Just passing through

Roman Missal, New TranslationI’ve written before about the painful contrast between Archbishop Cranmer’s translation of the collect for the fourth Sunday after Trinity, and the translation used by the Catholic Church between 1973 and 2011.

In his essay “An Apology for Grief, Fear and Anger”, from his book Faith of our Fathers, Eamon Duffy discusses the same collect, and draws a similar conclusion. Prof Duffy begins by quoting the Latin version of the prayer:

Protector in te sperantium, Deus, sine quo nihil est validum, nihil sanctum: multiplica super nos misericordiam tuam, ut, te rectore, te duce, sic transeamus per bona temporalia, ut non amittamus æterna. Per Dominum Nostrum I.C.

Duffy then quotes Cranmer’s version, which “translates this almost perfectly”:

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy; Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal: Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord. Amen.

The one point on which Duffy criticises Cranmer is his “not sufficiently bringing out the meaning of the phrase bona temporalia“. The tension in the original prayer arises from the need to pass through the good things of this world; to affirm the goodness of this world, but still to “keep moving”. As Duffy observes:

To us who live in a grossly materialist culture, which rates people’s value by their earning and spending power, and assesses human happiness by the possession of good things, it is difficult to imagine a more salutary and necessary emphasis.

Prof Duffy then turns to what was, at the time he wrote his essay, the current version in use in the Catholic Church:

God our Father and protector, without you nothing is holy, nothing has value. Guide us to everlasting life by helping us to use wisely the blessings you have given to the world.

Why is this so awful? Because, as Prof Duffy notes, it robs the prayer of its tension; it removes “the notion of danger, and the sense of journeying“:

All that is left is a rather banal prayer for the sensible use of a good creation. No message here for post-Thatcher Britain.

However, since Prof Duffy wrote his essay, the Catholic Church has adopted the New Translation of the Mass. This, by all accounts, strongly divided opinion when it was introduced, and the new version of this collect perhaps provides a good example of both why the new Mass is loved by some and loathed by others:

O God, protector of those who hope in you,
without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy,
bestow in abundance your mercy upon us
and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide,
we may use the good things that pass
in such a way as to hold fast even now
to those that ever endure.

Overall, this is much better than the ICEL translation, and restores something of the Latin prayer’s tension. Equally, though, I can see why the new translation is not to everyone’s taste. As a piece of English prose, this new collect falls a long way short of Cranmer, lacking his sense of rhythm and his economy of language.

Personally, though, I think the improvements outweigh any remaining deficiencies. Using this collect as an example helps me understand why, on my own relatively limited exposure to both the old and new translations, I’ve found myself preferring the new – that and the fact that, every time I hear the response “And also with you” in modern Lutheran or Anglican liturgies, I now find myself hankering for “And with your spirit”…

Note: for more on the Prayer Book version of this collect, see this 2004 post discussing C.S. Lewis’ essay, “A Slip of the Tongue”

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