Sunday, February 05, 2023

The Book of Genesis in Stone

Since the Church begins to read the book of Genesis in the Divine Office on Septuagesima Sunday, I saved these pictures of the exterior of one of my favorite churches in Italy, the Romanesque cathedral of Modena, for today. (We saw the interior on Tuesday, the feast of the St Geminianus, Patron of the church and of the city, and more on Friday.) The façade, constructed at the very beginning of the 12th century, is decorated with four panels by a sculptor named Wiligelmo, representing stories of the Creation, the Fall of Man, and the Flood. These stories are placed on the outside of the church to remind us of our fallen condition and consequent removal from the presence of God, a presence which for Christians is regained inside the Church. The plant and animal motifs inside the church and on its doors show us where the garden of Paradise may now truly be found.

God the creator; the creation of Adam; the creation of Eve; the Serpent speaks to Adam and Eve.

God rebukes Adam and Eve; He expels them from the garden; Adam and Eve begin to work the earth.
Cain an Abel make their offerings to God; Cain kills Abel; God rebukes and curses Cain.
Lamech kills Cain; Noah’s Ark; Noah and his sons leave the ark.

Saturday, February 04, 2023

The Five Prayers of the Candlemas Blessing and the Five Books of Moses

The Gospel of the feast of the Purification, St Luke 2, 22-32, says in its first verse that the Christ Child was presented in the temple in Jerusalem “according to the Law of Moses.” This refers to Leviticus 12, which states that “(i)f a woman having received seed shall bear a man child, she shall be unclean seven days … and on the eighth day the infant shall be circumcised, but she shall remain three and thirty days in the blood of her purification. … And when the days of her purification are expired, … she shall bring to the door of the tabernacle of the testimony, a lamb of a year old for a holocaust, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for sin, and shall deliver them to the priest, who shall offer them before the Lord, and shall pray for her…” In the Tridentine reform of the Roman Breviary, this chapter was made the second and third reading of Matins on February 2nd.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 1620, by the Flemish painter Cornelis de Vos (1584-1621). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.  
From the very beginning, as the Church wrestled with the question of whether the observances of the Mosaic law remained valid for its members, one of the strongest arguments in favor of them was that Christ Himself, who said that “not one jot or tittle should pass away from the Law” (Matt. 5, 18), had observed them Himself. The Church Fathers, therefore, emphasize that He did so in order to indicate to us the true meaning of the Law of Moses, as a prefiguration of the new Law of the Gospel. In the mid-3rd century, the great Biblical scholar and commenter Origen, who was very influential on subsequent generation of the Fathers, writes that Christ “ ‘was made under the Law to redeem those who were under the Law’, and subject them to another Law.” (Homily 14 on Luke, citing Gal. 4, 5) In St Ambrose’s time, the Presentation of Christ in the temple was celebrated on January 1st along with the Circumcision, and he comments on this passage of St Luke: “he that is circumcised of vices was judged worthy of the sight of the Lord… you see that the whole succession of the old Law was a figure of the future, for even circumcision signifies the purification of sins.” (Exposition on the Gospel of Luke, II, 56)

St Cyril of Alexandria also comments on the two episodes, the Circumcision and Presentation, at the same time. “(T)oday we have seen Him obedient to the laws of Moses, or rather we have seen Him Who as God is the Legislator, subject to His own decrees…” But the sacrifice of the birds that accompanied the latter has a mystical significance. “The (turtledove)... is the noisiest of the birds of the field: but the (pigeon) is a mild and gentle creature. And such did the Savior of all become towards us, showing the most perfect gentleness, and like a turtledove moreover soothing the world, and filling His own vineyard, even us who believe in Him, with the sweet sound of His voice. For it is written in the Song of Songs, ‘The voice of the turtledove has been heard in our land.’ (Cant. 2, 12) For Christ has spoken to us the divine message of the Gospel, which is for the salvation of the whole world.” (Sermon III on the Gospel of St Luke, ad finem.)

