From all anxiety…deliver us good Lord!

There have been a number of articulate opinion pieces in major newspapers of late about the ‘perpetual emergency’ of the pandemic (an oxymoronic but helpful phrase) and the resulting rise in anxiety. One writer suggested that we’ve been formed to be anxious for the past two years, how do we undo that – how do we put the brakes on being anxious?

I find it hard to hear that key word “anxiety” and not think of a number of prayers which recognize fear and its effect on us as central concerns of many praying Christians, historically and in the present. Thanks to Mark Roosien at NAAL 2022 who presented a paper on “The Prayer for Earthquakes in Barberini gr 336,” I was taken back to various versions of the great litany in the Western churches. I revisited the earliest English-language prayer in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer (translated from earlier Latin texts) which clearly reflected a geographical area with concerns other than earthquakes:

From lightning and tempest, from plage, pestilence, and famine,
from battaile and murther, and from sodain death
Good lorde deliver us.

These types of prayers, meaning prayers for deliverance from very specific disasters both human and natural, often get overlooked in intercessory prayers today. But the challenge of anxiety calls to mind other prayers, especially the embolism of the Lord’s Prayer (as it was between 1970 and 2011) with its “and protect us from all anxiety”, a phrase that was so ingrained in my mind from years of hearing it:

Deliver us, Lord, from every evil,
and grant us peace in our day.
In your mercy keep us free from sin
and protect us from all anxiety
As we wait in joyful hope
For the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

That led me in two directions – the first to undo something I was incorrectly taught as an MA student in liturgical studies about the addition to the Lord’s Prayer, and the second to reflect on the loss of the word “anxiety” and why we might want to rethink that omission.

First to the Our Father. I had parts of the ‘story’ from different sources and realized I needed to correct a few things before I passed on an incorrect history in my own teaching. The readers of PrayTell may already have known all these bits and those learned readers should probably skip to the “second” conversation.

The performative dimension of the prayer leads to the addition of embolisms. The scriptural Lord’s Prayer (particularly in its Matthean version) blossomed into myriad translations before it arrived in the eucharistic liturgy (noted clearly by Cyril of Jerusalem toward the end of the 4th century), and to its slot immediately following the eucharistic prayer thanks to Gregory the Great (about the turn of the 7th century). By that time in the Latin-speaking traditions, it was often a sotto voce prayer, with only the last line, sed libera nos a malo, audible or spoken as a response to the celebrant’s prayer. That focused audibility would invite responses to that petition about being delivered from evil, which took the form of embolisms (of the literary type, not blood clots, which always amuses parishioners who are health experts – and a good reminder of how weird liturgists really are…) Here was the first historical bit I’d missed in my own schooling; this was not a later and singular text inserted in the Lord’s Prayer because of my Viking ancestors’ propensity for attacking Christian places and people, but attested to as early as the 7th century, becoming widespread in the Latin-speaking West by the 8th century.

What I learned far more recently was how varied these embolisms actually were in the early medieval church. Thanks to Thomas Krosnicki’s work on these same prayers in the Missale Gothicum (Questions liturgiques 100, 211-225), one can see language reminiscent of early litanies in the face of disaster with texts proper to Sundays and some observances in the liturgical year. From there, the more extensive embolism developed which made its way eventually into the 1570 Missal and then into the text shortened and translated in ICEL’s 1973 work responding to the 1969 typical edition (the text presented above)

With the ICEL 2010 translation, however, “protect us from all anxiety” was read through the lens of Liturgiam Authenticum, a document well-discussed in these pages (see John Page, 13 September 2017). LA #54 says: “To be avoided in translations is any psychologizing tendency, especially a tendency to replace words treating of the theological virtues by others expressing merely human emotions…”, hence the translation to “all distress.” David Power wrote “the petition to be freed from all pertubatio means the request for the freedom from all kinds of worldly onslaughts that militate against living in charity and against the tranquility needed for true worship.” (A Commentary on the Order of Mass of the Roman Missal, 2011, 605).

Most Anglican liturgies dropped the embolism of the Lord’s Prayer as non-scriptural, eventually adding the doxology (ironically, also mostly non-scriptural) in eucharistic liturgies in 1662 (but not at the daily office when the Lord’s Prayer is juxtaposed with the Kyrie). The doxology was also added after the embolism in 1970 in Roman Catholic liturgies as an ecumenical gesture, making the embolism an insertion into a prayer otherwise voiced by the whole assembly, rather than its conclusion.

