Monday, October 09, 2023

St Jerome and Achieving Good Order in Liturgical Offices

Simon Vouet, Saint Jerome and the Angel, c. 1622/1625 (source

Concluding our series, Fr José de Sigüenza ecstatically praises the Divine Office and then imagines how the early Christian worship developed into the Mass and Office as we now know it (Life of St. Jerome, Book IV, end of Discourse 2).

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It has been fully shown that our great doctor served the Church in all these things, and that through his diligence and holy labours the divine office is resplendent with the beauty which we perceive at the present day. He introduced the song of Alleluia, the versicle Gloria Patri et Filio; the distinction of the ordinary week days by psalms; the epistles, the lessons, and the chant: all things of themselves so inspired by Heaven, that such as do not enjoy them here below will not enjoy them above: things which clearly manifest the great favours which the soul of the saint received from God, and moreover things which, without being in the company of angels, could not have been so well arranged.

And thus does John Cassian express himself in the second book of Institution of Monks and Monasteries, that this scheme of the work done by St. Jerome in arranging the divine offices was not a thing of human genius, but that it was communicated to him by means of the angels sent from heaven. And in truth this doctor speaks justly, forasmuch as there is something of majesty and glory, which lifts up the spirit of men so above themselves, renders them quite other men, that being filled with a supernatural spirit, they are raised above all human intercourse, and appear to be in another region, taken up from earth during the time they are celebrating the divine offices; and the angels do not disdain to mix themselves in this intercourse with men, and they come down with loving affection to the company of mortals. Oftentimes have the voices of these servants of God been heard mingling with ours, when, in the silent hours of the night, with joyful vigils and songs, at times glad, at others sad, they have awakened the Lord and Spouse of religious souls; and He, moved by such welcome sounds, communes and communicates Himself to these by gifts, and takes delight in those pure verses and canticles on earth better than in the dwellings of the heavens.

Oh! thou Jerominite Order! with good reason dost thou take pride in the divine office and love thy choirs! Thine do I call it, since it had its birth, so to say, in the house of thy Father, and it comes to thee, as to a daughter by inheritance, and in whatsoever day thou shouldst not follow this with the care which has been thine up to the present—do not ever again call thyself his daughter! Let the world style thee as it may, for we well know how deceived it ever is in assigning names to things. Let others spend the nights and the days in what may so please them; but thou, as is thy custom, holy mother, spend it in the divine praises: let them be found thus by the night, when the sun sets below the horizon and when it illumines those that are beneath our feet; and there also let it find thee when it comes forth in the morning! Thy inheritance is the choir and the song, the purity and cleanliness of the house of the Lord, the spotlessness and the adornment of His palaces on this earth! The same office will be thine to perform high up in the heavens, where no other occupation is known but that of singing the divine praises!

And in truth the choir is an angelic institution: it was not learned, as some appear to think, [1] from the vain pagans, who, placed in choirs and circles, as we now declare it, in a ring, sang and danced before the brutal and unclean altars of their abominable gods, holding each other’s hands or singly, beseeching in their songs that their sacrifices be accepted which were offered to them. A more ancient and nobler foundation has the Church in her holy rites, and one that she learned from better masters. The prophet Isaias beheld the seraphs placed in choirs, how they sang with alternate voices: “Holy! holy! holy!” to the Lord of armies, and celestial choirs. [2]
Close-up of seraph from the Basilica of Monreale (source)

Coor, in the language of the Scythians and Cimmerians, means multitude, who placed in a circle with pious ceremonies and chants, are singing in coor, which among them is interpreted as though we should say, fountain and circle of eternity; and this appertains to the angels before any other creatures. From this word, it is said, arose the Greek and Latin term chorus; while reversed, or the letters taken backwards, would form rooc, which in the same tongue means smoke; and a choir of such as praise God is in truth a smoke and most sweet perfume which touches the nostrils of God, and appeases Him, restrains His wrath, and mitigates it. The Book of Ecclesiasticus says: “The oblation of the just ennobles the altar and is a sweet odour in the worship of the Most High.”