Finally, we may note the words of St Bede the Venerable, that neither Christ nor His Mother were subject to the conditions of the Law. Moses writes that a woman shall do these things when “she has received seed,” and born a child, to distinguish from Her that conceived and bore a Son as a Virgin. Christ “was free from the condition of the Law, but deigned to accept it for this reason, that He might approve it as holy, just and good, and by the grace of Faith, free us from the service and fear thereof.” (Exposition on the Gospel of Luke, Liber I in cap. 2)

In the Byzantine Rite, the feast of the Purification is called “the Meeting of the Lord with Simeon”, and the liturgical texts of the feast lay great emphasis on Christ as the giver of the Law which He obeys, and from the observance of which He then releases the Church. This hymn from Vespers typifies the motif: “Today Simeon receiveth the Lord of glory in his arms, even He whom Moses saw of old beneath the darkness on Mount Sinai, giving him the tablets. This is the One who spoke in the Prophets, and the Maker of the Law; this is the One whom David proclaimeth, feared of all, that hath great and rich mercy.”
A painting in the cathedral of Holy Wisdom in Kyiv, Ukraine, based on Proverbs 9, 1-11, the first words of which are written in Greek on the building’s cornice. God the Father, with the seven great archangels to either side sends the Holy Spirit down upon the Virgin Mary, who stands in the middle of Wisdom’s house, with the Christ Child in a halo on Her chest, the icon type known as the “Virgin of the Sign.” The steps ascending towards Her are labelled “Faith (cut off by the frame), Hope, Love, Purity, Humility, Grace, Glory”; to the left are shown David, Aaron, and closest to Her, Moses, to the right, the four Major Prophets. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Several other texts on the feast and during its Afterfeast (the Byzantine equivalent of an octave) refer to the darkness that enveloped Mt Sinai when Moses when up to receive the Law, which is implicitly contrasted with the “light unto the revelation of the gentiles” of which Simeon speaks in the Nunc dimittis. Thus, the old Law, including the rites of circumcision and the sacrifice of purification, was revealed in darkness, and applicable only to the Jewish people. But it was intended to serve as a figure of the new Law, in which circumcision is replaced with baptism which is applicable to all, “male and female, Jew and Gentile.” And thus, the feast on January 6th, which celebrates the Baptism of the Lord, is called the Theophany, but also simply “the lights.”

The Roman Rite prefers great simplicity and subtlety in its rhetoric. In the context of this feast, it asserts this relationship between the Lawgiver and the Law, and the passage from the Old Law to the New, through the five prayers of the candle blessing, each of which refers, in order, to one of the five books of the Law of Moses.

The first prayer, corresponding to Genesis, begins with the words “Lord, … who created all things from nothing…”, a reference to the creation of the world. This also explains the statement that candles are made for the use of men, and the health of their body and souls, “whether on land or at sea”, since Moses’ account of creation includes the division of the land from the waters, and the creation of man “as a living soul.” (Gen. 2, 7) This is the only one of the five prayers that mentions the Virgin Mary, the new Eve; it asks for the prayers of “all Thy Saints”, perhaps in reference to the holy Patriarchs of the Old Testament. The last part asks that that God “be merciful to all those who cry out to Thee, whom Thou hast redeemed by the precious blood of Thy Son”, a reference to the blood of the just Abel that cries to God from the earth.

The second prayer, which corresponds to Exodus, states that the faithful received the blessed candles “unto the magnificence of Thy name.” This refers to the Canticle of Moses in chapter 15, a passage familiar to all Christians from its presence among the prophecies of the Easter vigil. “Let us sing to the Lord: for he is gloriously magnified… The Lord is my strength and my praise, and he is become salvation to me: he is my God and I will glorify him: the God of my father, and I will exalt him. The Lord is as a man of war, Almighty is his name.”

(Exodus 14, 24 -15, 1, followed by the Tract from chapter 15, verses 1 and 2, sung at the vigil of Pentecost.)
The third prayer corresponds to Leviticus, and asks that the faithful may “be without the blindness of all vices, so that… we may be able to see those things which are pleasing to Thee and useful to our salvation.” This refers to the Church’s distinction between the perennially valid precepts of the moral law contained in Leviticus, and in the Law generally, and the ritual prescriptions to which She is no longer bound. Notice also here the contrast between light and darkness of which the Byzantine liturgy speaks: “so that after the dark ‘discrimina’ (both ‘hazards’ and ‘decisions’) of this age, we may merit to come to the light unfailing.”

The fourth prayer begins with a reference to God’s command to Moses to prepare oil for the lights that burn before Him in the tabernacle of the covenant. In St Jerome’s Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, this is mentioned three times in Exodus, and twice more in Numbers, the fourth book of the Law, with the verb “concinnare – to make, prepare”, which is also used in this prayer. The prayer that “the light of Thy spirit not be lacking inwardly to our minds” refers, perhaps, to the sharing of Moses’ spirit with the seventy elders of Israel described in chapter 11.

