Friday, July 02, 2021

The Palpably Agricultural and Mildly Pugnacious Collect of the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Theodoor Boeyermans, Meleager Killing the Caledonian Boar (1677)
Lost in Translation #59

The Church gave two sacraments to her catechumens at Easter and Pentecost: Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. Those two sacraments, and their effects on our souls, remain on her mind on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost. In the Epistle reading of the Mass, St. Paul speaks of our life in the risen Christ as baptized members of His body (Rom. 6, 3-11); in the Gospel, the Multiplication of the Loaves foreshadows the miracle of the Eucharist, in which Christ’s body victoriously transcends the laws of space, time, and matter (Mark 8, 1-9).

The Collect of this Sunday hearkens to these themes, but in a key all its own:
Deus virtútum, cujus est totum quod est óptimum: ínsere pectóribus nostris amórem tui nóminis, et praesta in nobis religiónis augmentum; ut, quae sunt bona, nutrias, ac pietátis studio, quae sunt nutríta, custódias. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
O God of hosts, to whom all that is best doth belong, plant in our chests a love of Thy name and grant within us an increase of religion: that Thou mayest nourish what is good and, with the zeal of Thy mercy, protect what is nourished. Through our Lord.
Looking only at the nonreflexive verbs, the imagery that emerges is agricultural. Planting, increasing, nourishing, and protecting: not only is there an echo of 1 Corinthians 3, 6, but these metaphors gingerly anticipate the readings of the day. In the Epistle, St. Paul writes: “For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection,” while the Gospel speaks of Christ nourishing His followers in the desert, lest they faint along the way. Summer is the season of growth, both botanically and spiritually. And the same goes for the liturgical season. Religion was planted in the hearts of our catechumens on Holy Saturday and watered during the Easter season. Now, during this Time after Pentecost, we ask for continued progress in religion for both them and us.
The agricultural motif may also explain some of the unusual wording. Normally the Roman orations follow the verb “praesta – grant” with a noun or pronoun in the dative case: Grant to us, grant to Thy family, etc. Here, however, praesta is followed by in nobis, which is in the ablative case and which I have translated as “within us.” Sr. Mary Haessly explains:
The Petition opens with ‘insere’, a metaphor borrowed from agriculture, to be continued with ‘praesta’. Just as the husbandman does not leave the seed exposed on the surface of the ground, but plants it securely within the earth, so God plants the seed of grace securely within the soul.[1]
The wording is distinctive in other ways as well. Pectus means breast or breastbone in Latin, but it is often used figuratively for the heart, soul, or mind. The safe translation of pectus in this Collect is “heart,” since the heart is where love is planted and grows. I have chosen, however, to translate the word as “chests” because I believe that there is a soupçon of spiritedness or feistiness in this prayer. The Lord, for example, is called the God of hosts or armies, and there is an implicit praise of zeal--which, incidentally, is delightfully ambivalent. Because pietátis studio does not have a possessive pronoun, the zeal in question can belong either to God or to man. If it is God’s, pietas means mercy and the phrase becomes an ablative of manner: we ask God to protect with the zeal of His mercy. If it is man’s, pietas means piety and the phrase becomes an ablative of means: we ask God to protect by means of our zeal for piety. [2] Either way, zeal is a good thing. It is therefore my sense that when we ask God for a love of His name in this Collect, we are not asking for the tender love of a mother for her child while nursing but the fiery love of Blessed Miguel Pro shouting Viva Cristo Rey!
Similarly, we ask for an increase of religion. Religion takes guts; it takes commitment. Today those who like to say that they are “spiritual but not religious” have become so numerous that they have earned their own abbreviation (SBNR) and a rather fulsome entry on Wikipedia, with affirmations from feminism, Wicca, and other forms of neo-paganism. No doubt some SBNRs are sincere in this belief, but for others, I suspect, the statement is little more than a cloak to hide the gaping cavity below their Adam’s apple, for they are, as C.S. Lewis puts it, men without chests. [3] The Reverend Lillian Daniel addresses SBNRs in the following way:
You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating…. Any idiot can find God alone in the sunset. It takes a certain maturity to find God in the person sitting next to you who not only voted for the wrong political party but has a baby who is crying while you’re trying to listen to the sermon. Community is where the religious rubber meets the road. [4]
If this is true in the eyes of Reverend Daniel (who has described herself as the pastor “of a large liberal Protestant church”), how much truer should it be for Catholics, who presumably have a thicker and more robust definition of religion.
Finally, the Collect bears a remarkable similarity to Psalm 79, 14-16, which likewise combines the agricultural and combative:
The boar out of the wood hath laid [God’s vineyard, Israel] waste: and a singular wild beast hath devoured it. Turn again, O God of hosts, look down from heaven, and see, and visit this vineyard. And perfect the same which Thy right hand hath planted: and upon the son of man whom Thou hast [strengthened] for Thyself.
“God of hosts” (Deus virtutum) is a common title for the Lord in the Psalms and hence it appears several times in the Introits and Graduals of the 1962 Roman Missal. But it is a rarity in the Roman orations: besides this Collect, its only other appearance is in the Secret for the feast of the Precious Blood on July 1. I do not know if the author intentionally chose this divine title to allude to Psalm 79, but the parallelism works either way. It takes a God of armies to take down the fiendish boar, that singular wild beast: we pray that with a love of God’s Holy Name, an increase of religion, and the zeal of mercy or piety we may have the chests to stand by Him when the hunt begins.
[1] Sr. Mary Haessly, Rhetoric in the Sunday Collects of the Roman Missal, (Cleveland: Ursuline College for Women, 1938), 149.
[2] Haessly, 84-5. For the peculiar use of pietas in the Roman orations, see my article on the subject.
[3] “Men without Chests” is the name of the first chapter of Lewis’ Abolition of Man (Oxford University Press, 1943).

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