Ancient and Early Mediaeval Prayer – 2: Why

Christ the King at the centre, Notre Dame de Paris
Christ the King at the centre, Notre Dame de Paris

Sometimes when a post like my most recent one appears on the Internet, someone immediately thinks the writer believes that the period in question is a Golden Age, or a more ‘pure’ age of Christian spirituality. I remember once I sent an article about first- and second-century evangelism to a friend, and it came up in the comments section of his (now dead) blog, and someone came in with all guns flaring as though he and I believed that everything done in the ancient church was perfect.

This is not how I view ancient and early mediaeval Christianity.

We have to immediately admit that things back then were not perfect — as early as Paul’s letters to the Corinthians  or the message of the Spirit to the churches n Revelation we have evidence that Christian persons are not perfect. This trend is visible not only in Patristic and Mediaeval texts that try to solve and reform problems, from 1 Clement to Gregory of Tours or the letters of Gregory the Great, but also in texts that claim to bear weighty authority — some of these are visibly heretical to post-Chalcedonian eyes, others tread near to it, others have problems mingled in with the good, invisible to their authors.

Notker the Stammerer’s Life of Charlemagne, for instance, gives us a vision of Christianity and Christian liturgy that is mostly about doing exactly the right thing at the right time; I feel that his is one of the most ritualistic (in a bad way) and legalistic texts I’ve met.

So if ancient and early mediaeval Christianity are so obviously flawed, why would I favour them in the prayerful commission of new liturgies for today’s context? Why not just, say, construct liturgies out of Bruce Cockburn lyrics or attend U2charists?

I will dispense with the absolutely subjective first. I like ancient and mediaeval prayers. I like the way they sound. I like they way they are constructed. I like the stuff they say. I like the contexts they fit. I enjoy their perspective. Furthermore, well-translated they are more beautiful than Cockburn or U2. Here an example from the Central Middle Ages, a prayer of St Anselm as translated by Sr Benedicta Ward:

Hope of my heart, strength of my soul, help of my weakness, by your powerful kindness complete what in my powerless weakness I attempt. My life, the end to which I strive, although I have not yet attained to love you as I ought, still let my desire for you be as great as my love ought to be. (The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm)

I have that on a Post-It Note on the endpage of my Book of Common Prayer. I just love it.

Another slightly less subjective reason is the connection with the historic faith and believers through the ages. Sometimes, when I receive the Eucharist, I am filled with awe at the fact that I am joining with millions of other faithful Christians on that same day to partake of the precious Body and Blood of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Nothing can compare with that mystical act. But when we pray using the old forms and old words, we are joining brothers and sisters in a transtemporal and transnational expression of piety towards the Triune God. It is not good for the man to be alone, says the LORD in Genesis. Praying ancient and mediaeval prayers is a way to unite with the rest of Christ’s mystical body and not be alone.

Furthermore, ancient and early mediaeval prayers contain powerful Gospel truths. I was raised in the evangelical, charismatic wing of Anglicanism. The glorious and wonderful Gospel of Jesus Christ — that God became a man to save us poor wretches, and that He died a terrible death for us poor sinners, and that He rose again victorious from the grave, and that He ascended, and is now present with all who call upon His Name, that we are not saved by any of the good things we may do but simply through His grace, which we must accept in faith (you know that Gospel), and so forth — is the heritage of all faithful Christians.

These truths, and other ‘Bible truths’ and theological profundities are readily available in the ancient and early mediaeval prayers. Take this one from the Gelasian Sacramentary (sections of which are 6th-century, others 7th, and a modified form after 750):

O God, Who by the Passion of Thy Christ our Lord hath dissolved that hereditary death of the ancient sin, to which the whole race of Adam’s posterity had succeeded; grant that having been made conformable unto Him, as we by necessity of nature have borne the image of the earthly, so by the sanctification of grace we may bear the image of the Heavenly, even of Christ our Lord, Who with Thee… (trans. W. Bright, Ancient Collects and Other Prayers Selected from Various Rituals)

A fourth reason is that ancient and early mediaeval prayers can speak to us in ways our own words and worlds cannot. This reason would be a reason to use any historic liturgy, be it 1662 or the Tridentine Mass or the Use of Sarum or the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom or the hymns of the Oktoekhos or Aelfwine’s Prayerbook. If our prayers are temporally bound to this moment, there is a danger of them becoming earthbound rather than heavenward.

I think there is an intuition along these lines in the liturgical reforms of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Cranmer, for instance, mined the riches of the Gelasian Sacramentary as well as seeking to establish a more ancient form of what is basically Sarum (in English with no saints, mind you). The Council of Trent explicitly sought to re-establish the worship of ‘the Fathers’. Later, Pius X in the early twentieth century was interested in reinvigorating the worship life of Roman Catholicism through Gregorian chant of all things.

