Our Prayers Say Who We Are

There’s a beautiful prayer of St Ambrose which I’ve found is recommended in Roman Catholic Missals for the use of the faithful. Below I present the original Latin, and then two translations, one dating from 1962 from a Missal of that year, the other from the current English translations propogated by the Roman Catholic International Commision on English in the Liturgy, dated to 1980. I’ll follow with commentary

Oratio S. Ambrosii
Ad mensam dulcissimi convivii tui, pie Domine Iesu Christe,
ego peccator de propriis meis meritis nihil praesumens,
sed de tua confidens misericordia et bonitate,
accedere vereor et contremisco.
Nam cor et corpus habeo multis criminibus maculatum,
mentem et linguam non caute custodiam.
Ergo, o pia Deitas, o tremenda maiestas,
ego miser, inter augustias deprehensus,
ad te fontem misericordiae recurro,
ad te festino sanandus,
sub tuam protectionem fugio;
et, quem Iudicem sustinere nequeo,
Salvatorem habere suspiro.
Tibi, Domine, plagas meas ostendo,
tibi verecundiam meam detego.
Scio peccata mea multa et magna, pro quibus timeo:
spero in mesericordias tuas, quarum non est numerus.
Respice ergo in me oculis misericordiae tuae,
Domine Iesu Christe, Rex aeterne, Deus et homo,
crucifixus propter hominem.
Exaudi me sperantem in te:
miserere mei pleni miseriis et peccatis,
tu qui fontem miserationis numquam manare cessabis.
Salve, salutaris victima,
pro me et omni humano genere in patibulo Crucis oblata.
Salve, nobilis et pretiose Sanguis,
de vulneribus crucifixi Domini mei Iesu Christi profluens,
et peccata totius mundi abluens.
Recordare, Domine, creaturae tuae,
quam tuo Sanguine redemisti.
Paenitet me peccasse,
cupio emendare quod feci.
Aufer ergo a me, clementissime Pater,
omnes iniquitates et peccata mea,
ut, purificatus mente et corpore,
digne degustare merear Sancta sanctorum.
Et concede, ut haec sancta praelibatio Corporis et Sanguinis tui,
quam ego indignus sumere intendo,
sit peccatorum meorum remissio,
sit delictorum perfecta purgatio,
sit turpium cogitationum effugatio
ac bonorum sensuum regeneratio,
operumque tibi placentium salubris efficacia,
animae quoque et corporis
contra inimicorum meorum insidias firmissima tuitio.

1962 Translation
O gracious Lord Jesus Christ, I, a sinner, presuming not on my own merits, but trusting to Thy mercy and goodness, fear and tremble in drawing near to the Table on which is spread Thy Banquet of all delights. For I have defiled both my heart and body with many sins, and have not kept a strict guard over my mind and my tongue. Wherefore, O gracious God, O awful Majesty, I, a wretched creature, reduced to extremity, have recourse to Thee, the fount of mercy; I fly to Thee that I may be healed, and take refuge under Thy protection, and I ardently desire to have Him as my Savior Whom I am unable to withstand as my Judge. To Thee, O Lord, I show my wounds, to Thee I lay bare my shame. I know that my sins are many and great, on account of which I am filled with fear. But I trust in Thy mercy, for it is unbounded. Look down upon me, therefore, with eyes of mercy, O Lord Jesus Christ, eternal King, God and Man, crucified for man. Hearken unto me, for my hope is in Thee; have mercy on me, who am full of misery and sin, Thou Who wilt never cease to let flow the fountain of mercy. Hail, Thou saving Victim, offered for me and for all mankind on the tree of the cross. Hail, Thou noble and precious Blood, flowing from the wounds of my crucified Lord Jesus Christ and washing away the sins of the whole world. Remember, O Lord, Thy creature, who Thou hast redeemed with Thy Blood. I am grieved because I have sinned, I desire to make amends for what I have done. Take away from me therefore, O most merciful Father, all my iniquities and offenses, that, being purified both in soul and body, I may worthily partake of the Holy of Holies; and grant that this holy oblation of Thy Body and Blood, of which all unworthy I purpose to partake, may be to me the full remission of my sins, the perfect cleansing of my offenses, the means of driving away all evil thoughts and of renewing all holy desires, the advancement of works pleasing to Thee, as well as the strongest defense and protection for soul and body against the craft and the snares of my enemies. Amen.

