Friday, April 05, 2024

Spiritual Eructation

An Irish monk writing

When Pope Benedict XVI issued his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum on July 7, 2007, the USCCB responded with uncharacteristic alacrity. Within twenty-four hours or so, there appeared on its website a catechism-style Q&A about the differences between the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Roman rite. [1] The explanations were tendentious and often inaccurate. But the one spurious assertion that perhaps has gone on to have the longest shelf-life concerns the Scriptures. According to the USCCB statement, the 1962 Missal includes 1% of the Old Testament and 17% of the New, while the 1970 Missal contains 14% of the Old Testament and 71% of the New. [2] The implication, of course, is that the new Mass is better than the old because it is more biblical.

It is an unfortunate and misleading comparison. The methodology by which the authors arrived at these percentages has been called into question, [3] as has the simplistic assumption of “more Bible, more better.” Matthew Hazell documents the new Lectionary’s doctrinally dubious bowdlerizing of the sacred text, [4] and Fr. Paul Miller [5] effectively critiques the efforts of Novus Ordo apologists Weinandy, Healy, and Cavadini to resurrect and weaponize this dreary set of statistics. [6]
My goal in this essay is to point out one consideration missing from this debate: the role of what I call “spiritual eructation” in sacred liturgy.
Spiritual Eructation
Since “eructation” is a fancy word for belching, it may seem inappropriate or glib to speak of a “liturgical burping.” And since that is by no means my intention, let us begin with two observations. First, although belching is associated with rudeness in modern Western cultures, it is a natural activity that is not intrinsically evil: indeed, in Egypt and in some South Asian countries such as India, burping after a meal is a compliment to the chef. Second, in the Patristic and medieval eras, burping was part of a detailed and positive metaphor for hearing the Word of God and appropriating it, and it is to that metaphor that we now turn.
The scriptural inspiration for the Church Fathers’ theology of spiritual eructation is most likely Psalm 44, 2, Eructavit cor meum verbum bonum. The Douay Rheims translates the verse as “My heart hath uttered a good word,” but the Latin verb eructare can mean belching as well as uttering. Saint Augustine suggests that this passage could be an image of the relationship between the First and Second Persons of the Holy Trinity: God the Father eternally utters God the Son, the good Word by whom all things are made. [7] Origen is even more explicit:
But in belching, some wind that was hidden makes its way out to the world, and so it may be that the Father gives out views of truth not continuously, but as it were after the fashion of belching, and the word has the character of the things thus produced, and is called, therefore, the image of the invisible God. [8]

