The Anima Christi is the prayer I recite silently on my way back to my seat after receiving Holy Communion at Mass. Sometimes I pray it in Latin, sometimes in English, and sometimes, if time permits, both. But I also like to meditate on it at other times — when I’m walking, driving, or otherwise have a stretch of time to pray without distraction.
Anima Christi, sanctifica me.
Corpus Christi, salva me.
Sanguis Christi, inebria me.
Aqua lateris Christi, lava me.
Passio Christi, conforta me.
O bone Jesu, exaudi me.
Intra tua vulnera absconde me.
Ne permittas me separari a te.
Ab hoste maligno defende me.
In hora mortis meae voca me
Et iube me venire ad te
Ut cum sanctis tuis laudem te
In saecula saeculorum. Amen.
The English translation that is most familiar to me is this:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesu, hear me.
Within Thy wounds hide me.
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee.
From the malicious enemy defend me.
In the hour of my death, call me
And bid me come to Thee,
That with Thy saints I may praise Thee
For all eternity. Amen.
I like this translation, partly because it is the one most familiar to me, but also because it follows the Latin original closely. I like the fact that it retains the traditional way of addressing God as “Thou,” rather than the more common, less intimate “you.” Many love Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s rhyming translation, but it’s not my favorite because, in turning the prayer into a poem, he necessarily alters the meaning of the prayer. This is always true when one translates from one language to another — something gets lost (or added) in the translation. Traduttore traditore, as they say. (That’s Italian for “the translator is a traitor.”) When it comes to prayers and Scripture, I always prefer a more literal translation, even if it means sacrificing artitstry — beauty that does not conform to truth is mere illusion.
Praying is all about conforming ourself to Truth, particularly when we are using prayers of a set form. The repeated use of a set prayer, such as the Anima Christi, shapes our soul. To make such a prayer our own, we must not simply say the words but mean them. And we can mean them more deeply if we have spent some time meditating on their meaning. I am fortunate in that I know Latin pretty well, having formerly taught it at the college level, so I can meditate on this ancient prayer (which dates back to the fourteenth century) in the original Latin. Not everyone is so fortunate, of course, which is why, when I compile my prayer book, I will probably include both the Latin and the English translation above.
Limitations of English translations
But I’ve also been toying with the idea of offering an English version that tries to “unpack” the Latin for English speakers, by using only Anglo-Saxon words rather than Latinate English words that do little to illuminate the original. Our English language is, in its roots, Germanic, and Germanic languages have what I find to be an invigorating force to them. Many religious terms in English are simply Anglicized versions of Latin words, and thus don’t really “translate” the meaning signified. For this reason, ironically, English translations of Latin prayers, if they rely on Latinate vocabulary, fail to convey much of the meaning of the original.
Here’s an example, from the English translation above: “sanctify” is simply an Anglicized version of the Latin “sanctifica,” and is perhaps a bit too familiar to really be very evocative. We may think we know already what it means to “sanctify,” so we may not give it much thought. But sanctificere (the infinitive from which sanctifica is formed) is actually a compound verb that means to make holy, and both “make” and “holy” are good Anglo-Saxon words. (So is “soul,” by the way, a Germanic equivalent of the Latin “anima.”) “Soul of Christ, make me holy!” — that is a much more impassioned plea than the rather sedate and Latinate “sanctify me.”
Other verbs — and this prayer is little more than a string of verbs, all in the imperative (command) form, a veritable litany of pleas — are less easily rendered accurately in Germanic English. Take the plea inebria me — we know that to be inebriated is to be drunk, but would we really ask the Lord to make us drunk? Perhaps so (remember that the Apostles, after the Holy Spirit descended on them at Pentecost, were so overcome that people in the streets thought that they were “drunk with new wine”). But when I think on what it means to ask God to “inebriate me,” I think of being pleasantly tipsy rather than drunk — that sensation when the first few sips of wine make me feel lighter, as my cares are lifted from me, and I begin to feel that all sorts of things are possible that hardly looked that way before I took that first drink. How would I say that in a terse Anglo-Saxon phrase? I am reminded of the psalm which refers to “wine that maketh glad the heart of man” (Psalm 104:15). “Glad” is a wonderful English word whose meaning has, unfortunately, become diluted in contemporary parlance — but my familiarity with older, traditional uses of this term in Biblical contexts makes me feel that inebriate me could aptly be rendered “make my heart glad.” (The Practice of Religion, a devotional manual for Anglo-Catholics from the early 20th century, has a version that translates inebria me as “refresh me.” A good choice, I think.)
