In the Church’s traditional calendar this Sunday is the 5th after Easter. The Collect for the Mass was derived from the ancient Gelasian Sacramentary for the Fourth Sunday after the close of the Easter Octave. It survived the cutters and snippers who pasted the Novus Ordo together on their desks. You may now hear it on the 10th Sunday of Ordinary Time where the post-Conciliar Missale Romanum is used. Since we are now electronic and not in print, this week allow me to depart from my previous weekly 400 words so that we can drill a little more deeply into our Collect. It is often the case that there is a great deal locked up within the Latin which has so long been denied you.
Deus, a quo bona cuncta procedunt, largire supplicibus tuis: ut cogitemus, te inspirante, quae recta sunt; et, te gubernante, eadem faciamus.
The Novus Ordo version slightly rearranges the word order, saying “tuis largire supplicibus”, which I actually prefer since it flows better, but the more ancient version in the Gelasian omits the “tuis” altogether.
Procedo means “to go forth or before, to go forwards, advance, proceed” and more importantly “to go or come forth or out, to advance, issue” and even “to issue from the mouth, to be uttered”. Largire looks like an infinitive but is really an imperative form of the deponent largior, “to give bountifully, to lavish, bestow, dispense, distribute, impart… to confer, bestow, grant, yield”. The neuter substantive rectum, -i is (from rego), is “that which is right, good, virtuous; uprightness, rectitude, virtue”. Cogito is more than simply “to think”. As in Descartes’ often quoted “Cogito ergo sum… I think, therefore I am”, it is really, “to pursue something in the mind” and “to consider thoroughly, to ponder, to weigh, reflect upon”. The English derivative is “cogitate”.
A pretty literal translation: O God, from whom all good things issue forth, bountifully grant to Your supplicants, that, You inspiring, we may think things which are right, and, You guiding, we may accomplish the same.
Without dismissing other possibilities, there is in this classically sculpted Collect a key concept of theological reflection by the ancient Church through the medieval period. This key could unlock what the Church is really saying to God on our behalf.
Ancient theologians, both pagan and Christian, struggled alike for answers to the same questions. If all things come from God, did God create evil? If all things come from God, then are all things, in fact, also God? If in the cosmos there are only God and everything else which is not-God, and if God is the only Good, then are all created not-God things evil? Is matter evil by nature? Are we evil, destined to doom or nothingness? Pagans and Christians, using the same starting points and categories of thought, came up with differing solutions.
Rejecting the idea of both a good-god principle and an evil-god principle, pagan theologians of the Platonic stream of thought posited a creation through an endless series of intermediaries to avoid the conclusion that God, the highest good, created evil. For them, the perfectly transcendent One overflowed with being through descending triads of intermediaries down to the corrupt material world from which we must be freed. This solved nothing, of course, because no matter how many hierarchies of intermediaries you propose, those hierarchies always must be further divided into more hierarchies.
Christian theologians, who were also mostly Platonists, using the same categories of thought worked from the revealed fact of God’s immediate (that is “unmediated”) creation of the universe from nothing, creatio ex nihilo. Evil was explained as a deprivation of being, essentially a “nothingness”, not created by God. All things which have being come forth from God, and are both good and will go back to God. This is the key for unlocking our prayer.
When our Collect was probably composed, Western theologians (still really Platonists in many respects) were struggling mightily to solve thorny problems about, for example, predestination. This required them to gaze deeply at man’s nature and the problem of evil. In this titanic theological battle we find on all sides the ancient Platonic view of creation. All creation proceeds (procedo) forth from God in indeterminate form. In a reflection of the eternal procession of uncreated divine Persons of the Trinity, the rational component of creation (man) turned around when proceeding forth in order to regard his Source and, in that turning, that conversio, took determinate form and began to return to God. This going forth and returning, this descent and rising (in theology exitus and reditus or Greek exodos and proodos) is everywhere present in ancient and medieval thought.
For Christians of the Neoplatonic Augustinian tradition, man, the pinnacle of creation, “drags” all of created nature with him in a contemplative “conversion” back to God. Man’s rational nature was not destroyed by sin in the Fall. However, were it not for the Incarnate Logos, the Word made flesh, the union of uncreated with created, the descent of creation would have simply continued “exiting” away from God for eternity. If not for the Incarnation, man and all creation with him would never turn back, doomed to become ever more indeterminate. Instead, rational man, the image of the rational Word, and all creation with him can turn back to God. The Son entered our created realm and made possible man’s conversio (epistrophe) after the Fall. As John Scotus Eriugena (+877) put it, man is “nature’s priest”. Through rational acts man plays a part in God’s saving plan for creation.
This pattern of exitus and reditus is perfectly exemplified in the writings of theologians in a line from pagan Neoplatonic writers like Plotinus (+270), to Christian Platonists like St Augustine (+430), Boethius (+525; pictured), Eriugena, St Bonaventure (+1274) and St Thomas Aquinas (+1274). This is the theology behind many ancient prayers. Our Collect echoes the Neoplatonic theology of late antiquity and early Middle Ages together with the Scriptural James 1:17, a text used frequently by these same thinkers.
And not just ancient thinkers. Joseph Ratzinger wrote in his Spirit of the Liturgy about exitus and reditus. I warmly recommend his reflections.
As an exercise, let’s see what people will hear in the Novus Ordo on the 10th Ordinary Sunday. Would you hear exitus and reditus in this English version?
Current ICEL (2011): O God, from whom all good things come, grant that we, who call on you in our need, may at your prompting discern what is right, and by your guidance do it.
How about in the version people heard for some many years until the 2011 translation was implemented?
Obsolete ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970 MR): God of wisdom and love, source of all good, send your Spirit to teach us your truth and guide our actions in your way of peace.
What incalculable damage was done to our Catholic identity over the years through this sort of rubbish.
For long I have said that “we are our rites”. They shape us. We need their transforming and nourishing content. They are the food of our daily lives. Change our prayers and, slowly but surely, the content of our faith will shift. As we grow in our Catholic Faith, Holy Mass should give us grown-up food. Thick red steak and cabernet prayers, not pureed carrots for baby teeth prayers. We need meat, not goop, so we can thrive and not just survive.
This is one of the reasons why Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum is so important. In the assembling of the Novus Ordo, with the revision of its prayers, we lost concepts important to our Catholic identity. That is not the case with this week’s prayer, happily. The revised Novus Ordo prayers often emphasize positive elements not so present in the older prayers. However, what we lost, perhaps to be characterized as “negative” concepts, are vital to who we are as Catholics. Summorum Pontificum will help us reclaim as a praying Church much of what has been lost in our worship and therefore provide nourishment for a revitalized Catholic identity.
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