Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Dom Alcuin Reid on the Hymns of Easter

Our sincere thanks to Dom Alcuin Reid, the well-known liturgical scholar and prior of the Monastère Saint Benoît in La Garde-Freinet, France (diocese of Fréjus-Toulon), for sharing with us this chapter conference which he delivered to his community on Low Sunday, on a particular aspect of the hymns of Eastertide.

Earlier in the week one of the young men who hopes to test his vocation with our community (when he is finally able to travel to visit) wrote of his consolation at being able at least to pray the eight hours of the monastic office during the current shut-down. He highlighted as most pertinent the penultimate stanza of the matins, lauds and vespers hymns for Eastertide (which also occurs in the common of Apostles and Evangelists in Eastertide):

Quaesumus, Auctor omnium,
In hoc Paschali gaudio,
Ab omni mortis impetu,
Tuum defende populum.
(“We pray you, Author of all things, in this joyful Easter time, from every threat of death, defend your people.”)

Since he commented on this stanza, I confess that I have pondered little else. We have sung these words every Easter for many years of course. But Easter 2020 gives them a singular importance. Is it not a simple yet utterly apposite plea for a monk, and on his lips for the Church, to sing to Almighty God each night, each morning, each evening, at this time of worldwide trial and crisis? Ought not we to sing it at this time with ever greater fervour and supplication?

This stanza pertains originally to the hymn Rex sempiterne Domine which is our Eastertide Matins hymn, itself originating from a much longer hymn from perhaps as early as the fifth or sixth century and used mainly by monks. In the history of the Divine Office we monastics are, after, all the ‘decadent’ adders of hymns to the Office. Our secular Roman rite friends who use the breviary of 1961 (or 1861, or whenever) are spared our decadences during the Octave of Easter: the Eastertide hymns make their appearance in the Roman rite only today, from Low Sunday onward.

In the Church’s tradition, certainly by the time of the breviary revision of the Council of Trent, the stanza our young friend underlined came to be added to the other Eastertide hymns also – including those in the Roman Office – hence in this season we currently sing it thrice a day.

Unfortunately, however, its poignant Latin petition was mutilated by the Jesuits commissioned by Pope Urban VIII to revise the breviary hymns in the seventeenth century. Anyone praying a Roman rite breviary dated after 1661 (or thereabouts) is lumbered with what Adrian Fortescue famously called the “ghastly mistake” of Urban VIII, which renders this stanza:

Ut sis perenne mentibus
Paschale, Iesu, gaudium,
A morte dira criminum
Vitae renatos libera.
(“That you, O Jesus, may always be the paschal joy of our minds, from a terrible death of sin, free us, reborn, to life.”)

Now as a prayer in itself this is fine in so far as it goes. But as we have seen so often in the reform of liturgical texts and rites, what was left behind was perfectly adequate (in this case, 1,000 years of liturgical tradition had managed quite well with it as it was), and what is put in place reflects more the preoccupations of the reformers than any genuine need in the life of the Church at the time. In passing one might note that the 1971 Liturgia Horarum of St Paul VI, which corrects some of the errors of Urban VIII, included neither of the stanzas as given above, but inserted something even more ‘positive’ in its redaction of the Latin Paschaltide hymns. How these texts have been rendered in the vernacular translations is another question still.

Knowledge of the riches of our liturgical tradition and of the vicissitudes of liturgical history are all well and good, but our first responsibility is the duty of prayer inherent to our vocation. And thankfully the monastic office (and that of some of the older religious orders) retains the simple, traditional text – the very words with which, as Dom Guéranger reports, St Pius V ended his life on earth.

It seems to me that this is a most singular grace in these times. The Holy See recently had to scramble rapidly to put together a “Mass in time of Pandemic” because those responsible for the post-conciliar missal had not thought it necessary to include one for the ‘modern world’. But Almighty God has taught us otherwise. It suffices that we open the liturgical books given to us in tradition. Their pastoral experience and wisdom is not so shallow.

As we sing “Quaesumus, Auctor omnium…” we pray in union with our forebears who have known and combatted, and who themselves have died, in pestilences and plagues throughout the centuries, and who have known and faced – even in the radiant light of of Easter day – the “impetu,” the various menaces and threats that death includes, above all the risk of eternal death.

Let us, with the help of their intercession, cry out ever more fervently to the Lord for the protection we need today, particularly for those who shall suffer and die without the comfort of the presence of their loved ones or the consolation of the sacraments and rites of Holy Church, and who may thereby face the terrible risk of final impenitence or despair. This menace, above all, we must beg by our prayers, that the Lord avert.

To that end I ask, for the good of those who shall suffer and die this Paschaltide, and perhaps even beyond, that in choir we kneel for the singing of this stance and that the choir sing it solemnly, in unison, as we do for the pertinent verses of the hymns Vexilla regis and Ave, maris stella.

Let our prostration intensify our supplication in this time of urgent and great need. Let this falling to our knees to pray ever more intently for a world itself brought to its knees by this pandemic – an act which is certainly an extraordinary liturgical gesture in Paschaltide, but seemingly one that is more than justified this year – underline our unity in prayer with our brothers and sisters who are themselves directly suffering from the pandemic, with those who are caring tirelessly for those who are ill, and with all who are at risk and who are working according to their God-given gifts and responsibilities for its end and, indeed, for those for whom confinement to their homes is a severe trial.

May Almighty God, the author of all that is, defend His people from the threat of eternal death. May He bring us all, whenever this life is over, into that life of unending Paschal joy which this great season celebrates. And may He save each of us from the threats of death we face this day.

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