Ministers or Mysteries?

My fellow Deacon, Greg Kandra, has a post on his blog concerning the new translation of the Exultet.  One of the comments on that post points out something puzzling: the second phrase of the Exultet, “exultent divina mysteria,” is translated “let angel ministers of God exult.” It would seem to me that the obvious (if somewhat puzzling) way to translate this is “let the divine mysteries exult” (the current translation has “Sing choirs of angels”).

Is this a case of re-reading “mysteria” as “ministeria”? It is hard to imagine the translators making such a mistake. “Divina mysteria” could plausibly be taken as a reference to the unseen angelic world — an old hand missal I have translates it as “exultant that unseen world of God’s creation” — and angels certainly minister around God’s throne, but it is difficult to see how the elimination of “mysteries” and the inclusion of “ministers” fits within the guidelines of Liturgiam Authenticam.

I realize that this might seem like yet further quibbling about the forthcoming translation, but in fact I’m simply puzzled here. My Latin abilities get pretty shaky once I range beyond the extremely simple scholastic Latin of Thomas Aquinas, so perhaps there is something obvious going on here that I am missing.

Does anybody have any thoughts?


  1. I think you’ll find a variety of translations for “divina mysteria” as it appears in the Exsultet . . . it’s one of those phrases that admits of several (equally defensible) translations.

    So HPR Finberg-JB O’Connell in “The Missal in Latin and English” (Burns-Oates, Sheed-Ward, several editions to 1961) render it:

    “Now let the angelic heavenly choirs exult; let joy pervade THE UNKNOWN BEINGS who surround God’s throne . . . ”

    Monsignor Ronald Knox, in “The Holy Week Book” (Burns-Oates, Sheed Ward, 1951) seems to avoid personalising the translation by choosing the location of the “divina mysteria”:

    “Joy for all heaven’s angel citizens, joy in THE SECRET-COUNCIL CHAMBERS OF GOD!”

    Although one presenter of the new translation, when introducing the new Exsultet, teases the audience by saying, “Of course, by tradition of Holy Church, I can’t tell you who the poet is who translated the Exsultet, but it was the least changed of the new texts during the process of revision” (and, thankfully, the brain-trust known as Vox Clara seems to have spared it), the new translation of the Exsultet is widely thought to be the work of the superb Latinist, the late Dame Maria Boulding, OSB of Stanbrook Abbey.

    I’d go with whatever translation she came up with!

    As a side note, it will be amusing (sort of) when the Liturgy of the Hours is retranslated to see how stridently the usual people criticise “the old ICEL.” Many of the magnificently translated patristic readings are the work of Dame Maria and the other Nuns of Stanbrook Abbey.

    1. It’s singular of course . . . but she’s a poet! And such “poetic license” is nothing compared with the grammatical and syntactical flaws of the Vox Clara Missal.

      Your reference to the bees got me thinking though: The Carmelite (O.Carm.) Rite, as well as other medieval rites (or, I suppose, technically they are “uses”) has this paragraph of praise just after the paragraph Rita refers to:

      “O vere beata et mirabilis apis,
      cuius nec sexum masculi violant,
      foetus non quassant,
      nec filii destruunt castitatem.
      Sicut sancta concepit virgo Maria
      peperit et virgo permansit.”

      “O truly blessed and wondrous bee,
      whose sex the males do not dishonor,
      the bearing of offspring does not violate them,
      nor do (the bearing of) children destroy their chastity.
      Just as the holy virgin Mary conceived
      and bore a child and yet remained a virgin.” (Tr. online)

      As it was explained to me when I went to a Carmelite high school, the concept is not unlike the medieval belief that the pelican wounded its breast to feed its young. Hence the Eucharistic symbol of the pelican, and Aquinas’ verse in the Adoro te devote: “Pie Pelicane, Iesu Domine.” If I recall the explanation (many years ago now), it was believed that the bees reproduced without benefit of sexual relations, then produced the wax to form the paschal candle, and hence were a perfect image of Our Lady, bringing forth in the Virgin Birth the Christ who was represented by the paschal candle. Being an Order dedicated in a singular way to Our Lady, the Carmelites kept this reference after the Roman Rite dropped it (the famous 200 year rule, I suppose: any Order/Use that could document a 200 year precedent did not have to adopt the Tridentine changes; hence the Carmelite rubric after the Consecration: “With arms outstretched in the form of a cross, the priest continues: Unde et memores, Domine.” And the lovely prayer before Communion that replaces the Roman “Panem coelestem accipio” – “Salve, salus mundi, Verbum Patris, hostia sacra, viva caro, Deitas integra, verus homo.”