More often not, however, spiritual eructation refers to man rather than God. For Augustine, Psalm 44, 2 can also refer to the psalmist himself, whose good word is a hymn to God. It belongs to God, Augustine explains, to satiate us with His beauty; it belongs to us to praise Him with thanksgiving. Our praise is thus the outcome of having ingested divine beauty. [9]
What is ingested can be compared to a good drink. In one sermon, Augustine describes drawing in the Spirit in faith, imbibing it with the throat of piety, and belching with the mouth of the inner man. [10] Usually, however, the metaphor involves solid food, whereas the digestive system imagined is that of a ruminant rather than our own human monogastric digestion, for in rumination food is consumed, stored in a stomach, and then regurgitated in the form of cud where it is chewed more. This, Augustine insists, should be our relationship to truth. “To recall some useful instruction from the stomach of memory to the mouth of reflection,” Augustine writes, “is a kind of spiritual rumination.” [11] Let each person, he exhorts his congregation,
…recall to mind what he has heard, by mutual conversation stir up the food [he has] received, ruminate on what [he has] heard, and let it not descend… into the bowels of forgetfulness. Let the treasure to be desired rest upon [his] lips. [12]
Augustine also interprets the Old Testament’s dietary laws as an allegory for spiritual ingestion: clean animals are animals that you can consume because they represent virtues that you should acquire, while unclean animals are animals that you cannot consume because they represent vices that you should avoid. Centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas employs the same “you are what you eat” lens of interpretation. One of the reasons that the Hebrews could enjoy beef, Aquinas explains, is that cattle symbolize the ideal reader of Holy Writ:
The animal that chews the cud and has a divided hoof is clean in signification because division of the hoof is a figure of the two Testaments, or of the Father and Son, or of the two natures in Christ, or of the distinction of good and evil. Chewing the cud, on the other hand, signifies meditation on the Scriptures and a sound understanding thereof. [13]
Remembering the Word of God, ruminating on it, and belching out praise became a cornerstone of monastic life. According to Jean LeClerq, author of The Love of Learning and the Desire of God, for monks in the Middle Ages,
The words of the sacred text never failed to produce a strong impression on the mind. The biblical words did not become trite; people never got used to them. Scripture, which they liked to compare to a river or a well, remained a foundation that was always fresh. [14]
The phenomenon of reminiscence was “extremely important” in monastic life and produced a vigorous and active memory. A mere allusion could
spontaneously evoke whole quotations and, in turn, a scriptural phrase [could] suggest quite naturally allusions elsewhere in sacred books. Each word is like a hook, so to speak; it catches hold of one or several others which become linked together and make up the fabric of the expose. [15]
Monks knew the Bible by heart and were “a sort of living concordance, a living library, in the sense that the latter term implies the Bible.” [16] And the same can be said for the authors of the Roman liturgical tradition, for the traditional Roman rite both abounds in spiritual eructation and, in turn, encourages it.
The Old Mass
If praise, as Augustine maintains, is a form of spiritual eructation, it is not surprising to find it in the highest act of praise, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Rather than list every instance of spiritual eructation (which would require a much longer essay), let us look at examples from two categories: scriptural citations and scriptural allusions. Afterwards, we will discuss the role of biblical readings in traditional liturgy.
In the kind of person described by Jean LeClerq, Scripture forms the imagination and comes to mind at the drop of a hat. The use of the Psalms in the Ordinary (the unchanging parts) of the 1962 Missal testifies to this mentality. Psalm 42 is believed to have been composed by King David when he was in exile and fleeing from his son Absalom, but someone in the tenth century did not limit the Psalm to its historical context; rather, he recognized it as the perfect voice for approaching the Sacrifice of the Mass with the proper balance of anguish, petition, and hope. The pairing is ingenious, for in the Psalm the psalmist declares that he will: 1) ascend God’s holy mount, 2) approach His holy tabernacles, and 3) go in unto the altar of God. This is precisely what the priest does moments later when he: 1) climbs the steps of the altar (traditionally, there must be at least one), 2) approaches the tabernacle on the altar, and 3) kisses the altar and remains there.
For centuries, the Psalter was the Church’s primary hymnal: St. John Chrysostom says that every Christian (not just monks) knew it by heart in his day, and St. Thomas Aquinas contends that the Psalms contain the entire Gospel. Understandably then, verses from the Psalms frequently come to the mind of a spiritual ruminant: they appear on virtually every page of St. Augustine’s Confessions and they are prominent in the traditional Roman rite. Following Psalm 42 and the Confiteor are a series of versicles taken from Psalm 84, and during the Offertory, the sacred liturgy aptly joins the priest’s washing of his hands with Psalm 25, 6-12 and his blessing of incense with Psalm 140, 2-4. When the celebrant receives the sacred Host, he utters the words of Psalm 77, 24—“I will take the Bread of Heaven and will call upon the name of the Lord.” And when he receives the Precious Blood, he utters
What return shall I make to the Lord for all He hath given to me? I will take the Chalice of Salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. Praising I will call upon the Lord, and I shall be saved from my enemies.” (Psalm 115, 3-4; 8)
Like LeClerq’s monk, the celebrant is a living concordance of the Holy Bible.
The Ordinary of the traditional Mass also contains scriptural citations from outside the Psalter. The Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Domine non sum dignus all include direct quotes from the Bible that have been lifted out of their original context and, thanks to spiritual rumination, are artfully repurposed in the liturgy for eructation. The Kyrie eleison, for instance, appears in different forms in the Gospels when Jesus is asked for help and is either addressed as “Lord” or with a similar title such as “Son of David.” (see Matt. 20, 30; Mark 10, 47) The Gloria, on the other hand, begins with the words of the angels to the shepherds that proclaim the birth of the Savior: “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace to men of good will.” (Luke 2, 14) Even the back-to-back placement of the two prayers betrays a scriptural pattern. In Luke 18, 35-43, a blind beggar prays for Jesus to have mercy on him and, after he is cured, glorifies God.
The traditional Mass is also steeped in the second category of spiritual eructation, scriptural allusions. When the priest ascends the altar and reaches it, he prays the Aufer and Oramus te. The Aufer alludes both to Solomon’s Temple and Hebrews 9, 11-13, which compares Heaven to the Holy of Holies:
Take away from us our iniquities, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that we may be worthy to enter into the Holy of Holies with pure minds. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Just as the High Priest Jesus Christ entered the Holy of Holies that is Heaven when He ascended into Heaven, the priest, acting in persona Christi, enters the most sacred part of the sanctuary after ascending the steps in front of the altar. Reaching the altar, he says:
