transformation of my existence in the direction of the Logos.” [3] The last clause is key.  Among other things, to be holy or spiritual is to have one’s faculty of reason (ratio) restored into a likeness of the incarnate Logos. Reasonable things are spiritual things because they renew that spiritual entity known as reason.
Benedict also notes that rationabile appears in the Roman Canon, when the faithful pray that God will, as one old translation has it, “bless, approve, ratify, make worthy (rationabile) and acceptable this offering” (the 2011 English edition of the new Missal has “make it spiritual and acceptable”). As the Pope explains:
The Church knows that in the Holy Eucharist Christ’s gift of himself, his true sacrifice, becomes present. However, the Church prays that the community celebrating may truly be united with Christ and transformed; she prays that we may become what we cannot be with our own efforts: a “rational” offering that is acceptable to God. Thus the Eucharistic Prayer interprets St Paul’s words correctly. [4] 
To meditate on God’s reasonable things and to make ourselves a rational, spiritual offering are the gladsome duties of all Christians at all times and in all places, but they take on new meaning and urgency in the shadow of the world’s end. It is reasonable to expect that the final chapter of human history, awash with false prophets and Antichrists, will not be a Golden Age of Reason let alone of Faith. It is reasonable to expect that tyrannical passions, a dictatorship of noise, and Orwellian newspeak will take the place of dispassionate discourse, quiet contemplation, and clear, honest communication. It is reasonable to expect (since it will be an age of persecution) that the few who keep their heads will be blamed by the many who have lost theirs. [5] In short, it is reasonable to expect that during the end times, it will be more difficult to meditate on the reasonable. And that is all the more reason to pray that we may ever meditate upon reasonable things and thoroughly carry out the things that are pleasing to God both in words and in deeds.

[1] Sr. Mary Gonzaga Haessly, Rhetoric in the Sunday Collects of the Roman Missal (Ursuline College for Women, 1938), 113.
[2] Sr. Mary Pierre Ellebracht, Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Ancient Orations in the Missale Romanum (Dekker, 1963), 18.
[5] If you can keep your head when all about you 
     Are losing theirs and blaming it on you...
     Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, 
     And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
                                             --Rudyard Kipling, “If”

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