Thursday, October 06, 2016

The Prayer of the Day: A Case Study

The collect for this coming Sunday provides an interesting look at how traditional prayers are rendered for modern worship books.  We are looking, specifically, at the prayer for Lectionary 28 C (formerly known as Proper 22 C) found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship and related publications of Augsburg-Fortress Press.

Here is the Latin original, from the Gelasian Sacramentary:
Omnipotens et misericors Deus, universa nobis adversantia propitiatus exclude: ut mente et corpora pariter expediti, quae tua sunt, liberis mentibus exsequamur. [Alford, Liber Sacramentorum etc. (1894), p. 232.]
Like many of the medieval collects, it is a bit tricky.  Father John Zulhsdorf, a far more accomplished Latinist than we at the Egg, offers this "slavishly literal" translation:
Almighty and merciful God, having been appeased, keep away all things opposing us, so that, having been unencumbered in mind and body equally, we may with free minds accomplish the things which You command.
We would render quae tua sunt more literally still as "your things," as in the ELCA's popular slogan, "your things, our hands."  But close enough.

Here is the traditional Book of Common Prayer version, which was used among Anglophone Lutherans at least through the life of the Service Book and Hymnal (for the 19th Sunday after Trinity):
O almighty and most merciful God, of thy bountiful goodness keep us, we beseech thee, from all things that may hurt us; that we, being ready both in body and soul, may cheerfully accomplish those things which thou commandest; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Notice a few key translation choices.  Propitiatus, the root meaning of which is in the favorable disposition that comes from having been soothed or, as we say in English, propitiated, is rendered "of thy bountiful goodness." It marks a change in grammar, and perhaps a dilution of the original idea, but it results in good English.  "Cheerfully," on the other hand, sounds almost trite, especially against the inspiring idea of doing God's work "with free minds."

The Lutheran Book of Worship does not seem to have used this collect (or if so, we cannot find it), but ELW's ambitious three-years cycle of Prayers of the Day requires all praying hands on deck.  Here is the current version:

Almighty and most merciful God, your bountiful goodness fills all creation. Keep us safe from all that may hurt us, that, whole and well in body and spirit, we may with grateful hearts accomplish all that you would have us do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen. 
It's not bad, as ELW collects go.  God is addressed in conventional language, and no manatees are mentioned.  We will certainly pray it without hesitation. But please do notice a few points of difference from its models.
  1. Far from having been appeased, God's favorable disposition, or "goodness," is now said to "fill all creation."  Apparently universa has been read in relation to propitiatus rather than nobis adversantia.  Our command of the grammar isn't good enough to criticize, but ... we are suspicious.
  2. Christians are said to be "whole and well," rather than "prepared," i.e. for work.  The delightful image of the baptized marching expediti, like lightly-burdened soldiers, has been set aside.  Wholeness and wellness are certainly Biblical ideas, and fit nicely with this week's lessons about leprosy cures. But they are also, it must be said, modern preoccupations.  It is not fair to look at this substitution and cry out "therapeutic religiosity!" -- but neither does that make the choice a good one.
  3. Our "free minds" -- or hearts, or even souls; we won't fight you on that -- have been changed yet again.  We are no longer merely "cheerful," but now "grateful."  Again, the concept of gratitude meshes nicely with the recent direction of the lectionary (although the Samaritan leper, technically, does not give God thanks so much as praise).  But again also we see a modern preoccupation replace an ancient one.  Gratitude is much spoken about in modern churches, especially with reference to stewardship; we are to do good works because God has done a good work for us.  But changing the focus this way, we lose the subtler point that in Christ we have been set free not only from sin but from obligation; we can now pursue goodness for its own sake, following its path back toward the Source of all that is good.
All this touches upon both the beauty and the limitations of ELW.  On one hand, it is a massive repository of prayers, many of them very old.  Yay!  The Egg loves old prayers.

On the other hand, its editors have often made questionable decisions in their handling of the old material, feeling especially free to substitute their own theological and cultural concerns for those of the ancient and medieval communities that created them.  That's not a crime; the Reformers did a lot of the same thing.  But the Reformers were working with texts that they considered grossly corrupt on account of neo-Pelagianism, and so removed petitions to the saints and so forth.  These modern changes seem both smaller and more arbitrary.  In some cases, although not this one, they result in prayers whose terse Latin character has been diluted by the intrusion of foreign ideas, making the whole thing longer and less pithy.

We don't hate ELW.  Really we don't.  (Except for the Psalter, which we do hate with a Psalm 139-worthy perfect hatred).  ELW is a physically beautiful book, the result of more hours of work than we can ever imagine.  But from the Mass settings that simply stop halfway through to the arbitrary re-translations of classic prayers, it is a frustrating book for us to use. We hope for better next time.

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