Friday, April 07, 2023

Renewing Respect for Christian Despisal

Allegory of Vanity, by Antonio de Pereda, 1632-6

With the end of Lent in sight, it is meet to reflect upon the meaning behind our mortification of the flesh, especially the notion of Christian despisal. It is also worth wondering about the wisdom of removing this notion from the Church’s sacred liturgy, which happened in 1969.

To Despise
The issue concerns the use of the word despicere in solemn worship. As Daniel Van Slyke notes in his groundbreaking article on the subject, and upon which we are heavily relying here, “translating despicere into modern languages admittedly is tricky.” [1]  The English cognate for this word is “despise,” which generally carries with it a note of disdain or disgust.
The Latin despicere, however, literally means to “look down upon” and may or may not imply an attitude of contempt or revulsion. The statement “the girl looked down on the street” has no element of disdain, but “the rich girl looked down on the poor boy” does. “Looking down on” may therefore be the best translation of despicere and related concepts such as spernere (to spurn) because it is flexible enough to allow but not require disdain or contempt. As we shall see later, this flexibility is important, for Christian despisal (as we are tentatively calling it in this article) may or may not involve a negative emotional component.
That said, not even “looking down on” is a foolproof translation for despicere or spernere. There is a famous medieval aphorism: spernere mundum, spernere nullum, spernere se ipsum, spernere se sperni— “to look down upon the world, to look down upon no one, to look down upon one’s very self, and to look down upon being looked down upon.” [2]  It is the last clause that is difficult to render, for it could be taken to mean that I should recoil in disdain every time that I am disdained and that I should despise being despised by others. Yet such an act of pride is the precise opposite of the phrase’s intended meaning, which enjoins Christian disciples to think nothing of being thought nothing of and to have no consideration for being disdained by others. Indeed, the perfectly humble man welcomes being dismissed and despised, for it mortifies his ego and fosters the all-important virtue of humility. As we pray in the Litany of Humility, “From the fear of being despised, deliver me, Jesus.”
Despisal in the Patristic Era
Whatever resonance despicere has for modern ears, it was understood and appreciated in the early Church. In Patristic literature, despising earthly things (terrena despicere) was typically contrasted with a love of the heavenly (caelestia). As Tertullian succinctly advises his wife: “Think about heavenly things and you will think little of (despicies) earthly things.” [3] Saint Ambrose adorns his contrast of earthly and heavenly attachments with military imagery: “You contend as a good soldier of Christ Jesus and despising the inferior, forgetful of the earthly, strive zealously for the celestial and eternal.” [4] For Saint Augustine, despising the world is a precondition for the rightly ordered desires by which the soul is united to God: “if you despise the world, you will have a pure heart, and you will see Him who made the world.” [5]
Pope Saint Gregory the Great was particularly adept at exploring the relationship of despisal to Christian discipleship. His Dialogues begin and end with a call to disregard the siren song of the world and to seek higher. In the body of the work, Gregory praises various figures such as Saints Benedict, Constantius, Sanctulus, and Hermenegild for utterly despising worldly things and for being on fire for heaven alone. [6] In the case of Hermenegild, this son of an Arian Visigothic king was imprisoned by his own father (and eventually suffered martyrdom) for his conversion to the Catholic faith. Gregory writes:
And so this young king Hermenegild, despising the earthly kingdom and seeking heaven with strong desire, began to despise so much the more nobly the glory of this transitory world insofar as, while bound, he recognized that nothing could be taken away from him. [7]
The Triumph of Saint Hermenegild, by Francisco Herrera the Younger, 1654
The Meaning of Christian Despisal
From this brief overview we can draw several conclusions about the nature of despisal in the Latin Christian tradition:
First, despisal is not commended as an end unto itself, but praised as the necessary complement of heavenly desire. Good despising and good loving are two sides of the same coin. When you love the important things, you are unattached to the unimportant; similarly, learning to detach from the unimportant helps one fall in love with what is important. To yoke good loving and good despising in this way is not a Patristic innovation but a development grounded in the Scriptures, as when St. Paul juxtaposes those who “mind earthly things” with those whose “conversation is in Heaven.” (Philippians 3, 19-20).
