Forgive us our trespasses. I mean… it’s not a sin, right? I won’t die from it or anything…
I took a little trip up a hill above Cochrane this evening to get a good view of the descending sun. I drove on a not-too-wide paved country road that goes past a few expensive houses and ends at a short gravel stub surrounded by fences. And on the fences, a notice: private property. No trespassing.
And parked there, just on the lawful side, was a minivan with four assorted teenagers, sitting and chatting with a view to the west: a view of foothills, distant mountains, clouds, the sun, and, much closer, an antenna with a couple of small buildings.
But there was a little bit of hillside off one side of the road that didn’t seem to be included in the prohibition. So I wandered down it, parallel to the fence. And then the fence just… subsided. So, since the view I wanted was more in that direction, I easily passed over where the fence might have been had it been there. I walked through damp prairie grasses with a healthy assortment of small flowers. And then, over the curve of the hill through these Elysian fields, past the guy wires for the antenna, the view I was there for.
I wasn’t the only one there. A couple had set up collapsible chairs and were taking in the view. I did not think it was their land, or their antenna, and they did not object to my transgression – or perhaps even notice it. I paused. The sun, previously obnubilated, broke through the clouds and beamed our way. I took a few more photos.
And then I turned and came back to the car, by a more direct route. The fence, I observed, had a gap in it between posts at the end of the road, just by where the teens continued talking (about things such as a guy who was banned from a restaurant for an egregious bathroom accident – such crimes!) and looking sunsetward and altogether ignoring me. I walked on by. Trespasses? What trespasses? It’s très passé! (That’s an infraction in French grammar, by the way – “C’est très bien passé” would mean it happened very well, which it did, but that’s not what the English loanword confection intends.)
Of course English got the word trespass from French – Old French, which had it from Latin. The modern French reflex is trépasser, which means – as we would say in English – ‘pass away’ or ‘pass on’: in other words, ‘die’ (but politely). But in Old French the verb trespasser still had the basic Latin sense, which was simply ‘go through’, ‘traverse’, ‘go across’. It’s from Latin trans ‘across’ and passare ‘pass’ (well, ‘step’, ‘go’, et cetera).
But in English it came to mean specifically a transgression (transgress also comes from Latin meaning ‘go across’); it most often now means a violation of private property rights, but for many people its most frequent spoken use is in a sense also often rendered as debt (financial violation) or sin (moral violation): “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (The Latin for this phrase, from Matthew 6:12, uses inflected forms of debitum, ‘debt, obligation, rent’, while the Greek uses inflected forms of οφείλω opheilō ‘owe, be obliged to’. And yes, that Greek word is related – not quite directly – to the name Ophelia, which traces to the ‘profit’ side of the deal.)
But there are trespasses and there are trespasses. As those few of us on the hillcrest profited intangibly from the view the sun’s trespass over the horizon, some on the public side of the fence and some on the private, there was no great harm or injury, nor any financial or moral deficit incurred. Though some of us might overtake a fence, no one seemed to overly take offence.