I Want Some Pie, Jesu
15 December 2017 (ed. 28 August 2023)

Juste et pie vivamus, exspectantes beatam spem, et adventum Domini.

Let us live by justice and by mercy and wait with bright hope for the Lord to come.

This little bit of the monastic liturgy pops up in An Advent Sourcebook (Chicago, Liturgical Training Publications, 1988), just one of the volumes in a fantastic resource series that should be on the shelf of every pastor and preacher. While I highly recommend the resource, using it both for personal devotion and liturgical and homiletic preparation, I can still be puzzled by it at times, and this is one of those times: the English translation seems off.

One of the strengths of this resource is its practice of including (often venerable) Latin liturgical texts accompanied by English translations. It could have gone with the English alone. The Latin adds something, especially for those of us with admittedly antiquarian tendencies. An aesthetic pleasure can be derived from the Latin. The Latin also reminds us of (even connects us to) saints (and sinners) of bygone ages. There is also the more pedantic opportunity to scrutinize the translation.

Of course, I fully understand that the translation of Latin liturgical texts into modern English is not the exercise in exactitude that one might expect in a collegiate Medieval Latin class. There are poetic and rhetorical concerns that always entail a little jiggling of the text so that it might easily fall off modern tongues in the midst of worship or in private devotion. Looking at this translation, I might be tempted to render it differently at multiple points, but I am not sure that I would actually be improving it (for liturgical use) with one glaring exception: Pie is not mercy!

I know, I know: We’ve all read English translations of Andrew Llyod Weber’s “Pie Jesu” that render it as “Merciful Jesus.” How could somebody’s Facebook posting of Jackie Evancho’s Youtube video possibly be wrong? BTW, I’m going to stop by the WVU music library some time and see if I can find the liner notes for the Weber Requiem CD—If anybody has it, post in the comments, because I am curious. In all fairness, pie, as it is used in the Pie Jesu, is the vocative of the adjective pius and can mean good or blessed (as well as pious, devout, conscientious) and, in late Latin could even mean holy. What we have in this liturgical element, however, is the adverb pie (as is clearly indicated by its relationship to the verb vivamus). To further complicate matters the english translation in question chooses to render the concepts behind the Latin adverbs in the liturgical text with English nouns. So, how do we go about selecting a more appropriate translation of this bit of monastic liturgy?

The monks were devoted to the biblical text. The psalms were the center and heart of the prayer office, and, unlike our paltry recitation of them, the monastic recitation meant the entire psaltar plus the canticles was chanted weekly—St. Benedict considered weekly recitation a matter of forbearance for the sake of the weaker brothers of his day: “since we read, that our holy forefathers promptly fulfilled in one day what we lukewarm monks should, please God, perform at least in a week.”(RB Chap. XVIII) The rest of the liturgy of the hours involved responsories, versicles, a reading from Scripture (length depending upon the office), prayers, a hymn, and, at vigils, a reading from the Fathers. Those versicles and responsories were not stuff pulled out of thin air. They were quotations from Scriptures (although sometimes modified to fit liturgical form).

Where do we then find “Juste et pie vivamus, exspectantes beatam spem, et adventum Domini?” We need to look at the Vulgate, and, when we do, we find something close to it in Titus 2: 11-14:

Apparuit enim gratia Dei salvatoris omnibus hominibus, erudiens nos, ut abnegantes impietatem, et sæcularia desideria, sobrie, et juste, et pie vivamus in hoc sæculo, exspectantes beatam spem, et adventum gloriæ magni Dei, et salvatoris nostri Jesu Christi: qui dedit semet ipsum pro nobis, ut nos redimeret ab omni iniquitate, et mundaret sibi populum acceptabilem, sectatorem bonorum operum.

The elisions in the text are not unusual with respect to the rendering of responsories and versicles in the liturgy of the hours.

Well, what was Jerome reading in the Greek? A complicating factor in answering this question is the existence of variant Greek texts at the time. We can’t really be sure which Greek text Jerome was looking at, but scholars have recognized a strong consistency between Jerome’s Latin and the Greek text of the Codex Vaticanus. Examining the work of text critical scholars, however, text critical concerns prove irrelevant in this case because there are no variants. The word behind Jerome’s pie is consistently εὐσεβῶς.

If the word behind pie were some derivation of ἐλέησον, we’d be absolutely correct in translating the monastic liturgy as mercy, but εὐσεβῶς doesn’t lend itself to that translation. What we have here is not mercy but piety—or, to be more precise, piously, as pie is an adverb related to pietas—the cognate of the Latin being rather obvious. This observation is reinforced by presence of the term ἀσέβειαν earlier in the same verse. Thus, a better (though not perfect) translation of the Latin liturgy would be, “Let us live by justice and by piety and wait with bright hope for the Lord to come.”