Second, despising earthly things is not a rejection of the goodness of God’s creation or of temporal and material things but of a disordered attachment to them; it is an affirmation of the supreme importance of loving God “in all things and above all things” [8]  rather than slavishly and foolishly loving things more than God. When, for instance, the New Testament stresses the evil of the “world,” it is not condemning the world per se but the human lusts that privilege the world over its Maker. As we already saw from Saint Augustine, despising the world purifies the heart and enables it to unite to Him who made the world, and who made it very good. (Genesis 1, 31)
This paradox was expressed well by the famous homilist Bossuet: in Christian parlance, “the world” is not the sum total of visible and transient things but the people “who prefer visible and transient things to those invisible and everlasting.” But it is also present in the Parable of the Sower, when some of the seeds are choked by “the cares and riches and pleasures of this life” (Luke 8, 14). Cares and riches and pleasures are not evil per se but they choke the believing soul if the soul does not hold them in low regard.
Third, good despisal may or may not involve a negative emotional element, but either way, it is a healthy response. Despisal can mean nothing more than dispassionately having little consideration for passing fancies as one focuses on the “one thing necessary,” or it can involve a more visceral reaction to those fancies when they “allure and caress” the soul, endangering its love of God. [9] Despisal can be as irenic as Christ patiently turning His Apostles’ ambitious hearts to the will of the Father or it can be as spirited as Christ abruptly admonishing Saint Peter with the chilling words “Get thee behind me, Satan!” when Peter unwittingly tempts Him to abandon His divine mission. (Matthew 16, 23)
That said, my guess is that because of the effects of original sin, most Christian despisal does involve a kind of righteous anger that says no sharply and decisively to false allurements preying upon the soul’s postlapsarian weakness. [10] The mortification of the Saints, for instance, is testimony to the constant need to be vigilant against the world, the flesh, and the Devil by fighting against them in earnest and not as one beating the air. For mortification is nothing else than a means of improving or practicing despisal.
The Meditation of St Jerome, by Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo, 1520-5
Despisal in the Tridentine Rite
Like many other aspects of Catholic doctrine, despisal is a seemingly minor concept that points to greater truths lying at the center of our Faith. As Van Slyke puts it, “The fundamentals of the Catholic spirit or worldview are at stake” in the “complementary antithesis” of despising earthly things and loving the heavenly. [11]
It is therefore fitting that this language found its way into the Roman Rite during the Middle Ages. By the time the 1570 edition of the Roman Missal or so-called Tridentine Mass was published, the word despicere could be found three times in the Eucharistic liturgy.
First, the Postcommunion Prayer for the Second Sunday of Advent prays that by participating in the mystery of the heavenly banquet upon which the faithful have just feasted, God may teach them “to despise earthly things and love the heavenly.” The Biblical and Patristic juxtaposition of good loving and good despising is here used with wording almost identical to that of Tertullian and the Church Fathers.
Second, the Collect for Saints Dionysius, Rusticus, and Eleutherius on October 9 petitions God that the faithful may despise the “prosperous things of the world out of love for Thee, and to fear none of its adversities.” The basic juxtaposition of despising/loving is developed here in two ways. First, instead of “earthly things” the Collect mentions prospera mundi, which we have translated as “the prosperous things of the world” but can also mean the lucky or fortunate things of the world. The pleasures and honors that the world offers depend on fortune, which can just as easily take things away as it can give them. Second, one of the advantages in looking down on the things that fortune can provide is that one lives without any fear that they can be taken away. Despising the prospera is liberating, freeing the soul from a servile anxiety about the caprices of Lady Luck.
Third, the Collect from the feast of St Hermes on August 28 repeats the formula from the feast of Saint Dionysius, applying it to another saint and thus hinting at its universality.
Despisal in the 1962 Missal
The Tridentine Mass is sometimes criticized for being “frozen in time,” yet one of the areas where one can trace an organic liturgical development from the close of the Council of Trent to the eve of the Second Vatican Council is in its expanding use of the concept of Christian despisal. Of the seventeen times that the word despicere appears in the 1962 Missal, fourteen of these were added after Pope Saint Pius V promulgated the 1570 Missale Romanum. One of these is the Collect for Saint Hermenigild. Added in the seventeenth century, its use of despicere finally incorporates the praise that Gregory the Great gave the saint in his Dialogues.