1980 Translation
I draw near to the table of your most delectable banquet, dear Lord Jesus Christ. A sinner, I trust not in my own merit; but, in fear and trembling, I rely on your mercy and goodness. I have a heart and body marked by many grave offenses, and a mind and tongue that I have not guarded well. For this reason, God of loving kindness and awesome majesty, I, a sinner caught by many snares, seek safe refuge in you. For you are the fountain of mercy. I would fear to draw near to you as my judge, but I seek you out as my Savior. Lord, I show you my wounds, and I let you see my shame. Knowing my sins are many and great, I have reason to fear. But I trust in your mercies, for they are beyond all numbering. Look upon me with mercy, for I trust in you, my Lord Jesus Christ, eternal king, God and man, you who were crucified for mankind. Have mercy on me, you who never cease to make the fountain of your mercy flow, for I am full of sorrows and sins. I praise you, the saving Victim offered on the wood of the cross for me and for all mankind. I praise the noble Blood that flows from the wounds of my Lord Jesus Christ, the precious Blood that washes away the sins of all the world. Remember, Lord, your creature, whom you have redeemed with your own Blood. I am sorry that I have sinned, and I long to put right what I have done. Most kind Father, take away all my offenses and sins, so that, purified in body and soul, I may be made worthy to taste the Holy of holies. And grant that this holy meal of your Body and Blood, which I intend to take, although I am unworthy, may bring forgiveness of my sins and wash away my guilt. May it mean the end of my evil thoughts and the rebirth of my better longings. May it lead me securely to live in ways that please you, and may it be a strong protection for body and soul against the plots of my enemies. Amen.

First, look at that Latin! Nice! St Ambrose was a past master of the Latin language, and this prayer displays his fine control of it. I suspect that the rhythmic quality of so many of the verses, the kind of sing-song balance of meter, may reflect that this particular prayer was originally one of his hymns, which we are aware of St Ambrose having composed in Milan to great acclaim. Not only is the rhythm balanced, but there is rhyme, and also a few intersecting chiasms. It’s a fascinating prayer, composed in a way to make it interesting for people to say, and easy to remember through the repetitions, the rhythm, and the rhymes. It shows St Ambrose’s pastoral concern for catechesis, which he was justly famous for.

The approach of the two translator or translation teams is different, owing as much to the particular piety of the translator(s) as to knowledge of Latin. So we see two very different kinds of personal piety displayed through these works. The 1962 translation displays a distinctly penitential bent, which is certainly present in the original, but is more strongly emphasize in the translation. This, of course, was a period dating to before the Vatican II Council, and the alterations to the fabric of Catholic piety that ensued afterward, a period in which this kind of penitential piety was still quite common, and was an ideal. The pentitential spirit shown in this translation is one that is thus somewhat fierce, but not insane. That is, it was based in the reality of the lived Catholicism of its day, and is precisely as one should expect it to be. Aside from this aspect, the translation is somewhat clunkier than necessary. A little more effort would have made it flow better.

The 1980 translation gives an entirely different impression, from an entirely different age, though they’re separated by only 18 years. Notice the opening: “I draw near to the table of your most delectable banquet….” It appears that the person praying is a gourmand of some sort, relating an autobigraphical detail of a trip to a restaurant owned by Jesus! This subconsciously sets the reader in the context of reading the prayer not as a personal prayer shared with others, but as something separate, someone else’s prayer that a kind of voyeurism is allowing the reader to see. Also, just as there was a strengthening of penitential language in the prayer by the 1962 translation, in the 1980 translation is a toning down of the same. Relatedly, it’s entirely gauche to begin a prayer to our Sovereign God with “I.” And Jesus has now become “dear,” as well, connoting that the Senior Ladies’ Knitting Circle has composed the prayer, and not the fiery Archbishop of Mediolanum who told off an Emperors to his face.

