Friday, October 22, 2021

Thinking Out Loud? The Collect of the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Michiel Coxie, Render unto Caesar (1583)
Lost in Translation #63

The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost continues the apocalyptic theme of this final phase of the liturgical year. For the last two Sundays, the Epistle has made reference to a special day, e.g., the days that are evil or the day of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. This Sunday’s reading continues along the same lines. Philippians 1, 6-11 mentions “the day of Christ” twice, along with our need to be to be ready for it. The Introit and the Secret, however, mention our iniquities and our guilt before the Lord, and if He observes them, who shall endure it? (Ps. 129, 3)

The Gospel, the famous passage from Matthew 22 that includes the command to render unto God what is God’s, reminds us of the obligation to make a sacrifice of our entire selves to God, for just as Caesar can have his silly lucre because it is made in his image, so too must we make a complete self-donation to God, for we are made in His image. And that’s a tall order. Perhaps it is this undercurrent of heightened alert that explains the Offertory Verse, which prays for the ability to pray:

Remember me, O Lord, Thou who rulest above all power; and give a well-ordered speech (sermonem rectum) in my mouth, that my words may be pleasing in the sight of the prince (Esther 14.12,13).
We are so nervous, the Church seems to be saying, we need your help to avoid getting tongue-tied.
It is in light of these considerations that the Collect of the day is so interesting:
Deus, refugium nostrum et virtus: adesto piis Ecclesiae tuae précibus, auctor ipse pietátis, et praesta: ut, quod fidéliter pétimus, efficáciter consequámur. Per Dóminum nostrum.
Which I translate as:
O God, our refuge and our strength: be present to the pious prayers of Thy Church, O very author of piety! And grant that what we ask in faith we may obtain in effect. Through our Lord.
The Collect is distinctive for having two appositions, one in the prelude (protasis) and one in the petition (apodosis), and the second apposition comes as a surprise, interrupting the petition. It is as if the author were working it out as he was going along, thinking (or rather, praying) out loud. First he addresses God Who, he realizes, is our refuge and strength. And because He is, He can answer our prayers. But of course, God will not answer all prayers but only those that are pious or just. Thus, the author asks God to be present to the pious prayers of the Church. I like the use of the imperative “be present” (adesse) when another expression could have been used like “incline Thine ear to” or “hearken to.” From the verb “to be” (sum) and the preposition “towards” (ad), the verb adsum can almost mean “Be yourself towards us” or perhaps, “bring your Being here.”
Then comes the surprising second apposition, the vocative phrase, “O very author of piety.” In terms of the structure of a Roman Collect, this outburst is unique and disrupts the normal order of the prelude, and yet it follows the logic of the author who, we continue to surmise, is acting as if he is working it out as he goes along. As Sr. Mary Gonzaga Haessley observes:
The Church prays God to be attentive to her piis precibus; the word piis reminds her that prayers cannot be piae unless God Himself, the Author of pietas, inspires them. [Rhetoric in the Sunday Collects of the Roman Rite, (Ursuline College for Women) 117]
And so the Church exclaims as if she just remembered something fundamental or just discovered something new: “O very author of piety”! Our prayers cannot be pious unless God infuses them with piety.
The final petition, “grant that what we ask in faith we may obtain in effect,” works within the same paradigm. Just as the prelude limits the prayers in question to those that are pious, the petition is limited to what is asked for in faith (fideliter). And just as God is the grounding and source of our piety, so too is He the grounding and source of our petitions’ efficacity. Thus, despite the appearance of being extemporaneous and haphazard, the Collect amply qualifies as an example of “well-ordered speech” (sermo rectus). Perhaps there is hope after all that we will be ready, thanks be to God, for the day of Christ.

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