As Van Slyke writes, “During this period, the motif of despising the world was retained, the Church continually and increasingly recognized its value, and the euchology of the missal was enriched accordingly.” [12] In addition to loving the right things (amare or amor), the Church expanded her vocabulary to following (sectari), holding dear (diligere), yearning for (desiderare), and seeking after (inquirere) the right things. And as for the object of desire, the Church began to speak of “eternal things” (aeterna) in addition to God and heavenly things.
Finally, the list of things to despise was increased from terrena and prospera mundi to the intriguing category of caduca. [13] Caduca literally refers to escheatable property, property that does not go to a chosen heir but reverts to the State or the lord of the fee or the Crown or some other such agency. Hence, it refers to the goods that can be taken away from you and that on which you best not put your hopes. This concept of alienable goods, used here as a synonym of earthly things, is an apt reminder of the fleeting nature of material possessions and of why it is unwise to grow too attached to them. It is not simply out of piety but out of good sense that one should avoid pinning one’s happiness on shifting sands.
Despisal in the Novus Ordo
Of the seventeen uses of despicere in the 1962 Missal, only one was retained in the 1969 Missal, the opening prayer for the now optional feast of St Dionysius. The effect of these changes is that the average Catholic, especially outside of France, will never participate in a Mass in which despising earthly things is liturgically proclaimed as a characteristic of holiness. The Novus Ordo preserves the important teaching of loving God in all things and above all things, but it has almost entirely omitted the specific habit of despising the world as an essential ingredient in doing so.
And with the loss of despicere comes a decline in resolute naysaying to the world’s false allurements. No longer is there the same clear and hearty praise for uttering that gallant battle cry at whatever comes between us and our Savior: “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Unfortunately, the Novus Ordo is similarly taciturn about the practices of mortification and fasting, ascetical practices meant to break the stranglehold of earthly things upon our affections and to help us despise them. [14]
Questionable Rationale
The reformers who drafted the new Missal offered at least four different reasons for their decision to excise the sacred liturgy of the theme of despisal. First, despicere was removed “in light of the new vision of earthly things.” [15] The author (Carlo Braga) did not explain what this new vision is, but we hope that it is not a new Gospel in which the thorny “cares and pleasures and riches of this life” that choke the Word of God are now being called a bed of roses in which the people of God are invited to luxuriate.
Carlo Braga, 1889-1971
Second, both Braga and his predecessor Placide Bruylants imply that despising earthly things is more fitting for religious than for the laity, as if such a virtue were not a universal Christian trait. [16] This position, which is mildly elitist, would have come as a surprise to Gregory the Great, who praised the layman St. Hermenegild for his despisal of the earthly. And it would have surprised Saint Philip Neri, whose special vocation in life was not to swell the ranks of the religious and the clergy but to “make saints in their own homes.” The Apostle of Joy, who apparently never got the memo from Dumas and Bruylants, cherished the “spurn the world” medieval aphorism that we quoted earlier and taught it to all of his disciples, lay and clerical and religious, as a “crowning maxim” essential to “the gift of humility.” [17]
Third, another peritus responsible for revising the prayers argued that despising the earthly and loving the heavenly “put heaven and earth into radical opposition.” [18] Antoine Dumas, the author of this comment, does not claim that the Church had a dualist, Manichean hatred of creation but that the concept of despising the world is “so often poorly understood” and therefore better left out. Similarly, Dumas charges that despicere terrena is “very easily poorly translated.”
We have already noted the challenges in translating and explaining despicere so that it does not give rise to a Manichean hatred of material being but instead shows the dangers of disordered desires and unhealthy attachments. Giving up on this challenge, on the other hand, is throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Dumas’ rationale also betrays a problematic yet common conviction of the conciliar mind, that the liturgy is supposed to be readily intelligible. We see this assumption manifesting itself in Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium [19] and continuing up to our own day with Pope Francis’ support of retranslating parts of the Lord’s Prayer. One particularly telling example is when the American bishops tried in 2006 to block the use of the word “consubstantial” from the revised translation of the Creed in the new Mass on the grounds that “‘consubstantial’ is a theological expression requiring explanation” [20]—as if somehow it wasn’t the job of priests and bishops to explain theological expressions.
