Monday, August 11, 2014

Review: New Translation of Durand’s Rationale divinorum officiorum

Readers with an interest in liturgical and sacramental theology, the history of the liturgy and its symbolism, and developments in the medieval period in particular, will recognize the name of William Durand or Durandus (1230–1296), Bishop of Mende, and author of the Rationale divinorum officiorum or “Rationale for the Divine Offices.” This work is one of the most important, famous, and plentiful commentaries on the material and spiritual aspects of the Mass, the Office, and the sacramental rites—including the church building, its furnishings and decorations, the altar, bells, the cemetery, with substantial theological reflection on consecrations, unctions, and sacraments (Book 1); the ranks and orders of ministry, from the cantor up to the bishop (Book 2); the clergy’s garments and equipment, including Mass vestments, stockings, sandals, gloves, miter, ring, staff, pallium, and the liturgical colors (Book 3); “the Mass and each action pertaining to it,” from the preparations for Mass and Introit through the whole Mass of the Catechumens and Mass of the Faithful, until the final blessing (Book 4); the canonical hours of the Divine Office (Book 5); the Proper of the Time (Book 6); the Proper of Saints (Book 7), and the ecclesiastical calendar and its determinations (Book 8).

A new translation of the Rationale into English has been appearing book by book for a number of years, thanks to Dr. Timothy M. Thibodeau, Professor of History at Nazareth College in Rochester. Book 1 had not been translated into English for almost two centuries and Book 3 in over a century; Books 2, 4, and 5, as well as the prologue to the whole, had never been translated at all. This is particularly surprising for a work that became, as the translator notes in his various introductions, by far the most widely distributed and influential commentary of its kind throughout Europe for centuries—a work without which it is well-nigh impossible to access the riches of the medieval understanding and celebration of the liturgy of the Latin Church.

As a collaborator with Fr. Anselme Davril, O.S.B., on the first modern critical edition of the Rationale (published in the Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis, 3 vols., Brepols, 1995–2000), Dr. Thibodeau is well suited to the work of translating, annotating, and introducing Durand. He has published his translation with various publishers: The Rationale divinorum officiorum of William Durand of Mende: A New Translation of the Prologue and Book One (Columbia University Press, 2007); On the Clergy and Their Vestments: A New Translation of Books 2–3 of the Rationale divinorum officiorum (University of Scranton Press, 2010); and Rationale IV: On the Mass and Each Action Pertaining to It (Brepols, 2013). Book 5 is slated to appear next year (also Brepols). Although books from Brepols are notoriously pricey, I would recommend that a serious student of the liturgy break the piggy bank on Book 4 of the Rationale. It’s hard to beat these 500 pages for sheer magnificence; it’s like the Ghent Altarpiece in prose.

To give a sense of the scope and level of detail of the Rationale, Durand devotes 5 pages to bells, 4 pages to the maniple, 10 pages to the pallium, 22 pages to the Introit and Entrance Procession, 15 pages to the Collect, 23 pages to the Gospel, and—highly pertinent to Gregory DiPippo’s multi-part series on the Offertory—a luxurious 37 pages to the Offertory rite, including a wonderful explanation and defense of the practice of praying the Secret and the Canon silently (see my article here for some further reflections on this topic). Durand’s commentary on the Roman Canon alone is a 123-page treatise that is so fascinating it is hard to put down, and shows the depth of theology and spirituality that our medieval forefathers derived from every last detail of word and ceremony.

Most characteristic of Durand is his delight and skill in elaborating the symbolism of each phrase and action of the sacred liturgy. The Mass, for him, is analogous to Sacred Scripture: it has a literal sense, to be sure, but built on that literal sense are allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses as well. A certain ritual can have its practical purpose while at the same time pointing to Christ, illustrating a moral lesson, and turning the mind to heaven. Actually, it is not merely that room can be found for these spiritual senses, but rather, precisely because of the unity of salvation history in the Person of Jesus Christ and the centrality of His Passion in the whole scheme of the universe, the practical things we do in worship necessarily bear a likeness to Him, drawing our minds to Him, showing us how we must live, and pointing to our eternal destiny.

These connections are not self-evident, however, since they are founded on divine revelation, which is not native to the human mind, and they have been elaborated over the centuries by our ancestors in the faith—an elaboration of symbolic vocabulary that is no more native to the mind than the mysteries they symbolize. The Christian, whether cleric or layman, must be trained in understanding them. (This is what Vatican II referred to as “liturgical instruction” and “liturgical formation”: see Sacrosanctum Concilium 14–19.) Without a thorough education in the “language of worship,” we are bound to derive far less benefit than we could otherwise do, and risk going through the motions without appreciating their significance; or worse, we might jettison whole portions of that Catholic language of worship simply because “we don’t understand it any more.” That, of course, is what the liturgical reformers did in the 1960s, and that is why one may consider this 13th-century bishop’s Rationale essential reading for those who wish to preserve and promote our great liturgical tradition—especially bishops, priests, deacons, and catechists, who have the task of passing on the faith and explaining it. Durand himself, with a pastor’s heart, wrote the book for just this purpose.

Along those lines, allow me to make a final observation (or really, an appeal). The seeds of countless good homilies lie hidden in these pages. Clergy who wish to preach more often on the liturgy or include it in catechism classes will find much insight and inspiration in Durand’s “summa of the liturgy.”

The Rationale for the Divine Offices is available at:

Book 1publisher siteAmazon
Books 2 & 3 — publisher siteAmazon 
Book 4publisher siteAmazon
Book 5 (forthcoming)



More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: