Last year I wrote about the Collect for the Novus Ordo’s 16th Ordinary Sunday. But this time I have a little more room and, after all, repetita iuvant. Our prayer has an antecedent in a 9th century manuscript, the Sacramentarium Bergomense. Hence, this oration probably has its roots in the forerunners of the Ambrosian Rite of Milan:
Propitiare, Domine, famulis tuis, et clementer gratiae tuae super eos dona multiplica, ut, spe, fide et caritate ferventes, semper in mandatis tuis vigili custodia perseverent.
If you have some facility with Latin, trying reading this aloud with your ear tuned to the syllabic emphases. Enjoy the fine clausula (rhythmic ending) in “custodia perseverant”! It’s a pleasure to sing, as well. It is really only through reviving the widespread use of Latin in our sacred liturgical worship that we are going to reawaken the dimension of pleasure in hearing our prayers, often little highly polished jewels. Sung well, they both delight and edify.
Some vocabulary might help you to crack into this prayer’s marrow. We often, in our Latin prayers, have petitions on behalf of God’s household servants, often in the form famulorum famularumque tuarum, which might twist the tongue. A Latin famulus or famula was a household servant or hand-maid, slave or free. It is probably derived from Latin’s cousin Oscan *faama, “house” (the * indicates a theorized form). In ancient times, servants were considered part of the larger family.
Another common word in our Latin prayers is the verb propitio which means “to render favourable, appease, propitiate” or “look propitiously.” Our form in the Collect clearly has imperative force. It only resembles an infinitive. Do not be deceived. The illustrious Lewis & Short Dictionary shows that in the Biblical Latin of the Vulgate, the passive form of propitio means, “to be propitious” (cf. Vulgate Leviticus 23:2 – propitietur vobis Dominus … may the Lord be propitious to you).
The sonorous clementer is an adverb from the adjective clemens which, the Lewis & Short Dictionary indicates as “of the quiet, placid, pleasant state of the air, wind, or weather, mild, calm, soft, gentle”. There is a moral quality to clemens, that is, “of a calm, unexcited, passionless state of mind, quiet, mild, gentle, tranquil, kind” and therefore by extension, “mild in respect to the faults and failures of others, i. e. forbearing, indulgent, compassionate, merciful”.
There is military imagery in this prayer. A fundamental dimension of the word custodia is the idea of hindering free motion. It its therefore “a watching, guard, care, protection”. It means also, “a watching, guarding, custody, restraint, confinement.” In military language it indicates, “persons who serve as guards, a guard, watch, sentinel” and thus also the guard house, the “place where guard is kept.” Vigil, -ilis (from the verb vigeo) can be an adjective “awake, on the watch, alert”. Someone who is vigil is “wakeful, watchful”. Vigil can be a substantive also, meaning “a watchman, sentinel”. In Italy even today certain types of police officers are called “vigili”. In English, we have the word “vigil”, a watch kept when one would ordinarily be sleeping during the night. Liturgically, a vigil is the evening and night before a great feast day. In ancient times vigils were moments of fasting and penance. Men who were to be knighted would keep a vigil during the night, fasting and praying, examining their consciences so as to be pure for the rite to follow. The idea is that one must prepare through self-denial and control of appetites and passions, watching and guarding against the attacks of the devil, who is a liar and tempter.
Scripture often gives us images of watches during the night. For example, at the birth of the Lord we hear in Luke: “And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night (vigilantes et custodientes vigilias noctis)” (Luke 2:8 RSV). Jesus says, “Watch (vigilate) therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched (vigilaret) and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:42-44 RSV).
On this theme remember how Jesus used the image of the household servants needing to keep watch so that they would be ready to open the door for the master of the house should he return home in the dead of the night (cf. Luke 12:37-39). St Paul the Apostle constantly urges Christians to be “watchful” and “vigilant”. In our Collect, it might be possible to say either “vigilant restraint” or “vigilant protection.” The one emphasizes the use of the will to do things in the right measure, which is at the core of virtuous behavior (the three virtues faith, hope and charity are mentioned in the prayer) or also the kind of careful attention we should give to the great and precious gifts we receive from God.
Look propitiously on Your servants, O Lord, and indulgently multiply upon them the gifts of Your grace so that, burning with faith, hope and charity, they may persevere always in your commands with vigilant watchfulness.
Current version (2001):
Show favour, O Lord, to your servants and mercifully increase the gifts of your grace, that, made fervent in hope, faith and charity, they may be ever watchful in keeping your commands.
Back in 1985 – when we were still in the poisonous grip of the old ICEL hack-jobs from the 1970s, the British Association For English Worship published Prayers of the Roman Missal comparing the ICEL translations of selected prayers with their own. The slim spiral-bound publication has a foreword by Christopher Butler, OSB, in which he says: “The search by ICEL for simplicity and immediate intelligibility has sometimes led to a jejune and staccato effect and to the loss of depth of meaning or the sense of mystery present in the Latin text” (p. iv). I agree. Here is the
AEW version of Sunday’s Collect:
Look mercifully upon your household, O Lord and pour out upon us the gifts of your grace, so that in faith, hope and charity we may always watch and pray and walk in the way of your commandments.
When I reflect on this Collect, especially in light of the images of “watching in the night” used in Scripture, I think of a great ancient household, a domus or a Roman latifundium. A latifundium was an estate farm with many different buildings and quarters, for family, household servants, and the many workers. The estates were fortified even with walls against attacks by brigands or wild animals. A house or domus in a city might even have a watch tower. These dwellings were often quite self-sufficient, everyone living together within, perhaps for their whole lives. The householder or the lord of the estate was the head of the larger “family” and would see to the needs of the all people under his care. He was provider, judge, teacher, and protector. He made sure that all within were protected, even through the posting of watchers and guards.
Scripture often provides images of vigilance. Jesus said,
“Watch (vigilate) therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched (vigilaret) and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:42-44).
Servants should keep watch in order to open the door for the master of the house even if he returns in the dead of the night (cf Luke 12:37-39). The foolish virgins didn’t take care to have enough oil for their lamps. When the Bridegroom arrived, they weren’t ready. They hammered the door and cried but from the other side they heard some of the most terrifying words in a Gospel parable: “I do not know you.”
Imagine that, when your time comes, the Lord should say, “I do not know you.” And the saints and angels turn their faces away. “Vigilate… Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13).
While we draw breath in this life, we are like pilgrim soldiers marching in perilous lands in our anabasis to freedom and our reward. We are beset with perils, from within and without. In 1 Peter 5:8 we read the harrowing, “Be sober, be watchful (vigilate). Your adversary the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour”.
We, dear friends, are described as chow for Hell. When life’s reckoning arrives, will you be locked outside in the dark like the negligent virgins who did not care for their lamps? Will you be consigned to the roaring lion?
May we always be diligent and vigilant, actively and earnestly asking Our Lord for the graces we need to persevere in doing His will or, please God, to see our faults and amend them in time. While it may be difficult as the COVID challenges continues, do your best to go to confession. Sooner rather than later.
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