In the face of all this dumbing down stands the observation of Peter Kwasniewski: “To make the liturgy obvious, easy, simple, is to make it cease to be the liturgy.” [21] And we, might add, if every facet of the mystery of Faith that is not readily intelligible to modern man were to be discarded, hardly any facets would be left.
Fourth—and speaking of modern man—Dumas claims that removing despicere from the calendar was imperative in order to take “account of the modern mentality and the directives of Vatican II.” Dumas does not elaborate, but Van Slyke speculates that he is referring to the optimistic tone that some of the documents of Vatican II evince towards the modern world. Van Slyke points out, however, that the same Council also makes strong statements about the fallenness of the world and that it in no way calls into question the Christian doctrine of despisal.
As for “the modern mentality,” it is certainly true that modern man does not despise the world. Far from it, one of the hallmarks of modernity is a shift away from the True, the Good, and the Beautiful to “the relief of man’s estate” (in Francis Bacon’s famous formulation), that is, to his bodily health and creature comforts. Or to put it in the language of this article: from its philosophically revolutionary framework to its technological obsessions, modernity conditions people to love earthly things and despise the heavenly. [22]
Yet if modern man is so enamored of the earthly, all the more reason to disabuse him of this destructive infatuation, and to teach him that true happiness resides only in the love of the very realities he has been increasingly ignoring for the past five hundred years. Again Kwasnieski: “We believe that what modern people need the most is someone with a foothold outside of modernity.” [23] It is a bitter irony that instead of helping the world on this score, the Church capitulated to the spirit of the world on her very teaching about its dangers.
If only the reformers of the new Missal had valued despising the allurements of earthly things as much as they despised despisal, they might have made a more substantive contribution to addressing modern man’s malaise and the crisis of Faith in the modern age. Instead they ended up confirming modern man in one of his more despicable prejudices.
This article first appeared as “Renewing Respect for Christian Despisal,” The Latin Mass magazine 27:1 (Winter/Spring 2018), pp. 36-40, and has since been modified. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its inclusion here.

[1] Daniel G. Van Slyke, “Despicere mundum et terrena: A Spiritual and Liturgical Motif in the Missale Romanum,” Usus Antiquior 1.1 (2010), 60.
[2] Attributed to St. Malachy of Armagh (d. 1148), this aphorism became a staple of Cistercian through St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) or his disciples. See István Bejczy, The Cardinal Virtues in the Middle Ages (Brill, 2011), 106.
[3] Ad uxorem 1.4.
[4] De Bono Mortis 6.24.
[5] Sermo 216.
[6] See Van Slyke, 64-65.
[7] Dialogues 2.31.2.
[8] See the Collect for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost.
[9] See Dialogues 2.38.4.
[10] The fact that our Lord grew angry on occasion (e.g., with the moneychangers in the Temple) in no way implies that He had any stain of sin. My point is that righteous anger is a spiritual tool that is especially useful for a soul suffering from the effects of original sin as, for instance, when a soul grows angry at itself for sinning.
[11] Van Slyke, 65.
[12] Van Slyke, 69.
[13] See Collect of St. Hermenegild, April 13.
[14] See my “What the Traditional Latin Mass Can Teach the World,” TLM 22:2 (Summer 2013), 50-53, and “The Great Fast,” TLM 26:1 (Winter/Spring 2017), 46-50.
[15] See Van Slyke, 74.
[16] See Van Slyke, 75, 77-78.
[17] Pietro Giacomo Bacci,;The Life of Saint Philip Neri, Apostle of Rome, trans. F.W. Faber, Vol. 1 (London: Thomas Richardson and Son, 1848), 301.
[18] See Van Slyke, 76-77.
[19] Cf. 21, 34, 48, 50, 59, 79, 90, 92. See my “The Erosion of Comprehension in the Roman Rite,” TLM 16:1 (Winter 2007), 30-33.
[20] Laurie Goodstein and Cindy Chang, “A Changing Mass for U.S. Catholics,” New York Times, June 16, 2006,
[21] Peter Kwasniewski, Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico Press, 2017), 18.
[22] See Van Slyke, 77.
[23] Kwasniewski, 49.

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