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St Gregory of Nyssa

Omnium Circumstantium

St Gregory of Nyssa

Stand around the Altar in a Circle

Lost in translation, in the Roman Canon (used century upon century upon century and now RC Eucharistic Prayer 1), is that we all stand around the altar. The Roman Canon has:

…Memento, Domine,
famulorum famularumque tuarum N. et N.
et omnium circumstantium,
quorum tibi fides cognita est
et nota devotio,
pro quibus tibi offerimus:
vel qui tibi offerunt
hoc sacrificium laudis,
pro se suisque omnibus…
[my emphasis]

A reasonable translation of the focus for this post is:

Remember, Lord,… all who stand around here,
to you their faith is known …

Circumstantium is clearly not “stand around” in the English sense of being useless or idle. It indicates position and posture. It is circum “around” and stare “to stand”.

It was forgivable that in the earlier, dynamic-equivalent ICEL translation (1973), omnium circumstantium became “all of us gathered here before you”.

But if you claim (as was done in Liturgiam Authenticam) that this 1973 translation isn’t good enough, and you are producing “a translation that is as literal as possible” (Liturgiam Authenticam 56), then conspiracy theorists, knowing that English-speaking Bishops’ Conferences prefer kneeling at this time of the Mass, will have a point that people are being mislead by the certainly-not-literal 2011 rendering: “all gathered here”!

We certainly needn’t be mathematically fundamentalist about circumstantium being a circle. As Jungman noted about this phrase {J.A. Jungmann, Missarum Sollemnia (1955), vol. 2, p166} he envisaged the assembly in a ‘semi-circle’ or an ‘open circle’ around the altar – a ‘sort of circle’.

We may not be able to precisely delineate when the eucharistic meal changed from reclining, but certainly by mid-second century Justin’s description of the Eucharist would be understood as having all standing. Although our own meals are normally seated, standing often happens in larger groups, for a buffet, for example. Increasing numbers, leading to standing in the Early Church, soon found theological justification. By the mid-second century Ignatius of Antioch had begun interpreting the eucharistic table as the Christian ‘altar’ (eg. To the Philadelphians 4:1). Jewish priests stood in the temple for the temple rites. We (1 Peter stresses) all together, in Christ, are the new priesthood, standing, as the temple priests did in the temple, to perform our ministry.

We, the people, all standing around (omnium circumstantium) the altar, are not idle spectators at a presider’s incantation. We, together in Christ, are full participants in a prayer verbalised by the presider, a prayer in which we fully share.

This post arose out of recent conversations, as well as a comment on a post in which I circumvented the tiresome ad orientem (facing east) / versus populum (facing the people) deadlock by coining in circuitu altaris. I had no need to coin this last phrase, as the image was already deep in our western tradition, omnium circumstantium, though continuing to be lost in translation.

Further Reading:
standing at the north side
This post can be seen as another in architecture reflections on this site.

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6 thoughts on “Omnium Circumstantium”

  1. I am a little unclear who your target audience is here!
    – Roman document translators?
    – church architects? (As in, Please build round churches rather than rectangles)
    – everyday congregations?

    If the last then I suggest that more than following correct(ed) liturgical guidelines. Circles involve intimacy. They work well when people wish to be intimate (perhaps because already intimate as a group which know each other well). Do they work well when people either do not wish to be intimate or feel unready to be intimate?

    Translation: sitting in pews in a rectangle has its comforts!

    1. Thanks, Peter.

      – everyday congregations: yes, conversations included the pastoral point that communities (should be able to) include those not overtly, loudly social. This is an issue in communities that expect all to hold hands at points. As I indicated, circumstantium should not be read as mathematical fundamentalism – a single circle. The word applies in any size community, with different distances away from the altar – some will want to be at the outer rims. Nonetheless, drawing from my point in a linked post, some of the least extravert people I know are in contemplative monasteries where they follow the paradigm, not of passive cinema formation, but of circumstantium.

      – church architects: yes, it would be great if church architects started from the inside, a circumstantium paradigm, rather than from a cinema paradigm. Or what I also see – design the outside of the building and then leave the organising and filling it up with churchy stuff to others.

      – Roman document translators: you are more optimistic than I if you think we will see a new English Mass translation any time soon. I have stressed the issues with saying a Bible translation is literal and then poorly translating an important piece. The same applies here.

      [I presume your “Translation” is not misunderstanding – I had not visualised that circumstantium means there is no seating]


  2. See my com of two years ago.

    As I wrote, «If you take an early Byzantine church (still kept by the Novogorod style), you’ll see that in the nave (including the so-called sanctuary) congregation is U-ey. On the Eastern side, you’ll have the altar. The bishop would be at the Western side, look towards East, turning his back to the narthex (catechumens). The lecterns are also looking towards East, but in the middle on the nave. The worshippers are on both other sides, North and South, turning their backs to the wall, and their faces to the lectern or altar.»

    Indeed, we should all stand (not kneel).

    Have you considered that Hebrews 13:10 («We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle») may have spoken, not so much metaphorically about the crucifixion-event, but rather about the remembrance thereof within the Eucharist?

    1. Thanks, George. Yes, in my preparation I thought of introducing texts from Hebrews, but saw the post getting too complex and unwieldy. Thanks for bringing that one to our attention. Blessings.

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