From this is seen the reason for the holy ceremony used in the Church, that those who are in the choir singing and praising the Eternal Majesty of God in a circle, without beginning or end, are incensed with perfumes, in order to give them to understand that their songs and hymns are perfumes which touch the nostrils of God, and are to Him sweet-smelling, as were the sacrifices which Noe offered Him after leaving the ark, and the sacred Scriptures say God smelled them, and they rose up an odour of sweetness, which is a most lofty mystery to be treated on more leisurely. That smoke which comes forth from the censer is a symbol of the devotion and the spirit which burns within, and the smoke ascends to God; from whence it is concluded that the outward smoke would be idle, fruitless, unless it had the signification which corresponds to the interior. Because the spirit which rises to God in praises is a joyous choir, a spiritual smoke to the divine nostrils and ears. These two things must be close together: from the interior spirit burning and exhaling a sweet perfume which ascends towards God, must also rise the melody and song of the choir, because otherwise their voices will be dispersed and cast to the winds.

It was this that our saintly doctor essayed to plant in the Church, imitating the angels in choirs, so that our spirits, glowing with divine love, should rise in union with the voices until making music before God He is enveloped by a most sweet perfume. This Jerome did not learn from Isaias, but in those delightful moments when, raised above the earth, he himself has declared to us on oath that he found himself amid the choirs of angels, as we have already seen and remarked when writing his life in the wilderness.

In regard to the division of the lessons, I believe he adapted it from the practice in the Hebrew synagogue, because, as is proved in chapter xiii. of Apostolic Deeds or Practice of the Gospel, the Hebrews had apportioned the Books of the Prophets throughout all the weeks of the year, these said lessons containing all the more remarkable prophecies respecting the Messiah, Christ our Lord, in order that the Jews should not suffer ignorance and that they should understand. Thus speaks St. Paul when addressing the Jews in the synagogue of Antioch, that the Jews who dwelt in Jerusalem, and the princes among them, ignored the Messias (Acts xiii) formally and maliciously, as well as the voices of the prophets, which are read out and proclaimed during the course of the week.

In imitation of this plan, our doctor divided the whole of the sacred Scriptures which manifest Christ to us, through the entire course of the weeks of the year. The scheme of the epistles and gospels he took from apostolic tradition; and whereas he was so well informed in the antiquity and history of the Church, he was well qualified to arrange them with method and order.

After the descent of the Holy Ghost on the apostles, those heavenly men who had received the first-fruits of this treasure, in their deep gratefulness would meet together to celebrate the mysteries of the redemption of the world in the “communication and breaking of the Bread,” for with these words does St. Luke signify the Sacrament of the Eucharist. At the beginning the number was small and they were all together, they knew one another, all were perfect men, saintly, full of God. The Church grew, some few separated and went to dwell in various towns, some in Jerusalem, others in Antioch, others again in Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus; some of these were of the highest holiness; others were still imperfect, for under these two heads does the apostle divide them.

No longer could they be gathered together in one church, because poverty and the persecution of the Gentiles did not allow of large gatherings nor public ones. Secretly would they divide themselves as best they could, where there were many under divers names and titles—some were called of the band or brotherhood of John, others of Bartholomew, and so on.

On meeting together in this way, either each day or when they could, the first thing they did was to confess themselves as unworthy of so much good, and to accuse themselves humbly and in common of their defects; then they rose up and sang some hymns as best they thought. After this, if any letter had been received by that congregation or brotherhood, from the apostle St. Paul, or from any of their princes, it was read carefully in public, and each received what duties were ordered, what doctrine or mystery explained, the counsels, the reprehensions conveyed in that epistle. After the reading of this letter, which was done slowly, all being seated, and listened to with deep attention, a portion of the gospel was read, either such portion as had been declared in the letter or that came to the purpose. This ended, they all made a profession of the faith, either by the creed which the apostle had composed, or in the order which was most convenient.