Finally, the fifth prayer, which corresponds to Deuteronomy, asks that we may be “enlightened and taught by the Holy Spirit.” This refers to the canticle of Moses in chapter 32, which begins with the words, “Let my doctrine gather as the rain, … I will invoke the name of the Lord: give ye magnificence to our God.” At the Easter vigil, after these words are sung in the Tract after the eleventh prophecy, the Church states in the prayer that follows that God “willed to teach the people by the singing of His holy song.” The prayer concludes with the petition that “we may truly know and faithfully love” God, a reference to the words of chapter 6, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole strength.” This commandment appears nowhere else in the Law of Moses, and is, of course, commended by the Lord Himself as the first and greatest commandment. (Matt. 22, 37)

Friday, February 03, 2023

More Pictures of Modena Cathedral

Following up on Tuesday’s post, here are some more pictures of one of my favorite churches in Italy, the cathedral of Modena, dedicated to a St Geminianus, bishop of the city in the later 4th century, and the Virgin of the Assumption.

Romanesque capitals in the crypt.
A polyptych of the Coronation of the Virgin Mary, with Ss. Nicholas, Christopher, Geminianus and Anthony the Abbot, by Serafino de’ Serafini, 1385. This chapel is at the very top of the large staircase that leads to the highly elevated main sanctuary.
The decorative slab on the front of this altar was carved in the 9th century.
Modern work in the main apse of the church.

Thursday, February 02, 2023

Ambrosian Processional Chants for the Purification

In Rome, the blessing of candles on the feast of the Purification was traditionally done at the church of St Adrian in the Roman Forum, followed by a procession to the oldest church in the city and the world dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Santa Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline Hill. This custom gradually fell into disuse, and no station is mentioned in the Roman Missal on February 2, but of course, the blessing and procession are still held.

The Ambrosian Rite underwent a similar development. The clergy of the cathedral would traditionally bless the candles at a church called Santa Maria Beltrade, founded in 836, less than half a mile from the modern Piazza del Duomo, and then process back to the cathedral for the Mass. This procession has long since been transferred to the cathedral itself, which is also dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but a very ancient custom has been preserved of carrying an image of the Virgin and Child, known as the “Idea”, in the Candlemas procession. This is seen in a relief carving of the 12th century formerly in Santa Maria Beltrade; since the church was demolished in 1934, it has been at the Museum of the Castello Sforzesco. Pictures of the Idea currently used, and of Santa Maria Beltrade, are given below.) 
The procession with the Idea in the Duomo of Milan in 2013.
The Ambrosian form of the blessing is rather simpler than the Roman. It begins with the same introductory formula used at the hours of the Divine Office in both the Roman and Ambrosian Rite (“Deus in adjotorium, etc.”), followed by a triple “Kyrie eleison” (a very frequent feature in all things Ambrosian), and then a prayer which is proper to the Rite.

“Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui hodierna die cum legalibus sacrificiis in templo præsentari, et justi Simeonis ulnis gestari, dignatus es: benedic, quæsumus, hanc papyrum cerea pinguedine superductam; ut tuus eam populus, igne caritatis tuæ accensus, ad laudem, et gloriam nominis tui gestans; pietatis tuæ dono, indeficiens se lumen habere cognoscat. Qui vivis.
Almighty and everlasting God, who on this day deigned to be presented in the temple with the sacrifices of the Law, and borne in the arms of Simeon the just, bless, we pray, this papyrus covered in the richness of wax, that Thy people, enkindled with the fire of Thy love, bearing it to the praise and glory of Thy name, may know by the gift of Thy love, that it hath the unfailing Light who liveth and reigneth with Thee, etc.”
The candles are then sprinkled with holy water and incensed as in the Roman Rite, and distributed to the clergy and faithful, without any prescribed chant accompanying the distribution. This is the form found in the earliest Ambrosian liturgical sources, such as the 10th century Manual of Valtravaglia, but in the post-Tridentine reform of the Ambrosian Missal, several elements were added to the ceremony from the Roman Rite: the fourth and first of the five Roman prayers of the blessing, the Nunc dimittis with its antiphon, the antiphon Exsurge, and the concluding prayer. In the 1902 reform of the Missal, all of these elements were removed, and the ceremony returned to its original form.
The procession then begins, with the same ceremonies as in the Roman Rite (incense, processional cross, etc.) and is accompanied by a repertoire of 21 antiphons. The following recording has 8 of these, beginning at 2:15.
I Virgo Dei Genitrix,
quem totus non capit orbis
in tua te clausit viscera
factus homo.
Virgin Mother of God, He whom
the world could not contain enclosed
Himself within Thy womb, having
become a man.
II Beata progenies
unde Christus natus est:
Quam gloriosa est Virgo
quae caeli Regem genuit!
Blessed is the daughter from whom
Christ was born: how glorious is
the Virgin who begot the King of
VI Virgo Verbum concepit,
Virgo permansit,
Virgo genuit Regem
omnium regum.
The Virgin conceived the Word;
a virgin She remained;
the Virgin begot the King of all kings.
VII Beata es Maria,
quae credidisti;
perficientur in te
quae dicta sunt tibi a Domino.
Blessed art Thou, o Mary, who be-
lieved; the things which were said to
Thee by the Lord shall be brought
to pass.
X Beatam me dicent genera-
quia ancillam humilem
respexit Deus.
The generations shall call me blessed,
for God hath regarded the low estate
of His handmaid.
XIII Magnificamus te, Dei Ge-
quia ex te natus est Christus,
salvans omnes qui te glorificant:
sancta Domina Dei Genitrix,
sanctificationes tuas transmit-
   te nobis.
We magnify Thee, o Mother of God;
for from Thee was born Christ, who
saveth all that glorify Thee; holy Lady,
Mother of God, impart to us Thy
XV Virgo hodie fidelis,
etsi Verbum genuit incarnatum,
Virgo mansit et post partum;
quam laudantes omnes dicimus:
Benedicta tu in mulieribus.
Today the faithful Virgin, though She
begot the Word incarnate; remained a
virgin even after birth; who we all
praise and say, Blessed art Thou
among women.
XVII Sub tuam misericordiam
confugimus, Dei Genitrix,
ut nostram deprecationem
ne inducas in temptationem,
sed de periculo libera nos,
sola casta et benedicta.
Unto Thy mercy do we flee, o Mother
of God, that Thou may not bring our
supplication unto trial, but deliver us
from danger, who alone are chaste and

If the procession has gone out of the church, when it returns to the door, the processional cross stops before it, while the clergy and servers stand facing each other in two lines, with the celebrant facing the cross. The choir sings Kyrie, eleison, twelve times, six low and six high, and then an antiphon called a psallendum. As the choir sings Gloria Patri, all bow to the cross, and at Sicut erat, to the celebrant, and the procession then enters. (If the procession is done within the church, this ceremony is done at the chancel of the main sanctuary.)  

Psallendum Senex Puerum portabat, Puer autem senem regebat: quem Virgo concepit, et post partum virgo permansit; ipseum quem geniut, adoravit. Gloria Patri... Sicut erat... Senex Puerum...

Psallendum The old man carried the boy, but the boy ruled the old man, even He whom the Virgin conceived, and after the birth, remained a virgin; She adored Him whom She begot. Glory be... As it was... The old man...

The two sides of the Madonna dell’Idea, painted by Michelino and Leonardo da Besozzo in the 2nd quarter of the 15th century. (Both images from Wikimedia Commons by Dimitris Kamaras, 
CC BY 2.0)
The church of Santa Maria in Beltrade, reconstructed as seen here in 1601. 

The Presentation of the Lord and Purification of the Virgin 2023

Simeon received a revelation from the Holy Spirit, that he should not see death before he had seen the Anointed of the Lord; * And he blessed God, and said: Now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, o Lord. ℣. When His parents brought the Child Jesus, to do for Him after the custom of the law, he took Him up in his arms. And blessed God... (The fifth Matins responsory of the Purification.)

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 1342, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290-1348). Originally commissioned for one of the side altars in the cathedral of the artist’s native city, Siena, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
℟. Responsum accépit Símeon a Spíritu Sancto, non visúrum se mortem, nisi vidéret Christum Dómini: * Et benedixit Deum, et dixit: Nunc dimittis servum tuum in pace, quia vidérunt óculi mei salutáre tuum, Dómine. ℣. Cum indúcerent púerum Jesum parentes ejus, ut fácerent secundum consuetúdinem legis pro eo, ipse accépit eum in ulnas suas. Et benedíxit Deum...
This very nice recording corresponds to the text given above for the first part, but adds the words of Nunc dimittis, “Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel. – A light for the revelation of the gentiles”, and begins the repetition at “Nunc dimittis...”
A beautiful polyphonic version of the first part by William Byrd.