We pray Thee, O Lord, by the merits of Thy Saints (kissing the altar) whose relics are here, and of all the Saints, that Thou wouldst deign to forgive all my sins. Amen.
The prayer asks for the intercession of the Saints whose relics are beneath the altar stone, an erstwhile requirement for every Catholic altar. The custom is tied to Revelation 6, 9, which describes “the souls of them that were slain for the word of God” being under the heavenly altar. Just as the Martyrs’ souls are in Heaven under the altar that is Christ, so too are their bodies on earth under an altar that represents Christ.
In the Munda cor meum, when the priest is about to proclaim the Gospel, he prays that God may cleanse his heart and lips and alludes to Isaiah 6,6-7, where God cleanses “the lips of the prophet Isaiah with a burning coal.” And in the blessing of incense during the Offertory rite, the priest alludes to the belief that St. Michael is the Angel whom St. John saw standing at the right side of the altar of incense. (see Rev. 8, 3)
Melchizedek, Saint Mary of the Assumption Parish (Springboro, Ohio)
In the Canon, the priest, having ruminated on the entire arc of sacred history and its pageant of sacrifices, prays that God may accept this Eucharistic offering just as He accepted the gifts of “Thy just servant Abel (see Gen. 4, 4), and the sacrifice of our patriarch Abraham, (see Gen. 22, 2-18) and that which Thy high priest Melchisedech offered to Thee.” (see Gen. 14, 18) Notice that the spiritual ruminant who composed this prayer changed the chronology so that the names are in order of how bloody their sacrifices were: Abel offered a bloody sacrifice, Abraham almost offered the bloody sacrifice of his son Isaac (followed by the sacrifice of a ram), and Melchisedech offered a non-bloody sacrifice of bread and wine. And significantly, Jesus Christ, who is both the Priest and Victim of the Eucharistic sacrifice, is a Priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech. (see Heb. 5, 10)
As for the biblical readings of the traditional Lectionary, they too are instances of spiritual eructation. On the traditional feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Epistle reading is from Proverbs 8: “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made any thing from the beginning.” The passage is a self-description of wisdom, which has been with God since before He created the Heavens and the earth; it is in no way a literal description of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is not co-eternal with God and not coterminous with wisdom. And yet by proclaiming this reading on the feast, the faithful are invited to meditate on the plan behind the Immaculate Conception. Mary was to be born on such and such a date and give birth to the Messiah so many years later, but is it not the case that for all eternity, God very much had Mary on His mind? For all eternity, He loved and cherished the idea of this, His maidenly masterpiece. Read in this light, the verses take on new meaning: “I was delighted every day, playing before Him at all times, playing in the world: and my delight is to be with the children of men.” God was delighted with Mary long before He created her, and Mary was delighted with God when she played with Him on her lap.
The Immaculate Conception, 1719, by Bartolomeo Altomonte
I bring up the feast to illustrate a simple point. Proverbs 8, 22-35 was not chosen for this Mass to give us a deeper understanding of Proverbs 8, 22-35: it was chosen to shed light on the great mystery of the Immaculate Conception. And it was chosen as a result of spiritual eructation.
New Mass
The Ordinary of the 1970 Roman Missal retains essential prayers like the Kyrie (albeit abridged), Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, and in one place adds more Scripture, the greeting “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (see 2 Cor. 13, 14) Overall, however, the new Ordinary has significantly less spiritual eructation. All the Psalms discussed above were removed, as were the references to Isaiah and St. Michael. The names of Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek were kept in Eucharistic Prayer I, but the great Canon itself was made optional.
The new Lectionary, on the other hand, has an Old Testament reading (in addition to the Epistle and Gospel) and a three-year cycle. The first and third readings have a similar theme in order to shed light “on the unity of both Testaments” [17] (but not necessarily the Mass being celebrated) while the second reading is a “semi-continuous sequence in which the liturgical context plays no part.” [18, emphasis added] According to the GIRM, the purpose of the readings at Mass is to open “the riches of the Bible” to the faithful. [19]
The goal of increasing biblical literacy is completely laudable, but as we have seen above, for most of Church history the primary purpose of the biblical readings in the Eucharistic liturgy was liturgical literacy. Moreover, it is debatable whether such copious amounts of Scripture contribute to healthy spiritual rumination or to indigestion. Friedrich Nietzsche criticized modern education because it privileges information over formation and creates dyspeptic students. “Modern man drags around inside him a huge pile of indigestible rocks of knowledge,” Nietzsche writes, “which then occasionally rattle around in his belly.” [20] Nietzsche’s image for this stuffed and noisy product of modern education is a snake,
which has swallowed an entire rabbit and then lies down contentedly still in the sunlight and avoids all movements other than the most essential…. And everyone who wanders by has only one wish, that such a culture does not collapse from indigestion. [21]
It is worth asking whether the new Lectionary likewise privileges (biblical) information over formation and therefore impedes spiritual rumination rather than encourages it, in the same way that it is difficult to drink water when being fire-hosed. And if it is an impediment, then the 1970 Missal is a strange combination: a belly full of undigested rattling Bible stones thanks to the readings, and a stomach growling for more biblically-rich prayers thanks to the Ordinary.
It seems to me that critics of the 1962 Missal’s “Lectionary” make at least two interrelated mistakes: believing that more of the Bible is automatically for the better, and forgetting that the Mass of the Catechumens is intrinsically subordinate to the Mass of the Faithful. Whatever their earliest practices, all the Apostolic liturgies both East and West developed a set of Propers that were meant to increase liturgical rather than biblical literacy; the readings were in service to the occasion and not a separate bonus.
Finally, if one of the purposes of the Mass readings is “to tap the wealth [of the Bible] for fitting prayer at fitting times,” [22] then we need to think of the readings as food to be taken for our spiritual nourishment. Good dining, both sacred and profane, rejects a “Super-Size Me” attitude and instead involves “the right amount, of the right stuff, at the right time.” [23] For most of Church history, that meant just the right amount of Scripture that it took to illuminate the liturgical meaning of the occasion. It also meant having an Ordinary that exuded the fragrant breath of spiritual ruminants. It is time once again for us to chew on that.
This article appeared in The Latin Mass magazine 33:1 (Spring 2024), pp. 28-32. Many thanks to its editors for allowing its republication.