If we produce new liturgies based solely upon the past several years or decades, we will be timebound, trapped by U2 or by Cockburn, by the Gettys or by Graham Kendrick, praying all the latest fads instead of deep, uncomfortable truths we may never have thought to pray about.

Fifth, these prayers are not merely old, they are tested and true. Not every prayer or ritual act found in a mediaeval manuscript and dateable to the centuries of my interest is worth our time. I think. I admit to not being sure about that, but I’ll concede the hypothetical point. Nevertheless, many of the prayers from this period made their way into the liturgies of the great branches of Christianity — take the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom or of St Basil the Great, or the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, or the Catholic Mass, or the Book of Common Prayer, or the various breviaries and liturgies of the hours — many of the prayers we find in the earliest traceable liturgies have made their way to us in these texts.

By way of example, the next time you encounter this (or similar words):

The Lord be with you.

And with thy Spirit.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up unto the Lord.

Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.

It is meet and right so to do.

It is indeed meet, right, and our bounden duty …

Thank the Lord for St Hippolytus (d. 230s) in whose day this was already traditional in the Church of Rome. And realise that this ancient liturgical moment in the ‘Anaphora’ crosses not only between Anglican/Lutheran and Roman Catholic, but across to the Eastern Orthodox and historic Oriental churches as well.

Generations of Christians have found ancient and early mediaeval prayers to be nourishing. By praying these prayers, they are able to lift their souls to heaven. By reading these words, they have found themselves in the throne room of God. By meditating on their truths, they have come nearer to the Most Holy Trinity in their frail, human understanding.

Should we not join them?

Lenten Prayers from the Gelasian Sacramentary

Here are my first offerings on this blog for this Lent, coming from these prayers, ‘collects’ in form, from the Gelasian Sacramentary, a seventh- or eighth-century sacramentary (sacrament book) of the Roman rite, traditionally attributed to the fifth-century Pope Gelasius I (r. 492-492) and one of Cranmer’s sources for the Book of Common Prayer. First:

Concede nobis, omnipotens Deus, ut per annua quadragesimalis exercitia sacramenti et ad intelligendum Christi proficiamus arcanum, et affectus eius digna conversatione sectemur. Per.

Grant to us, Almighty God, that through the annual exercises of the Lenten sacrament we may both make progress to understanding the mystery of Christ and follow after his compassion with a worthy conversion. Through our Lord Jesus who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

I felt this collect more suited to my Protestant readership than the following:

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui nobis in observatione ieiunii et eleemosynarum semine posuisti nostrorum remedia peccatorum, concede nos opere mentis et corporis semper tibi esse devotos. Per …

Almighty and everlasting God, who hast placed the curatives for our sins for us in the observance of fasting and the seed of almsgiving, grant that we may be always devoted to you by the work of mind and body. Through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Either way, the emphasis of these prayers, despite the second one calling fasts and almsgiving ‘nostrorum remedia peccatorum’*, is on the effect and purpose of Lenten discipline. Amongst the Orthodox communions and traditional Roman Catholics, as well as the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval Christians represented in these prayers, the Lenten discipline is/was the abstinence from certain foods — animal products and olive oil — in the forty-day period before Easter.

Today, many of us have some other Lenten discipline instead: abstaining from chocolate/sweets, coffee, alcohol, Facebook, blogs that annoy us; or perhaps taking on something: fasting once a week, studying a book of the Bible in depth, reading a particular spiritual book (perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book), or maybe going to a midweek service at our local church.

The purpose of these disciplines, whether traditional or modern, is to draw us to Christ. The first prayer above is for greater understanding of the mystery of Christ — a mystical and theological request — and for a greater conversion into his likeness (equally mystical and theological, frankly). The second prayer is for endless devotion to God. Sound requests, if you ask me.

Let us keep them in mind on this Lenten journey to Easter.

*For which there is, I believe, a disturbing (to us Prots) biblical precedent discussed by Pope Leo I in his sermons on fasting.

From the Gelasian Sacramentary

It is, indeed, right that, with hearts raised up on high, we worship the divine mystery* by which the human condition, with the old and earthly law ceasing, is brought forth as a new and heavenly substance, miraculously restored, so that which is carried out by the great gift of God may be celebrated with the great joy of the Church. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

From Communion Prayers at Prime for Christmas morning. My terrible translation.

*Sc. the Incarnation.

Liturgical Translations

Tonight I began translating the Gelasian Sacramentary (a digitised version is here). Given that a. my current research is into sixth-century Greek & Syriac saints’ lives and b. my future research is into fifth-century papal correspondence, this project will take a while.

Nevertheless, I believe a translation of this sacramentary is a worthwhile and important object — and not only of this sacramentary but of the Leonine and Gregorian Sacramentaries as well. Why?

I’ve been thinking about the (New) Liturgical Movement — the move for modern liturgies that began in the 1960’s and has given us the Book of Alternative Services (BAS) for the Anglican Church of Canada, the Alternate Service Book and Common Worship for the Church of England, the Novus Ordo for Roman Catholics, similar liturgies for Lutherans (Book of Worship?), a host of prayer resources such as Celtic Daily Prayer or Celebrating Common Prayer, and a proliferation of liturgies for special occasions or individuals at the local church or small group level. And the Taizé office and music.