  2. Other translators from Stanbrook for the non-biblical readings of the current ICEL Liturgy of the Hours were Dame Anne Field and the late Dame Edith Barnecut. Their work was masterful, See especially Vol. II, Lent-Easter. A further fine translator of the non-biblical readings for the ICEL breviary (1974-1976) was the late Father James Quinn, SJ, of Edinburgh.

    Their translations are both accurate and memorable. The translators did not treat the receptor language as simply a concession to our weakness. The results are English in the finest sense of that term. They sing!

  3. Though I haven’t the books at hand to check this, I think there are very few, if any, manuscripts of the Exsultet that contain the reading ‘mysteria’ – overwhelmingly they read ‘ministeria’. Confusion between the two words can arise from what palaeographers call a ‘minim error’. A minim in palaeographical terminology is a single short vertical stroke – the letter ‘i’ contains one minim, ‘n’ and ‘u’ contain two, and ‘m’ contains three. If you write ‘mysteria’ as ‘musteria’, as scribes commonly did, it has 5 minims before the s, whereas ‘ministeria’ has 7 – it is easy for a scribe to confuse the two words, just as it is easy for us to become confused when we try to write ‘minimum’ accurately. That is probably how the ‘ministeria’ of the manuscripts became the ‘mysteria’ of printed Roman missals. The Ambrosian Missal has ‘ministeria’ here. As has been pointed out above, translators have found ‘divina mysteria’ hard to translate. ‘Divina ministeria’ seems to make better sense, since it is easier to conceive of divine ministries = divine ministers = angels rejoicing than of divine mysteries doing so. We must assume that those responsible for the new translation of the Exsultet took these considerations into account.
    Anybody who wishes to study the Exsultet further should start from Fr Anthony Ward’s article ‘An Exsultet bibliography’ in Notitiae 35 (1999) pp. 374-397.

    1. I don’t know if he reads this blog, but Australian Jesuit Christopher Willcock’s double doctorate dissertations in Paris were on the Exsultet.

  4. “Other translators from Stanbrook for the non-biblical readings of the current ICEL Liturgy of the Hours were Dame Anne Field”

    Dear Dame Anne! Every last nun could vanish from the face of the earth but the essence of “nunhood” could be reconstructed based on her alone. A delightful lady & a superb Latinist!

  5. Brian Duffy :

    “Other translators from Stanbrook for the non-biblical readings of the current ICEL Liturgy of the Hours were Dame Anne Field”
    Dear Dame Anne! Every last nun could vanish from the face of the earth but the essence of “nunhood” could be reconstructed based on her alone. A delightful lady & a superb Latinist!

    Indeed, and no mean technologist either, as I discovered when I visited her at Stanbrook to help with a troublesome upgrade of Finale, her notation software of choice. It was quite a surprise to emerge from an ancient and creaky lift (elevator), knock on her office door, and discover her surrounded by computers, monitors and printers.

  6. Yes, ‘apis mater’ is singular, but it can be legitimate to translate a singular with a plural. For instance, when St Thomas Aquinas says ‘agnus fugit lupum’, he does not mean that there is a single lamb that flees a single wolf: ‘lambs flee wolves’ would not be an inaccurate translation.
    But there is another point: wax is made by worker bees, who are infertile females, whereas the eggs are laid by the queen, the ‘apis mater’, who plays no direct part in the production of wax. The author(s) of the Exsultet seem(s) not to have understood this. We must presume that those responsible for the new text considered these points.

    1. Msgr. Harbert, I understand and agree with the point you’re making about “apis mater” being singular, yet translated as plural.

      Some people may object to this on the grounds that Liturgiam Authenticam 31 specifically discourages the translation of singular nouns as plural: “In particular: to be avoided is the systematic resort to imprudent solutions such as […] the transition from the singular to the plural.” I assume the rationale for permitting “apis mater” to be translated in the plural includes the point that this is not part of “systematic” replacement of the singular with the plural, but a specific individual case where the change of number is particularly warranted.

      Is that a fair assessment?

  7. Yes, I think so, and the CDWDS seems to think so too. What LA31 had principally in view was the use of the plural to avoid gender-marked pronouns, for example, ‘Blessed are they’ rather than ‘Blessed is the man’ for ‘Beatus vir’. The most important reason for this was that the plural seems at least to discourage, and perhaps to exclude, a Christological interpretation, such as we find so often in the Fathers. Thus, Augustine interprets the words ‘Beatus vir’ that begin the Psalter as referring to Christ.

    1. I don’t claim to be a Latinist like Msgr. Harbert, but let me add this. I think that singular/plural sometimes can and should shift in translation for idiomatic reasons. My mother (German background) used to say, until we children said it sounds funny, “Go wash your hairs, they’re dirty.” In German, die Haaren is plural, but not in English. I believe the same is also true of Latin/English, but I don’t have another example of it at hand.

  8. One salient example in Latin is “litterae” (literally “letters”), which in English is expressed as “a letter.”

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