[1] The post has since been removed, but it was also published: USCCB Committee on the Liturgy, “Ten Questions on the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Missale Romanum,” Newsletter XLIII (June-July 2007).
[2] Ibid.
[3] See Innocent Smith, O.P., “The Use of the Synoptic Gospels in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Missal,” Antiphon 21.2 (2017), 115–44.
[4] Matthew P. Hazell, Index Lectionum: A Comparative Table of Readings for the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite (Lectionary Study Press, 2016). See also Paul Turner, Words Without Alloy: A Biography of the Lectionary for Mass (Liturgical Press, 2022).
[5] Peter Miller, OSB, “Bible by the Pound: Would the Holy Spirit Agree that More Bible is Better at Mass?” in Illusions of Reform: In Defense of the Traditional Mass and the Faithful who Defend It, ed. Peter Kwasniewski (Os Justi Press, 2023), 180-197.
[6] John Cavadini, Mary Healy, Thomas Weinandy, “A Synoptic Look at the Failures and Successes of Post-Vatican II Liturgical Reforms,” Church Life Journal, December 1, 2002,
[7] Exp. on Psalm 45, par 4-5
[8] Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John 1.42.
[9] See Exp. on Psalm 45, par 8.
[10] Sermon 68.2.6.
[11] Contra Faustum 6.7. See also De Trin. 12.14.23.
[12] Exp. on Psalm 104, par 46.
[13] Summa Theologiae 1; see Contra Faustum 6.7.
[14] Jean LeClerq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, third edition, trans. Catharine Misrahi (Fordham UP, 1982), 76.
[15] Ibid,. 73-74.
[16] Ibid., 77.
[17] General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 3rd ed. (USCCB, 2003), no. 57.
[18] Adrien Nocent, OSB, The Liturgical Year: Sundays Two to Thirty-Four in Ordinary Time, vol. 3, trans. Matthew O’Connell (Liturgical Press, 2013), 59.
[19] GIRM, 57.
[20] On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss (Hackett, 1980), 24. [21] Ibid.
[22] Miller, 189.
[23] Miller, 189.

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