All of this is well and good, although sometimes I have my reservations about particular moments in the Liturgical Movement. One of the reservations I have is that sometimes the Liturgical Movement, like the evangelical equivalent of Contemporary Worship, does not drink deeply enough.

Edith M. Humphrey, before she became Eastern Orthodox, recommended that writers of new songs of worship begin by drawing on the Psalms. I would echo that, calling them also to immerse themselves in the old hymns both musically and textually for a while.

For the liturgists, an immersion in the Psalms would be helpful. Also helpful would be the vast resources of the ancient and mediaeval church. For the liturgical reformers of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, this was a real possibility. Men like Quignon, Luther, Cranmer, and the editors of the 1570 Roman Missal, all knew Latin and probably Greek as well.

This meant that as they sought to reform the liturgy, they had access to centuries of liturgical writing, and we can see that Cranmer certainly put this to good use in his famous Collects that draw heavily upon the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries and his daily office includes a prayer from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (which, incidentally, is also present in that of St. Basil the Great).

Today’s liturgists, be they clergy or worship leaders or diocesan committees or church-wide committees often lack this knowledge of obsolete languages. Thus, it is harder for them to drink deeply as did their forebears. One result is collects that aren’t even properly collects, for example (as lamented somewhere on Liturgy).

Accessible translations of ancient and mediaeval liturgical texts is a worthy endeavour. As you can see, I have already done some of this with the Mediaeval Wedding and the Mediaeval Vespers (both Sarum Use). More needs to be done, for although the Sarum Missal has been translated into English (here for the Mass, here for the book on Amazon), the Sarum Breviary has not (at least, not in its entirety).

I believe that translations of liturgical texts from the long and venerable tradition of western liturgy would be a blessing to the Liturgical Movement. What do you think?

Happy Bible Sunday!

In the days of one united Prayer Book and lectionary, Anglican circles called this Sunday, the Second of Advent, “Bible Sunday” because of the Collect:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The epistle reading is similarly Bible-focussed: Romans 15:4-13.

We would do well to pray this collect over and over again, for, like many of Cranmer’s little masterpieces,* it is a sermon unto itself.  We learn first (regarding the Bible; no doubt an entire homily could be preached on “Blessed Lord”):

  • God caused all holy Scriptures to be written

This alone is to give us pause when we recall some of the things we hear, such as that the NT writers were choosy in their selection and not everything in them is historically true.  Like the Virgin Birth.  Or the Resurrection.  Or the very idea of Jesus being God-in-flesh.  If God caused all holy Scriptures to be written, then we should take these passages and doctrines very seriously before moving on to:

  • written for our learning

The purpose of this writing of Scripture was our learning.  The Bible is there to teach us.  We are to learn from it.  How?  Cranmer shows us next:

  • hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them

The Word of God is to be proclaimed and read aloud.  I believe this applies even to today when most of the population is literate.  The spoken word, as an action, has force and power different from the printed word.**  We are also to read it ourselves, though.  Sunday morning is not enough; our involvement with the Scriptures is to be personal.  As we read the words of life, we are also called to mark them, learn them, and inwardly digest them.

That last phrase, “inwardly digest them,” is among my favourite Prayer-Book phrases.  As we study the Scriptures, we aren’t just supposed to observe them critically as we would the Aeneid or the Tome of Leo.  We are to digest them.  They are to enter into our very being and become part of us.  This is a very dynamic, very physical image.  And what is the result of our intimate acquaintance with the Scriptures?

  • by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life

The Scriptures give us patience — endurance through suffering — and comfort — strength.  Through this endurance and this strength, we come to a place where we are able to embrace — again, a very personal verb — and hold fast — imagine someone holding onto a rope so as not to fall into a chasm — the blessed hope of everlasting life.

The Christian hope is not simply the hope of a better world, the hope of temporal joy, the hope of moral improvement but the hope of eternity for those who put their trust in Jesus, in God, Whose character is displayed to us on the pages of the Bible.

And whence does our hope come?

  • our Saviour Jesus Christ

The Christocentrism of Reformational thought (I acknowledge that there was/is much Christocentrism in Catholic thought; I am not speaking of Catholics, though) comes forth.  Our hope of eternity comes from Jesus.  Cling to him whom we have found in the pages of the Scriptures and we cling to our hope, we cling to eternity and escape from death.  This is a good thing.

So we should all read our Bibles, and read them carefully, so that we can come to know better the God who saves us through Jesus Christ and be transformed and cling to the hope of everlasting life.

*I hereby acknowledge Archbp. Thomas Cranmer’s debt to the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries.  Part of his genius was in selection and translation, part in adaptation of the tradition, part in original composition.

**My own adaptation of Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy.