Monday, December 17, 2018

“Preach the Gospel to Every Creature”: The Benedicite

Detail from Edward Arthur Fellowes, Benedicite Domino
“And he said to them: Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16, 15). How do we preach the gospel to every creature — including stones, trees, brute animals?

We cause them to participate in the Gospel by elevating, as much as possible, each rank of being, through our cognition of them and our appreciation of their beauty, their intricacy, their strength, their usefulness [1]; through domestication of them if they are susceptible to human reason in this manner; and through the sacred liturgy, when it takes up each order of being and harnesses it for the worship of God: a church built of stone, vessels made of metal, vestments woven of silk and linen, windows crafted from glass, flowers on the altar, the blessing of fields, livestock, gardens, and wine. We preach the Gospel to them by preaching it through them, thus making them partakers of the mission of the Word and of the Church.

The famous hymn of the Benedicite, taken from chapter 3 of the book of Daniel and incorporated into the Latin Divine Office, strongly underlines this truth. My attention was first drawn to this hymn by a reflection of Thomas Storck’s entitled “All Ye Works of the Lord, Bless the Lord: A Rural Meditation from Daniel 3,” published in the singularly charming but long-defunct journal Caelum et Terra. [2] In the intervening years, I have grown familiar with this hymn from Sunday and festal Lauds, and have noticed, if I pray it slowly enough and think about what I’m doing — addressing imperatives to all of creation! — that something in it always stirs some faint memory, fosters a present gratitude, and incites a longing for a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness will be at home.

More recently, I came across this exquisite passage in a book on the spirituality of Mother Catherine-Mectilde de Bar, foundress of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration:
Man finds himself to be as the heart of creation. In our body, the heart is, in effect, only a small organ, and nevertheless it vivifies all the whole. In the same way, man, although tiny in the place he occupies on the earth, animates it in its totality. When the heart loves, it is the whole man that loves. And in the same way, when man adores his God, it is the whole universe that, in him, adores and glorifies its Creator. … Man is the priest of the universe: through his nature, at once bodily and spiritual, he is the intermediary between the visible world and the invisible world, between ponderous matter and the God who is Spirit. He alone is capable of offering that “worship in spirit and in truth” which the Father seeks and which Christ demands of the Samaritaness for quenching the thirst of His Heart. [3] 
“Man is the priest of the universe … the intermediary between the visible and the invisible…” Our Lord Jesus Christ, whose coming in the flesh and whose Second Coming in glory we linger over each Advent season, is the Last Adam, the perfect Man, the divine Man, the Eternal High Priest — the one Mediator between God and man, visible and invisible. In the Son, “ponderous matter and the God who is Spirit” are united indivisibly, inseparably, unconfusedly. In the Heart of Jesus is the perfect glorification of God by material creation. His human knowledge of worldly things elevates them as no other man’s knowledge can do; His love and use of them bestows upon them a dignity they could never have by themselves. In Christ the world encounters its Maker, returns to its origin, attains its end.

When Our Lord prayed the Benedicite, as He surely must have done, He was uttering to each kind of thing the echo of the creative word that called forth its realizations ex nihilo, the vivifying word that sustains them in essendi, the commanding word that harnesses them for salvation, the fearsome word that dooms them to finitude and fire at the end of time. In the Benedicite uttered by His holy lips, the creature heard itself called as if by name, called to bend before the Name above all other names. In particular, the things taken up by Christ as the matter of the sacraments acquired special status: they became, as it were, the aristocracy of material beings, a rank they will occupy until the world is no more. They have become quasi-natural signs of their Mediator.

*          *          *
At the end of the Benedicite, this hymn of creation to its Creator, we are given a fireworks finale of seven categories of humans, signifying the totality of the human race. If we add beasts of burden, which are the only animals that participate in human life through their cooperative labor, we can count eight categories:
Benedicite, omnes bestiae et pecora, Domino,
     benedicite, filii hominum, Domino.
Benedic, Israel, Domino,
     laudate et superexaltate eum in saecula.
Benedicite, sacerdotes Domini, Domino,
     benedicite, servi Domini, Domino.
Benedicite, spiritus et animae iustorum, Domino,
     benedicite, sancti et humiles corde, Domino.
Benedicite, Anania, Azaria, Misael, Domino,
     laudate et superexaltate eum in saecula.
8) Bestiae et pecora. Beasts and cattle are owned by another and profitable to their owners. They are elevated by their participation in human life and labors; we elevate them by imposing on them the rule of reason. Some higher animals even imitate the works of reason as from a distance, as can be seen with sheep dogs, guard dogs, guide dogs, or police dogs, which do some of what a rational animal would do, because they are capable of learning.

7) Filii hominum. “Children of men” emphasizes generation — namely, that we are “from another”: we receive our humanity, establishing the basic anthropological pattern that “you are not your own” (1 Cor. 6, 19) and “what have you, that you have not received?” (1 Cor. 4, 7). So, even as the higher beasts receive their guidance, their training, from their human master and thereby come to participate in his reason, so man receives guidance and training in virtue from God. No man is self-sufficient or autonomous.

6) Israel is brought into being by the Word of the Lord, by His promise, covenant, and mighty deeds. It is the Lord who chooses, who loves, who bestows value on the creature, on the nation, on the people He calls His own. He loves us not because we are already beautiful, but in order to make us beautiful and worthy of His love. “Not because you surpass all nations in number is the Lord joined unto you, and hath chosen you, for you are the fewest of any people; but because the Lord hath loved you” (Deut. 7, 7). “Because thou wast forsaken, and hated, and there was none that passed through thee, I will make thee to be an everlasting glory, a joy unto generation and generation” (Isa. 60, 15); “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you; and have appointed you, that you should go and bring forth fruit.” (John 15, 16)

5) Sacerdotes Domini. Building on the foregoing, the phrase “priests of the Lord” reminds us that the priest is one who is chosen, called, ordained. “Neither doth any man take the honour to himself, but he that is called by God, as Aaron was.” (Hebr. 5, 4) Just as a Christian cannot baptize or confirm himself, a priest cannot ordain himself but must always be ordained by another. All spiritual generation in Christianity, like all paternal biological generation, has its source in the divine Fatherhood, source of the godhead of the Son and Holy Spirit, source of the whole of creation and all of its differentiated powers.

Here, I cannot refrain from quoting Cardinal Ratzinger’s perceptive remarks about the problem of women’s ordination, as seen through the lens of a prominent feminist theologian:
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza … took a vehement part in the struggle for women’s ordination, but now she says that that was a wrong goal. The experience with female priests in the Anglican Church has, she says, led to the realization that “ordination is not a solution; it isn’t what we wanted.” She also explains why. She says, “ordination is subordination, and that’s exactly what we don’t want.” And on this point her diagnosis is completely correct.
          To enter into an ordo always also means to enter into a relationship of subordination. But in our liberation movement, says Schussler-Fiorenza, we don’t want to enter into an ordo, into a subordo, a “subordination,” but to overcome the very phenomenon itself. Our struggle, she says, therefore mustn’t aim at women’s ordination; that is precisely the wrong thing to do. Rather, it must aim at the cessation of ordination altogether and at making the Church a society of equals in which there is only a “shifting leadership.”
          Given the motivations behind the struggle for women’s ordination, which does in fact aim at powersharing and liberation from subordination, she has seen that correctly. But then one must really say there is a whole question behind this: What is the priesthood actually? [4]
This final question rings out again and again, piercing through the din of controversy and the darkness of abuse, with a resounding answer in the bimillennial witness of faithful Catholic priests, imitators of and participants in the very priesthood of Jesus Christ, of whom they are living icons. No, true Christianity is not “a society of equals” with a “shifting leadership”; it is a hierarchical society, much like the cosmic order depicted in the Benedicite, reflected in the descending alignment of priest, deacon, subdeacon, and servers in a solemn Mass.

4) Servi Domini. What are we, fundamentally? The Benedicite answers: “servants of the Lord” — servants who do their Master’s bidding. “Behold as the eyes of the servants are on the hands of their masters, as the eyes of the handmaid are on the hands of her mistress: so are our eyes unto the Lord our God, until he have mercy on us.” (Ps. 122, 2) The Aristotelian category usually translated as “relation” is, in Aristotle’s Greek, pros ti, or in Latin, ad aliquid — a much more concrete way of speaking: to be in relation is to be “towards something.” The servant is something of the master’s; he exists towards the master. His eyes are riveted on the Master’s hands, awaiting the signal for work or for rest. The servant depends on the master; without him, he is nothing.

Does this not help us also to see the place of man in the material universe? It is entrusted to man as its master; the world and all that is in it is meant to be his servant. Even as the catalogue of creatures in the Benedicite looks to man for its ultimate explanation and elevation, so man looks to God, and in a special way to Christ, as his Dominus and Magister.

3) Spiritus et animae justorum. “Ye spirits and souls of the just, bless the Lord!” How tightly linked are the verses of this hymn! As we just saw, a servant is, by definition, something of his master. Here, the virtue by which we single out the holy ones in heaven is justice — the virtue that is inherently relational. Aristotle and Aquinas teach us that temperance, fortitude, prudence, and all the other moral and intellectual virtues are about a perfection of oneself in oneself, but justice is the perfection of oneself towards another. The classic definition of justice is “that by which we render to another what is his own.” We cannot have justice towards ourselves, strictly speaking, but only towards another in whose debt we stand.

