November 21, 2011
Exit anxiety: Another improvement in the new Mass translation


One of the most refreshing changes in the new translation of the Mass is the translation of perturbatio as “distress” instead of anxiety. This new phrasing brought back a very good memory for me of a professor I had in seminary, a most interesting man with an interesting history.

His name was Nicholas Sprinc. He was one of three foreign faculty members that the future Archbishop Whealon of Hartford had contracted for Borromeo Seminary College. Unlike the two others, he had been born in what is now Slovakia and had been a part of the history of the short-lived Slovak Republic, a protectorate of the Third Reich of which a priest, Jozef Tiso was first Prime Minister and then President.

Fr. Sprinc, according to seminary lore, had been the official poet laureate of the Slovak Republic.  A collection of his poems translated into English, entitled "Driftwood" was seen around our college in a self-published edition with spiral binding.

He taught Foreign Languages and Literature.  In the French literature courses I had with him, he shared the tremendous breadth of his culture and a very particular and subtle wit. Apropos of this article, I remember he made a very ironic reference to the prayer after the Our Father. Modern culture was obsessed with existential angst, he said, and modern man had so much “anxiety”. He looked up at us and his eyes twinkled, “They put it even in the Mass.”

He was reflecting his knowledge of philosophy and psychology. Anxiety is a theme in Heidegger and the Existentialists (Sartre translates the former’s Sorge by souci). It is also treated by Freud, who distinguished between realistic, moral and neurotic anxiety.
Fr. Sprinc must have thought that the liturgists had gone too far in slipping the term in the Mass.  He knew from distress, to use a Yiddish accent. He had lived through the distress of the Second World War, the postwar Communist takeover, the life of a refugee.  At the time, I was surprised that he would dare criticize the translation of the liturgy. Now I see what he means.

But we needn’t go to Freud or Heidegger for an analysis of the advantages of the new translation of the Mass with respect to perturbatio. An Internet definition on a college web page said this about anxiety.

anxiety - a feeling of dread, fear, or apprehension, often with no clear justification. Anxiety is distinguished from fear because the latter arises in response to a clear and actual danger, such as one affecting a person’s physical safety. Anxiety, by contrast, arises in response to apparently innocuous situations or is the product of subjective, internal emotional conflicts the causes of which may not be apparent to the person himself.

Please note the “often with no clear justification.” The true source of anxiety is an internal reaction. It is about the mind, about one’s sense of peace with oneself. Distress, on the other hand is open to an understanding that is outside the individual. It comes from the Latin distringere, the meaning of which is “to draw asunder, to stretch out.”

You pull something apart from outside. Something that distresses pulls us apart and can thus imply a force outside of ourselves that can “throw us into disorder,” an original meaning of perturbare, which implies an external source of confusion.

Obviously one could say that no one is more “confused” or “asunder” than the anxious and I cannot quarrel with the original translators and their motives of making an equivalency between perturbatio and “anxiety.” However, I rejoice in the new translation seems to want to look outside of ourselves for the source of disorder. It seems that we are moving from a subjective to an objective evaluation of the world and its troubles for a Christian. Within, we should have the peace of Christ, the “peace that the world cannot give.” Without, there is disorder and distress.

In the prayer of the priest after the Our Father, we ask for deliverance from evil, peace in our days and the merciful state of being free from sin and safe from distress. Safety also usually has an external understanding. The new translation has all sorts of prayers that are real mouthfuls for priests, which is good because it reminds us that we are not speaking for ourselves but for the Church. The new coda to the Our Father is a mouthful, too, with a bunch of concepts parading out with great seriousness.

But seriousness aside, I am thinking of a little Slovak priest, who had white hair and gold wire-rimmed glasses that made him look like Kris Kringle and I imagine him chuckling. “Exit anxiety,” he says, “finally.”

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