And whilst the offering of bread and wine was being prepared which was to be consecrated, the members of that meeting contributed their alms for the necessitous brothers and the poor generally, whether present or absent. After this they joined in prayer to God for the whole world, for the princes of the Church, men apostles, or apostolic; then for the heads of the Republics, whether Christian or idolaters, so that He should be pleased to enlighten them, and guide in good ways the affairs of their Republic and government: this formed the preface. Then were celebrated the holy mysteries of the redemption of the world, consecrating the bread and the wine into the body and blood of our God and Lord Jesus Christ, as He had left it ordained it should be done in His memory and as He had willed.

Before communicating they said the Lord’s Prayer, calling God Father, and asking for all the benefits which from His hand can come to us, and, in particular, that He should give them that divine Bread, figured in other times by the manna, so that they should feel within them the promised Sabbath. They then received the Holy Communion, and those divine souls beheld the heavenly treasures and the Sacrament—hidden throughout the ages—manifested to them. They beheld God in themselves, and themselves within Him, and they communicated themselves to Him and He to them. They saw themselves all made one in that mystic Body, in spirit and in truth. They were absorbed, full of God, as though inebriated with the divine sweetness, and that new wine, that is not poured into old leathern bottles, which savour of the first bad manufacture.

Such was the Mass in that golden age, these were the divine offices celebrated: all this is gathered from the narrative of the Acts and apostolic practices, and from the Epistles of St. Paul, if with attention they be read and meditated upon.
Rembrandt van Rijn (and Workshop?), The Apostle Paul, c. 1657 (source)

Some remains of this still exist, though in a very much lower grade, in the brotherhoods or confraternities that are scattered throughout the world, known under the name of St. John, of St. Peter, and of Our Lady, and other saints, the members meeting together in the churches under these invocations for Mass, sermons, and other spiritual works. Would that they did not meet at meals, so that they should not become so inflamed! This evil, and abuse, commenced very early indeed. We have nothing to wonder at that such things should occur in these our times, when even in the time of the apostles, the text of the Epistle to the Corinthians, it was said in truth, “Alius quidem esurit, alius autem ebrius est.” “Perchance,” he adds then, “have you not houses where you can eat and drink? or do you despise the Church of God?” They had not well comprehended the doctrine which the holy apostle had given concerning the Supper of the Lord, and they fell into this abuse; for had it been performed with that order which we have described, it would be all full of charity, and for that reason does he repeat in chapter xi. of the Epistle, and declares to them this most sacred mystery, in order that they should know what it means to meet together in the church and to communicate in one Spirit.

He had also in chapter iii. of the same Epistle touched somewhat on this when he accuses them of being men who were yet carnal; and he gives the reason, saying that there existed among them a rivalry and a question as to which (so to say) was of a higher confraternity and had been baptized by the better hand. Some would say: We are better, for we are of Paul; others: Because we who are of Cephas, who is the head, have the advantage. No, indeed; but we who are of Apollo. All this was nothing more than the work of the enemy, who was sowing early harvests. In these gatherings and meetings, and other similar ones, began to be celebrated the divine offices simply and purely; and those masters, great as they were, began to teach and to enjoin the order of what in those times was permitted. And the apostle in chapter xv., after having instructed them in the essential, concluded by saying, “What is wanting, when I come to see you I will dispose, and order how it shall be done.”

Of all these things the report had come down from hand to hand together with the tradition, and many things were proved in the writings of the learned men of those times who succeeded the apostles, particularly in the oriental churches. Our doctor [Jerome] took advantage of all this, hence he set in order all things for the use of the Church, and with such wisdom and doctrine that this order and plan was preserved and followed during the course of the ages down to the present and for all time.

[1] Scaligerus, de Arte Poet. lib. I, cap. 49.
[2] Gorop, Hermit. lib. 77.

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