So there’s a brief summary of some research into this and other aspects of the embolism in the Lord’s Prayer – but now in 2022 – two years into a pandemic and a host of other crises in which anxiety is front and centre for many people, does ‘distress’ address the whole of the intercessory need before God? First, the argument for pertubatio as ‘distress’ does ring true in adapting the longer history of liturgical intercessions and petitions addressing things that challenge us from the ‘outside’: earthquakes, lightening, plague, pestilence, famine, and more.  But ‘anxiety’ is a human response to these distresses, does that not demand prayerful attention too?

One source of assistance with regard to this question is the sacramental and pastoral realm of care of the sick. In an ongoing and developing conversation within Roman Catholic circles the question of the recipient of the anointing has expanded remarkably. ‘How sick is sick enough’ has come to also include “what sick is sick enough’ due in part to the work of canonist John Huels beginning in the 1980s. The expansion was based in part on §5 of the “Introduction” to Pastoral Care of the Sick: “those who are seriously ill need the special help of God’s grace in this time of anxiety, lest they be broken in spirit and, under the pressure of temptation, perhaps weakened in their faith.”

The inclusion of mental illness, as well as physical and even social illnesses reflects a broader turn to the biocultural model of holistic healing (reflecting the holistic understanding of human beings as somatic-social-mental-emotional-spiritual-beings). The same broadening of healing definitions is also seen ecumenically, particularly in Anglican circles with the expansion of sacramental rites with the sick. One alternative prayer in the American Episcopal rites for use with different forms of mental illness reads:

Blessed Jesus, in the comfort of your love, we lay before you the memories that haunt N., the anxieties that perplex her, the despair that frightens her, and her frustration at her inability to think clearly. Help her to discover your forgiveness in her memories and know your peace in her distress. Touch her, O Lord, and fill her with your light and your hope. Amen.
(Enriching our Worship II)

Both in the context of liturgical prayers in community and prayers with and of individuals, it seems as though prayers for ‘anxiety’ might be necessary. Now, the reality is that nothing prevents any worshiping community from adding to the Prayers of the Faithful (the Prayers of the People, the Intercessions) prayers for the relief of anxiety or healing from anxiety which is noticeably debilitating for many people these days. But the anxious response to events of distress might benefit from being unbound to the rebuke of the “psychologizing tendency, especially a tendency to replace words treating of the theological virtues by others expressing merely human emotions…” Human emotions are part of being human, and hence part of theological discourse. Just last week in America magazine (January 27), Fr. James Martin, SJ, wrote a suggested five-point response to the pandemic. His second point, “be hopeful” called us to live in the ‘good spirit’ that St. Ignatius proposed: “the good spirit will encourage us, console us and uplift us. The spirit that is not coming from God…will cast us down, discourage us and cause “gnawing anxiety…hope is coming from God; despair is not.”

Perhaps those proper embolisms might not be such a bad idea to return to our liturgies for a while; ‘deliver us, protect us, free us, from all anxiety…’


  1. I’m with you on this, Lizette.

    The notion that distress is an objective condition while anxiety is a subjective emotional state doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. In common usage the word distress is an emotional state too, and we need to include our emotional states in prayer or we will be losing touch with reality.

    One small thing I noticed in your review is that “sudden death” is an evil to be protected from. This reminds me of the popular manuals, so important in late medieval and early modern periods, on “the art of dying.” One needed time to prepare for death. One needed community and prayer and the cultivation of Christian virtue to remain steadfast in faith when facing the awful spiritual perils of dying.

    This is relevant to our discussion of anxiety, I think. So much death has surrounded us during the pandemic, while our most meaningful and salutary ways of processing death have been interrupted. Is this not in itself a situation that induces a deep anxiety?

    Thank you for bringing this subject to light. Anxiety can be a clinical diagnosis, but it’s much more than that, and I believe we can all recognize this as a really debilitating force in the spiritual life. Protect us from all anxiety, O Lord!

    1. Thanks Rita for the mention of sudden death…a whole different topic, but I talk to so many people who see that, rather than a conscious, prepared death, as the ‘goal’!

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