And another by the Italian composer Luca Marenzio.

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Photopost Request: Candlemas 2023

Our next major photopost will be for tomorrow’s feast of Candlemas; please send your photos of the blessing of candles, the procession and the Mass, Vespers etc. to for inclusion. As always, we will be very glad to receive photographs of celebrations in either Form of the Roman Rite, any of the Eastern rites, the Ordinariate Use, etc. We will also include photos of the blessing of throats in honor of St Blase, whether it is done on the feast itself, or anticipated on February 2nd. Please be sure to include the name and location of the church, and always feel free to add any other information you think important. Evangelize through beauty!

From our first Candlemas photopost of last year: a statue of the Virgin Mary carried in procession at the church of Nuestra Señora del Pilar, home of the FSSP apostolate in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The blessing of throats in honor of St Blase at the Oratory of St Mary in Wausau, Wisconsin, a church of the Institute of Christ the King.

From the second post: the festal icon is brought out to the nave of St Basil the Great Byzantine Catholic Church in Los Gatos, California.

The Gospel at Mass in the Ordinariate Rite at the church of St John the Baptist in Bridgeport, Pennsylvania.

New Videos of Old Liturgies on YouTube

We are glad to see that after some years of inactivity, the very interesting YouTube channel Caerimoniale Romanum has begun posting new videos again - feliciter! More than 80 have gone up in the last few weeks, so here are just a few recent example (unfortunately without sound), footage of liturgies celebrated by His Eminence Manuel Cardinal Gonçalves Cerejeira, who was Patriarch of Lisbon from 1929 until 1971. The first is of a Mass celebrated in 1959.

Another from 1960.
And another from Pentecost Sunday of 1968, which shows him wearing the fanon.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Cathedral of Saint Geminianus in Modena (Part 1)

Today is the feast day of Saint Geminianus, the patron Saint of the small but lovely city of Modena in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy; he died in the year 397. Not very much is known about him, (he is not even included in Butler’s Lives of the Saints), but devotion to him flourished in northern Italy. His name was even adopted by the much smaller Tuscan city of San Gimignano about a hundred miles away, one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. The cathedral of Modena is dedicated to him and the Virgin of the Assumption, and is one of my favorite churches in all of Italy. Later this week, we will have some more pictures of the interior. Since this coming Sunday is Septuagesima, on which the Church begins to read Genesis in the Divine Office, I will post some pictures of the exterior, which is decorated with sculpted panels of some of the stories from that book.

The cathedral museum preserves this decorated folio for the use of the bishop when he presided over Vespers of the Patronal feast; it contains only the opening verse “Deus, in adjutorium...”, the intonations of the first antiphon, the hymn, and the antiphon of the Magnificat, and the prayer.
The main sanctuary is considerably elevated above the floor of the nave, accessed by staircases on either side, while the crypt beneath is only a few steps lower. The reliefs on the liturgical pulpit show Christ and the Four Evangelists; those on the balustrade show the Passion of Christ. For obvious reasons, the Last Supper is given a prominent place, perhaps in deliberate imitation of the Byzantine custom of representing it on the iconostasis. Note also that the rood screen was never removed.
The entrance to the crypt.
The crypt itself is a small forest of well preserved Romanesque columns and capitals of the 12th century.
The sarcophagus which preserves the relics of St Geminianus, made in the late 4th century.

Candlemas with the St Ann Choir in Palo Alto, California

On Thursday, February 2nd, the St Ann Choir will sing a Latin Mass for the feast of the Presentation of the Lord and the Purification of the Virgin Mary at the church of St Thomas Aquinas, located at 751 Waverly St (at Homer) in Palo Alto, California. The ceremony begins at 8pm with the blessing of candles and a procession; the music will include the Mass O magnum mysterium by Tomas Luis de Victoria, and the proper Gregorian chants.

