8 November 2015


Today's collect is that of the Fifth after Epiphany; but we use it today, because this year we had too few Sundays after Epiphany for it; Septuagesima came trotting along too soon! Now, in November, we find ourselves with spare Sundays which complain loudly that they are unprovided with Masses, before we start Advent. All, of course, because of the thoroughly irresponsible way Easter swings around from being early to being late.

This beautiful and ancient prayer asks God to guard (custodi) his Household (familia) with "continua pietate".  This is the word which gives us the English term piety; but there is rather more to it than that. After all, the English word piety suggests a humble human attitude of devout religious attention to God. That is misleading. And it would confuse you as you read this particular prayer: after all, God isn't pious towards us; We're supposed to be pious towards him.

Pius is a Latin adjective and pietas is the noun that comes from it; pietate is what's called the Ablative, so pietate means "with pietas". And what these words refer to is the sense of duty and obligation which somebody has towards those to whom he is bound by bonds of kinship or religion or country or friendship or whatever. In Vergil's epic the Aeneid, the hero is called "Pius Aeneas" because he is dutiful to the Gods (he rescues the sacred Palladium); to his country Troy (for which he fights as long as possible: when there is no further hope, he guides its remnants to a new country); to his Father (whom he carries out of the wreckage of Troy upon his shoulders); to his friend Pallas (an adolescent whose death in battle Aeneas avenges in the bloodthirsty climax at the end of Book XII of the Aeneid).

But Vergil also uses pietas to refer to the gods themselves: "May the gods, if there is any pietas in heaven ...."; and "Almighty Juppiter ... if any ancient pietas regards human labours ..." (compare "If pia divinities can do anything ..."). The idea was that the Gods, too, can be thought of as having their duties towards mortals (or particular mortals). And this sense was to be very common in Christian Latin, which developed as a special dialect crafted to serve the needs of Christians and especially of their Liturgy. So pietas becomes synonymous with misericordia (mercy) and clementia (clemency). And the end of this story of the evolution of words is that we get the English derivative pity. (Incidentally, the old Lewis and Short is rather less helpful on this than the newer Oxford Latin Dictionary.)

So ... does pietate in this collect mean (1) our devoted duty to God, or (2) his covenanted loving-kindness to us? In his English translation, Archbishop Cranmer got it wrong and thought it meant the former (1): so he rendered it as "true religion" (and, in another similar collect, "godliness"). Experts are agreed, however, that it means the latter (2). But Cranmer was aware of the two possibilities: for Epiphany 1 he correctly rendered caelesti pietate ('heavenly pietas') as "mercifully".

In fact, there is a slight difference between 'ordinary' Christian speech and the usage of prayers like the collect we are considering now. In more 'ordinary' everyday Christian Latin, for example, in sermons, pietas refers to human attitudes towards God more often than the other way round; in prayers, the word most commonly refers to God's loving attitude towards us. As it does in this collect. This may be a spin-off from the way that, in Roman Imperial circles, people addressed the Mighty. Another possibility is that this may be another example of how 'Christian Latin', as used in prayer, adopted much of the style and vocabulary of very ancient pre-Christian Roman prayer-language; a process brilliantly documented by Christine Mohrmann.

[The main expert on Christian Latin was the great Christine Mohrmann. Today's post also benefits from books by Sr Mary Gonzaga Haessly and Sr Mary Pierre Ellebracht (which I gather can both be found on the Internet). This is a subject to which, before the collapse of both liturgical scholarship and of women's religious communities in the 1960s, women scholars made very significant contributions. What a tremendous shame that even their names are now so little known! I regard it as a demand of pietas to do what I can to remedy the situation!]


William Tighe said...

I have always appreciated the wit of Cardinal Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (1405-1464) who, when elected pope in 1458 (just two years after being elevated to the cardinalate) chose for himself the papal name Pius (II) - and that not out of any devotion to the highly obscure Pius I (d. ca. 155).

Ben Whitworth said...

Ingunn, the nun employed by St Jon Ogmundsson around 1100 at his new cathedral school at Holar, who used to correct Latin compositions orally while her hands were busy with her needlework, has had many worthy successors.

mark wauck said...

Some reflections after having skimmed the conclusions of Sr Mary Gonzaga Haessly. As I understand the matter, Paul VI came up with a new ordinary form of the Roman Missal, one which John Paul II caused to "reappear[] in new splendour in its dignity and harmony.” And yet ...

There were those of the faithful, and they "not a few," who remained "attached with .. love and affection to the earlier liturgical forms which had deeply shaped their culture and spirit ..." Here in America we might, following our President, refer uncharitably to such of the faithful as "bitter clingers." And sadly there are those in the hierarchy who would share that view, that such attachment was pure obscurantism among the elderly--those who "remained."

But then there's the problem of the young, those unable to remain "attached" because they hadn't known those "earlier liturgical forms" previously, yet had inexplicably become attached to those "earlier liturgical forms". And it happens that this puzzling phenomenon has been reflected upon and addressed by our much loved Holy Father, and that thoroughly:

"When I search more thoroughly - the Pope said - I find that it [fondness for "the ancient liturgy"] is rather a kind of fashion. And if it is a fashion, therefore it is a matter that does not need that much attention. It is just necessary to show some patience and kindness to people who are addicted to a certain fashion. But I consider greatly important to go deep into things, because if we do not go deep, no liturgical form, this or that one, can save us."

So kind, so merciful! So consoling to be understood at last!

But now comes Sr Mary Gonzaga Haessly to suggest that the attachment or addiction to "ancient liturgical forms" may be based on something more substantial: a preference for the anthropology and theology expressed in those "ancient liturgical forms," as opposed to the "not inconsequential changes" reflected in the anthropology and theology of the new ordinary form--in all its splendor, dignity, and harmony. Sister even suggests that "our faith convictions are formed by the words that we are taught to pray."

Hmmm. That's disquieting. That sounds worthy of further consideration. But why didn't anyone tell us this before? Oh, wait ...

Americas Cup said...

Ecclesiasticus, Chapter 1, verses 17 to18, and verses 26 to 33 (Ronald Knox’s translation) would seem to be verses one will not want to end up having failed to understand. Would it be too great an imposition to burden you with deploying in an elucidation of these verses your post's insights?