From our archives: Captain Yips – A Contrite Heart

From our archives, originally published in March 2006 as part of our Anglican Bloggers’ Lenten devotional series.  The prayer which Captain Yips is reflecting on is here.  This post was one of the most popular of our 2006 series.

Captain Yips blog is here.

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Captain Yips: A Contrite Heart

Earlier in the season, Lent and Beyond uncovered a Tenth Century Latin Litany for Lent. The accompanying English translation was, I thought, a bit stiff and “churchy,” a little abstract where the original was very active and physical. So I’ve been trying to English it myself. I’m a long way from done, hung up on one poignant phrase that casts new light on one of Thomas Cranmer’s most famous prayers, and incidently highlights how language drifts with time.

The Latin phrase is

contrito corde pandimus occulta

This phrase is stunning, spiritually and emotionally. My attempts at translation have sent sparks flying off all over.

Contrito Corde

It’s tempting to translate this as “contrite heart,” and for an Anglican that phrase raises echoes of the magnificent Collect for Ash Wednesday:

Almighty and Everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Over time, “contrite” has devolved to mean little more than “really, really, sorry.” The Latin contritus is a very physical word that has little to do with sorrow or shame. It describes the state something is in after being rubbed down, abraded, pounded. It comes from a verb meaning, approximately, to wear out, to use up, to grind up, even obliterate. It’s a compound word, too. The root verb is terere, to rub, to wear away, with implications of to polish, to grind, to thresh, to use up, to wear out. A related adjective is teres, polished, rounded, even, elegant.

“Wow,” I said to myself after this rooting around. “Double wow.” Some words are like barges, carrying so many associations of meaning that to pluck one meaning off the heap is to diminish meaning. Contrito corde appears to mean something like

with/by means of/because of a heart broken down/worn out/ground down/broken to pieces/scoured clean

Further, the word implies a transformation, a change of state, possibly even improvement if we look to the related adjective; it’s not unlike the transformation of a raw gemstone to its cut and polished and sparkling form. It looks back a bit to a previous line in the Litany,
ablue nostri maculas delicti

Wash away the stains of our crimes.

So the contrite heart is also the heart that has had the stains scoured away.

Returning to the Collect, was Cranmer thinking of this bargeful of meanings as he wrote it? While “contrite” certainly included “sorry” among its meanings in English in the 16th century, I would guess, probably so. He was a better Latinist than I am, that’s for sure, and better than many alive today, and a profound scholar. There’s also a hint to be found in Cranmer’s prose style. One hallmark of Cranmer’s style is his use of parallel Anglo-Saxon and Latinate words to supplement each other. In the bad old days when ECUSA was bent on selling it’s patrimony, Cranmer’s style was defamed as repetitive and dowdy and elaborate. I think that’s dead wrong. He used parallel constructions to deal with very complicated material, including as much as possible by implication. In the Collect, we get “create and make,” Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words with similar but not identical meanings. In his parallel phrase, “new and contrite hearts,” I suspect that Cranmer had in mind, not a heart that was perpetually aware of and grieving for its sins, but a heart polished from its sins, clean and shining as part of the new creation in Christ, as a result of sorrow for and rejection of sin. Contrition, if I am right here, is the state one is in when God has washed the stain and disfigurement of sin away. The soul as passed through grief to a new state of restoration.

Secondary evidence about what Cranmer may have had in mind can be found in (of course) Shakespeare. By the 16th century, the primary meaning of “contrite” certainly had to do with repentance, but also effective repentance, with absolution; not sorrow alone, but effective and accepted sorrow. Shakespeare used “contrite” in this sense in Henry V, where the guilt-wracked king on the eve of Agincourt ponders his effort to secure forgiveness for his father’s murder of Richard II. He knows that despite his efforts, despite the tomb he built for Richard and the tears he has shed there, despite the 500 poor whom he supports for the purpose of praying for Richard, he, Henry, is still King and Richard is still dead, and the crime of his father cannot be undone. Henry fears that he will lose the next day’s battle because he is unforgiven, but Shakespeare is looking ahead; he knows who won Agincourt, and uses the outcome to show that Henry IV’s crime is forgiven, to legitimate Henry V’s dynasty and (by complicated interactions, exchanges and implications) also to legitimate the Tudor dynasty that sprang from Henry V’s widow (and patronized Shakespeare). Thus Shakespeare has Henry describe his contrite tears at Richard’s tomb, cluing us that Henry’s repentance is effective. This is all poetry, of course, not theology or even English usage, but goes a little to show how very delicate the meanings of “contrite” were at the time.

This is a lot of meaning to squeeze out of two words, but I think all these subsidiary meanings trail along in the wake of the primary meaning.

So what we get in the Litany, and perhaps also in the Ash Wednesday Collect, is a meaning for “contrite” that is not merely “I’m sorry,” but also, “broken down by sin but restored and rebuilt by God.” The sense of sorrow leading to transformation is essential. The Collect, maybe, looks forward to the result of repentance, a state in which God has so polished the heart that is shines in the sun like adamant diamond.

Over a thousand words! Enough! And I didn’t even get to pandimus occulta, almost equally complicated and packed with meaning.

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