We Must Recognize the Utility of Beauty if We are to Transform American Culture

It is common for people who wish to see beauty in contemporary culture to be critical of architecture, say, for being ugly because it is designed on ‘utilitarian’ principles. What they mean by this is that the architect has not considered how to make his design beautiful, because he is only interested in creating a building that serves its function. For example, a newly built library is ugly because the architect only considered how it could house and give people access to books, and made no effort to incorporate a beautiful design. The critics of such a library would argue, typically, that the artist ought to have made the library beautiful as well as creating a design based upon its utility (or to use another word, ‘usefulness’). 

I would argue slightly differently. I would say that when any human artifact is made well it is beautiful. Beauty is not something that is an add-on to its usefulness. Rather when the library is as useful in the fullest sense of the word, it is inevitable that it will  be beautiful. Beauty, as I see it, is intimately bound up with utility, because when it has integrity, everything about it is in conformity to its purpose.  

The problem with our ugly library is not that the architect was utilitarian. Rather, because he only considered the material instead of the spiritual needs of readers, he did not understand the full purpose of a library. In fact he was not utilitarian enough! If people are to be at ease and able to read in peace and tranquility, the building must be a beautiful environment for reading. These functions of a beautiful library are related to our spiritual needs. Any information that we read and which is grasped by the intellect will have an impact on our spiritual lives too and it is important that the environment predisposes us to open to both spiritual and intellectual formation through what we read. Traditional church architecture has been proven over time to create the environment leads to contemplation of God. The main focus on the design of churches is as a place of worship, however activity of worship properly  includes the engagement of the intellect through the reception of information that is imparted to us via written and spoken word. It is appropriate, therefore that the design of a library should draw on that of a church, so that we learn what we read in such a way that it raises our hearts to God. And, traditionally this is precisely what we see. It is no accident that the libraries of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges are built in the gothic style. The design of the library is not identical to the college chapel, being proper to the function of a library, but it is closely related to it.
The cloister at Boston Public Library, early 20th century
This is not suggesting that every human activity has a spiritual component. Rather, since the human person is a unity of body and soul,  even activities directed primarily towards the good of the body,  must impact the soul as well. 

Take the most mundane of activities, say, cleaning our teeth. I brush my teeth every day because I want to be healthy and I don’t want my breath to smell bad. I cannot for the life of me see how I can brush my teeth spiritually! However, to have bodily health contributes to my well being as a person and hence contributes in some indirect way to my spiritual health too, thereby enhancing my capacity to undertake the work of the Lord. A toothbrush suited to its purpose will therefore have a beauty that speaks of this greater picture of the benefits of cleaning our teeth in a way that is in harmony with its primary purpose, and will incline us to use it for the benefit of our health. This is the utility of beauty in a toothbrush! It would be perfectly reasonable, therefore, to incorporate traditional proportions, which are rooted in the beauty of the cosmos, into the design of toothbrushes. 

The mundane: English Edwardian toothbrushes

When, unlike a toothbrush,  the object we are considering does have a direct impact on the spiritual life, such as how we pray, then it is all the more obvious that its beauty, which directs us to God, has a direct impact on our ability to carry out that activity well. The beauty of sacred art plays a direct role in raising our hearts to heaven which is what we must do to pray well. This means that everything associated with the liturgy for example, the art, music, architecture, vestments and so on, must be appropriately beautiful in order to serve its purpose well. 

And the sacred! Both should be beautiful

Monday, January 30, 2023

A Follow-up on Vocal Prayer and Mental Prayer: Wisdom from Benedict XVI

As we approach the one month anniversary of the death of Joseph Ratzinger, I wish to share with NLM readers one of my favorite parts of the ever-quotable Jesus of Nazareth series — namely, the place in volume 1, From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, where Ratzinger is commenting on the Our Father.

He has what strikes me as a perfectly balanced understanding of the relationship of vocal prayer to higher forms of prayer: he sees how they are intrinsically and necessarily connected, so that the lower is not reduced to a ladder to be kicked away. Since my own article “The Denigration of Vocal Prayer in the Name of ‘Mental Prayer’: A Recipe for Disaster” was misunderstood by some as a denigration of mental prayer (!), I thought it would be worthwhile to share the wisdom of Benedict XVI on the matter. After the selection from this book, I have included a pertinent passage from Spe Salvi.

* * *
This is what prayer really is — being in silent inward communion with God. It requires nourishment, and that is why we need articulated prayer in words, images, or thoughts.