On the supernatural plane, we have our justice, our righteousness, not from ourselves but from Christ, by whom and in whom we are justified. Our justice, moreover, consists not in the flesh but in the rightly-ordered soul, where the lower is subordinated to the higher, and the highest in us is submitted to the Highest in Himself. “Spirits and souls of the just,” all ye angels and saints, bless the Lord for His mercy in saving you from perdition!

2) Sancti et humiles corde. The “holy and humble of heart” are, we hope and we pray, the rest of us who are not yet saved. Why does the Benedicite use these two words, sancti and humiles corde?

With the creative etymologies of St Isidore of Seville in mind, St Thomas traces the word sanctus to sanguine tinctus, sprinkled with blood, the blood of the sacrificial victim (Summa theologiae II-II, q. 81, a. 8) — as were the Hebrews at Mt Sinai, and as are Christians in their baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ the unspotted Lamb. The only ones who are holy are the ones purified by contact with the blood pleasing to God, because in this way they are themselves claimed for Him and surrendered to Him in their totality.

Humiles corde reminds us of the famous saying of St Teresa of Jesus: “humility is truth.” Truth, for St Thomas, is the adequatio rei et intellectus, the correspondence between thing and intellect, or rather, the intellect’s very identity with the knowable nature of the object. Christ came into the world to bear witness to the truth; the primary aim of the Christian must be to correspond to that truth. In this way we circle back to all the earlier verses: the generation of likeness; the priesthood as icon; servanthood; justice. Everything in the Benedicite strikes a note of “noble humility” or “humble nobility.”

Aquinas reminds us that, while things are the cause of our knowledge, with God it is the other way around: His knowledge is the very cause of things. We can see a parallel in liturgy: tradition is the formal cause of liturgy, not liturgy the cause of tradition. That is, simply making a liturgy, however “correct,” does not establish it as tradition, for tradition is something received, not produced. Once there is a liturgy in existence, it is handed down and received. To make a new liturgy is to violate humility. According to Aquinas, our faculty of understanding is active, but acts upon a world given to us through our senses, so that we are beholden to things in their prior existence, independent of us. Even if material being is elevated in our souls, knowing is being humbled by what is. For Kant, on the other hand, our faculty of understanding can be said to produce reality and synthesize it. No Kantian could recite the Benedicite, and only a Kantian would construct a new liturgy.

1) Anania, Azaria, Misael. At last, we come to the last and most surprising apostrophe in the hymn, prior to its doxology. I say surprising, not in terms of its context in Daniel 3, but for a detached liturgical hymn recited as part of Lauds: why are we addressing these three Hebrew children? A great deal has been and could be said about this, but here I will simply look at the very meaning of their names to see what they may reveal.
  • Hananiah (חֲנַנְיָה‎), “Yah (i.e., Yahweh) is gracious”
  • Azariah (עֲזַרְיָה‎), “Yah has helped”
  • Mishael (מִישָׁאֵל‎), “Who is like God?” (compare “Michael”)
Note the progression in these names.
  • The first name denotes God’s basic stance towards creation: He is gracious, He gives and gives freely, to those to whom nothing is owed. As St Thomas teaches, mercy — understood as bestowing good things on those who are in need — is the very root of all of God’s acts, because He creates from nothing, bestowing on the creature its primordial nature (see Summa theologiae I, q. 21, a. 4).
  • The second name denotes God’s active intervention in history: He is not only gracious as a settled disposition, but ready to help, to intervene in one’s life, to save those who call on Him. He is not only benevolent but beneficent.
  • The third name emphasizes the transcendence of God. However much He involves Himself in the course of the world and in the government of His rational creatures, God is still and always God: He is above and beyond all things and must be adored as such — as existing in and of and for Himself, and the end to which everything else is directed. Not even an infinity of universes of sinless creatures could pay Him adequate homage. Only in the Trinitarian perichoresis or circumincession is the knowledge and love of God sufficient unto Himself.
The Benedicite thus fittingly ends on the cusp of its doxology with the name of the child who reminds us that God is “beyond all praising,” and yet, that our feeble praises please Him, as the three children in the fiery furnace pleased Him when they uttered their inspired words, immortalized in the Church’s liturgy.

The Three Children in the Fiery Furnace, from the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome.

[1] As Aquinas argues, a stone has a nobler mode of existence as an idea in the human soul, where it is alive with rational life, than it has in itself, being a lifeless lump of matter. At the same time, ideas in the soul are accidents, while the stone is a substance, and in terms of this comparison, the stone subsists or has esse simpliciter, while the idea of a stone exists only in another, having esse per accidens.
[2] The essay may be found here, at the Storck archives.
[3] Priez sans cesse, 10–11.
[4] Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium (Ignatius Press, 1997).

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