Now, you’re probably thinking, “My, that was unnecessarily pedantic.” Perhaps, but I cannot shake the suspicion that many looking at a posting of the translation provided by An Advent Sourcebook would have a much less sanguine reaction were it rendered with piety, as I have, in place of mercy. Piety is not popular, but, I maintain, the term has gotten a bum rap. True, the venerable Pietist movement with such luminaries as Arndt, Spener, and Franke deformed over time. Like most of us, I do not want to see a return to the deformed Pietism of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, but, in our zealous efforts to purge ourselves of such dour judgmental legalism, we have forgotten abusus non tollit usum.

Piety is no enemy of Christianity. The term is venerable in Christian usage and, within the early church, had close affinities with the Roman virtue pietas. Duty to the gods (as the Romans would put it) and, by extension, to the state and to the family is not such a bad thing, unless, of course, one prefers not to be dutiful. That one should be pious, i.e., mindful and dutiful to God with all that that entails in terms of moral and religious conduct is a concept running through the writings of the Apostles and Patristic authors. It continues throughout the centuries and is found in Luther quite positively expressed in his Defense and Explanation of All the Articles (1521): “This life, therefore, is not godliness [frümkeytt] but the process of becoming godly [frum werden].”(LW 32:24, American Edition). The two dominant translations of frümkeytt are godliness, as in the American Edition of Luther’s Works, and righteousness, as in the Philadelphia Edition. In some few places, one finds it rendered as holiness. A strong case for translating it as piousness or piety, however, can be made—read my S.T.M. thesis if you up for some unrestrained pedantry.

So, from that hiccup that one gets when noticing a Latin word that doesn’t seem to make it into an English translation quite right, I end up wondering about our preference for the word mercy and our disdain for the word piety. I think mercy is part and parcel of a pious life, but I understand that many have been exposed to deformed piety (which is no true piety at all) and have rendered judgment upon the term without reflection on its historico-theological origins and usage. I am also suspicious that a rehabilitation of the term consistent with its historico-theological origins and usage, while salutary, might, nevertheless, be generally rejected. A call to piety engages the whole life of the Christian, and, by engaging that whole life, each will undoubtedly engage those aspects of his/her soul and body that would prefer anti-Christian license to true Christian liberty. Verily, Ambrose Bierce is not far from the mark when he quips that a Christian is “one who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.”

Returning to the monastic liturgical element, let us consider Titus 2:11-14, first in the Greek:

Ἐπεφάνη γὰρ ἡ χάρις τοῦ Θεοῦ σωτήριος πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις, παιδεύουσα ἡμᾶς, ἵνα ἀρνησάμενοι τὴν ἀσέβειαν καὶ τὰς κοσμικὰς ἐπιθυμίας σωφρόνως καὶ δικαίως καὶ εὐσεβῶς ζήσωμεν ἐν τῷ νῦν αἰῶνι, προσδεχόμενοι τὴν μακαρίαν ἐλπίδα καὶ ἐπιφάνειαν τῆς δόξης τοῦ μεγάλου Θεοῦ καὶ Σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, ὃς ἔδωκεν ἑαυτὸν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἵνα λυτρώσηται ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ πάσης ἀνομίας καὶ καθαρίσῃ ἑαυτῷ λαὸν περιούσιον, ζηλωτὴν καλῶν ἔργων.

Now in English:

For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us  from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are  zealous for good deeds.(RSV)

It is from and in this context, that the monks recite (as rendered in English by An Advent Sourcebook), “Let us live by justice and by mercy [piety] and wait with bright hope for the Lord to come.” Those monks (at least the more literate among them) would have known the Scriptural context. Should we not, similarly, call to mind that context? The juxtaposition of the fallen life of irreligion (ἀσέβειαν) with piety (εὐσεβῶς) and worldly passions (κοσμικὰς ἐπιθυμίας) with sanctified sobriety/self-control (σωφρόνως) and justice/uprightness (δικαίως) should not be lost on us. It is in this context that the poor translation or pie as mercy is revealed as sadly impoverished, a mere slice of the whole.

Let us live justly and piously, expecting the blessed hope and the coming of the Lord.


Originally published as a Facebook Note, 15 December 2017. Facecbook, sadly, discontinued full access to the Notes application and, in so doing, actually damaged the text in as it appears in Notes. The original text has been transcribed and edited to its current form on 28 August 2023. Special thanks to Bp. Michael Burk for reminding me of liturgical text from the prayer office in his post of December 2017, a post that precipitated this essay. Special thanks also to Pr. Mark Strobel for suggesting an excellent addition to my original title.

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