There are, however, a few terms in this prayer that don’t really translate well by a word-for-word translation into English (one reason that I heartily commend the study of Latin). Anima, for instance, translates as soul — that’s accurate enough — but the word “soul” itself has been used (and abused) in so many ways in modern parlance than it seems to me rather pale and flabby. What are we talking about when we refer to the “soul of Christ”? Anima is a word that has a specific resonance for someone familiar with the Latin tongue — think of English words derived from it: animal, animate. It refers to the principle of life within a living thing. If you’ve studied Aristotle, you may recall that he referred to “vegetable souls” as well as “animal souls” and our human “rational soul” — I doubt anyone, outside a philosophy class, ever uses the word “soul” in quite the way that the ancient Greeks and Romans did, meaning “life force.” Many modern people, indeed, would deny that we even have souls!
Another term that comes across in English as a pale reflection of its Latin original is exaudi. This is the imperative form of exaudire, a compound verb ex+audire. Audire on its own means to listen or to hear; the prefix ex– in this case is a kind of intensifier which is not easily rendered in English. To capture the force of the phrase “exaudi me” in English, I would say not simply “hear me,” but something like “Hear my cry!” This is, in fact, exactly what many English translations do with psalms in which the Vulgate says Exaudi. (See for instance the first verse of Psalm 61.)
Burrowing down, not skimming over
All of this philological maundering may seem like a strange way to meditate on a prayer, but if we wish to pray the prayer, not simply say the prayer, we must consider well what the words signify. I love to burrow down into a prayer to find its depths and inhabit them. For you see, when I am burrowing down into the prayer, I cannot also be skimming over it.
I think there is some value in making a too-familiar prayer unfamiliar, so that we must stop and consider what the prayer really says. Toward that end, here is an English translation that attempts to unpack some of what is contained in the Latin by using, wherever possible, straightforward Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. I’ve added some exclamation points to indicate the force of the imperative verbs.
Christ living within me, make me holy!
Body of Christ, make me safe!
Blood of Christ, gladden my heart!
Water from the side of Christ, wash me clean!
Suffering of Christ, make me strong!
O good Jesus, hear my cry!
Stow me away within Thy wounds!
Let me not be put asunder from Thee!
Beat back from me the scheming foe!
In the hour of my death, call to me
And command me to come to Thee
So that with all Thy holy ones I may give Thee praise
Unto ages of ages. Amen.
This translation sounds much more brusque than more familiar English versions, partly because that is the nature of Germanic English — Anglo-Saxon words tend to be shorter, and often have a rougher sound, than Latinate terms. I rather like this — it serves my purpose of “defamiliarizing” the prayer, and I think it is also, in an odd way, appropriate to the intimate nature of the supplications contained in the prayer. Very often, we dare to be brusque and to-the-point only with those we to whom we are closest. (Consider, for instance, John Donne’s sonnet, “Batter my heart, Three-Personed God.”) This prayer is very much about intimacy with Christ — that kind of intimacy that can be achieved only through Holy Communion with Him.
In the translation, I cheated a bit with “command,” a Latinate word, rather than its Anglo-Saxon equivalent “bid.” “Bid,” unfortunately, has lost its imperative force in modern English, which “command” retains. Instead of “suffering,” I might just as well have said “patient endurance.” You will find out why if you read this essay that I wrote on the Passion of Christ for another blog of mine, A Catholic Reader.
Do you pray the Anima Christi? If it is familiar to you, do you find that my Anglo-Saxon translation brings out any new meaning for you? Please leave a comment and let me know.