To summarize and exemplify the differences, compare these:
Paenitet me peccasse, cupio emendare quod feci.
I am grieved because I have sinned, I desire to make amends for what I have done. (1962)
I am sorry that I have sinned, and I long to put right what I have done. (1980)

In the end, these translations are showing something that I’ve noticed subconsciously for some time now. In the translations of prayers for liturgical churches, there has been a consistent trend toward the softening of the translations of these kinds of prayers for decades now. Not only can the worshipper no longer be expected to share the worldview of the ancient writer and interact with the recommended prayer on the level of its original language with at least a modicum of understanding the depth of riches of the language, but they cannot be even expected to share a remotely similar worldview, a worldview in which we are unworthy sinners, wretched and poor, stupid and weak, putrid by inches, and the only salvation is God, through His Son. Rescue from this dismal state is not through meeting the old ladies and eunuchs of the local religiously themed social club (some call them churches, which might offend some people!), but through transformation as a member of the Body of Christ, conforming onself, though God’s grace alone, to the Divine image inch by inch, a process we Eastern Orthodox call theosis, often translated “divinization,” the primary vehicle of which is prayer. The translations of prayers anyone uses are an important part of Christian transformation, because they must accurately reflect the theological worldview that lies behind them in toto, without alteration. After all, for each prayer like the above that makes it into prayer books, the original language version is chosen for its powerful and effective words, and for its orthodoxy and usefulness to the faithful. Translations of such prayers need to reflect that power as much as possible.

I think St Ambrose would certainly have preferred the 1962 translation of his prayer, if he had to choose between that and the 1980 version above. It clearly reflects a worldview similar to his own, while the 1980 translation does not.


  1. I am fascinated by the subtle differences in prayer books. Does the compilers use Spirit or Ghost, stain or impurity, transgression or trespass. Will he include the Slavonic additions from such wonderful saints as Saraphim of Sarov.

    I am fascinated by the metamorphosis of of this passage from the Our Father: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” into the shorter and more mundane if not juridical: “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

    “Debtors” conveys the meaning of one “guilty of neglect or violation of duty” and more precisely, “one who owes a debt.” “Trespass” more fully conveys the worldview of the Fathers.

    The other that bothers me is the protestant response, “and also with you” instead of the fully Biblical and patristic “and with thy spirit.”

    This is why it is important to have not only scholars, but righteous men, potential saints, help in the translation of Services.

  2. And people with a good ear for euphony and dignity of language. One thing that often happens with translators is that they may have a not very deep grounding in the target language. Though it may be their mother tongue and they’re entirely colloquially fluent, a good translation in a target language should reflect nuances similar to those appearing in the source language. Writing itself is an act of timelessness, preserving something from a moment for much longer, and thus extracting a person’s sayings or thoughts of the moment into a form where they may be recalled elsewhere and at another time. Anciently, writing was acknowledged to always be a formal thing, and particularly so in religious texts, which were governed by form and particular vocabularies as a matter of course. It’s best to follow in that tradition rather than that of contemporaneity, in which a colloquially phrased translation of a timeless original becomes trite and dated within only a few years. This is already the case with the quite silly translations we know from the 1960s and 1970s, like the “and also with you” that you mention (which is also a Roman Catholic thing too; I hadn’t known it was used by Protestants). I think that the respect that we feel for such liturgies is directly expressed in the language with which we translate them. If noble feelings are harbored, the translation is nobler. If not so noble, then an inappropriate translation will result. We see some of that in the above.

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