The more God is present in us, the more we will really be able to be present to him when we utter the words of our prayers. But the converse is also true: Praying actualizes and deepens our communion of being with God. Our praying can and should arise above all from our heart, from our needs, our hopes, our joys, our sufferings, from our shame over sin, from our gratitude for the good. It can and should be a wholly personal prayer.

But we also constantly need to make use of those prayers that express in words the encounter with God experienced both by the Church as a whole and by individual members of the Church. For without these aids to prayer, our own praying and our image of God become subjective and end up reflecting ourselves more than the living God. In the formulaic prayers that arose first from the faith of Israel and then from the faith of praying members of the Church, we get to know God and ourselves as well. They are a “school of prayer” that transforms and opens up our life.

In his rule, St Benedict coined the formula Mens nostra concordet voci nostrae — our mind must be in accord with our voice (Rule 19,7). Normally, thought precedes word; it seeks and formulates the word. But praying the Psalms and liturgical prayer in general is exactly the other way round: The word, the voice, goes ahead of us, and our mind must adapt to it. For on our own we human beings do not “know how to pray as we ought” (Rom 8:26)–we are too far removed from God, he is too mysterious and too great for us. And so God has come to our aid: He himself provides the words of our prayer and teaches us to pray. Through the prayers that come from him, he enables us to set out toward him; by praying together with the brothers and sisters he has given us, we gradually come to know him and draw closer to him.

In St Benedict’s writings, the phrase cited just now refers directly to the Psalms, the great prayer book of the People of God of the Old and New Covenant. The Psalms are words that the Holy Spirit has given to men; they are God’s Spirit become word. We thus pray “in the Spirit” with the Holy Spirit.

This applies even more, of course, to the Our Father. When we pray the Our Father, we are praying to God with words given by God, as St Cyprian says. And he adds that when we pray the Our Father, Jesus’ promise regarding the true worshipers, those who adore the Father “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23) is fulfilled in us. Christ, who is the truth, has given us these words, and in them he gives us the Holy Spirit.

This also reveals something of the specificity of Christian mysticism. It is not in the first instance immersion in the depths of oneself, but encounter with the Spirit of God in the word that goes ahead of us. It is encounter with the Son and the Holy Spirit and thus a becoming-one with the living God who is always both in us and above us. […]

The fact that Luke places the Our Father in the context of Jesus’ own praying is therefore significant. Jesus thereby involves us in his own prayer; he leads us into the interior dialogue of triune love; he draws our human hardships deep into God’s heart, as it were.

This also means, however, that the words of the Our Father are signposts to interior prayer, they provide a basic direction for our being, and they aim to configure us to the image of the Son. The meaning of the Our Father goes much futher than the mere provision of a prayer text. It aims to form our being, to train us in the inner attitude of Jesus (cf. Phil 2:5).

This has two different implications for our interpretation of the Our Father. First of all, it is important to listen as accurately as possible to Jesus’ words as transmitted to us in Scripture. We must strive to recognize the thoughts Jesus wished to pass on to us in these words. But we must also keep in mind that the Our Father originates from his own praying, from the Son’s dialogue with the Father. This means that it reaches down into depths far beyond the words. It embraces the whole compass of man’s being in all ages and can therefore never be fully fathomed by a purely historical exegesis, however important this may be.

The great men and women of prayer throughout the centuries were privileged to receive an interior union with the Lord that enabled them to descend into the depths beyond the word. They are therefore able to unlock for us the hidden treasures of prayer. And we may be sure that each of us, along with our totally personal relationship with God, is received into, and sheltered within, this prayer. Again and again, each one of us with his mens, his own spirit, must go out to meet, open himself to, and submit to the guidance of the vox, the word that comes to us from the Son. In this way his own heart will be opened, and each individual will learn the particular way in which the Lord wants to pray with him. [1]

* * *
For prayer to develop this power of purification, it must on the one hand be something very personal, an encounter between my intimate self and God, the living God. On the other hand it must be constantly guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints, by liturgical prayer, in which the Lord teaches us again and again how to pray properly.

Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, in his book of spiritual exercises, tells us that during his life there were long periods when he was unable to pray and that he would hold fast to the texts of the Church's prayer: the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the prayers of the liturgy.

Praying must always involve this intermingling of public and personal prayer. This is how we can speak to God and how God speaks to us. [2]


[1] pp 130-33 in Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1
[2] Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, n. 34

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: