Anselm’s prayers as meditations

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

One thing that my contact with ancient, medieval, Byzantine, and Orthodox Christianity has not done away with is my mistrust of the cult of saints. I am not interested in asking the blessed departed to intercede with God on my behalf. This creates a potential problem for me and other Protestant types in reading St Anselm’s prayers, since the bulk of them are addressed to saints.

Now, the scholarly solution, and one I endorse, is to read these as specimens of Christianity from another age. Ask the texts what they show us about high mediaeval spirituality. Ask also how they interact with St Anselm’s other work, the theology and spirituality of his contemporaries such as his mentor Lanfranc or younger contemporary Hugh of St Victor. I commend that historical task to you always, whenever you read Christian authors from a different time, for it can help bridge the gap and enliven their spirituality (and therefore your own as a result!).

But if we can use the Prayer to Christ as a means to stir up our hearts to Jesus, how can we read the prayers to saints devotionally?

I can think of two ways we can use St Anselm’s prayers to the saints devotionally. One is to use his meditations on theology that are embedded within the prayers as spurs to our own prayers and meditations. The other is to consider the virtues of the saints whom he addresses.

I prefer the first.

When we do so, we realise how stark an awareness of one’s own sin the mediaeval Christian had:

If I look within myself, I cannot bear myself;
if I do not look within myself, I do not know myself.
If I do consider myself, what I see terrifies me;
if I do not consider myself, I fall to my damnation.
If I look at myself, it is an intolerable horror;
if I do not look at myself, death is unavoidable.
Evil here, worse there, ill on every side;
but there is too much evil here,
too much that is worse there,
too much ill on every side. (Prayer to St John the Baptist, trans. B. Ward, p. 130-31)

Such thoughts run through the prayers — one of St Anselm’s concerns is that God is both judge and plaintiff — how can he stand? Condemnation is his lot. This gloomy vision of human sin and wickedness would probably be considered pathological by modern psychology. Maybe it was. Then again, maybe Anselm had it right. Maybe Know Thyself (a theme I’ve discussed before) leads directly to this awareness. And this awareness leads you directly to Christ:

God, whose goodness is not exhausted,
whose mercy is not emptied out,
whose knowledge does not fail,
whose power can effect what you will;
whence shall I ever be able to get back life,
who have thus been driven desperate by my sins?
For if you are angry against sinners,
at least, kind Lord, you are accustomed to give counsel
to those who plead with you.
Teach me, O Lord, whence I ought to hope,
so that I can pray.
For I long to pray to you;
but I neither know how because of my ignorance,
nor am I able to because of my hardness.
And I am forbidden to do it by despair because of my sins. …

Jesus, good Lord,
why did you come down from heaven,
what did you do in the world,
to what end did you give yourself over to death,
unless it was that you might save sinners?
St Paul, what did you teach
when you were passing through the world?
God, and his apostles, and you most of all,
invite us sinners to faith;
you show us this as our only safe refuge.
How then should I not hope, if I believe this,
and ask in this faith?
How can this hope be frustrated in me,
if that faith does not fail me
from which it was born? (Prayer to St Paul, pp. 145-6)

I hope that if you are interested in reading the Prayers and Meditations these meditations of mine may help you use St Anselm to deepen your own devotional life.

Advertisements

‘Repent, for the Kingdom of the Heavens is at hand!’ (Mt 4:17)

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

I discovered today that the Latin Vulgate gives paenitentiam agite — Do penance! — where English Bibles usually give, ‘Repent!’ in Matthew 4:17. The Greek is metanoeite; the automatic instinct is to opt for the English. The Latin would seem to tend towards simply performing some sort out outward act, mere ‘works righteousness’ without a related renovation of the heart. Or perhaps a purely sacramental version; confess to a priest and perform the penance assigned.

Certainly, it could be read that way. It has been used that way.

For Ivo of Chartres, who has come up on this blog a few times lately, paenitentiam agere may better be, to carry out penitence. It is interesting what happens with the switch of verb and the switching out of one English derivative from paenitentia for another. Ivo is insistent in his letters that just because a person — be he king or bishop — has performed some outward act of charity or discipline does not mean that true paenitentia has occurred.

Paenitentia involves the inward workings of the human heart. These are visible to God alone. However, for Ivo, as for medieval culture more generally, the inner person will manifest itself in outer deeds. Thus, to carry out penitence will necessarily involve both true contrition for sin and behaviour that shows a desire, a willingness, to change.

Today’s Protestant is probably still wary of this question of the outer behaviour.

For Ivo, as represented in the Prologue that he wrote for his canon law collection (the Decretum — a title it shares with many other canon law collections!), the canons of the church are remedies for sin. These canons include the order for administering penitence. I am not going to get into the concept of temporal penalties for sins in mediaeval theology for two reason: 1. I don’t feel like offending any Roman Catholic readers; 2. I am not sure what it’s development looked like in the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, whether someone believed that penitential acts could get them time off Purgatory, Ivo’s argument is fairly simple: they help you become holier. That is, with the aid of the grace of God working in you, your penitential actions will help make your soul healthier (remember the medical imagery he uses) and thus more able both to perform virtuous deeds and resist temptations to sin.

This, I think, carries with it a fuller understanding of repentance than our usual English translation of metanoeite in Matthew 4:17. Is it biblical? Well, I hope so. Here is a brief thought on metanoia: it is a word used in various situations to refer to a changing of directions — perhaps changing sides in a war, for example. To risk the etymological fallacy, it seems to have something to do with changing your nous, your mind/intellect/heart/however you wish to translate that word. In that case, Jesus is referring to changing the direction of your life and heart to live in the Kingdom of the Heavens.

To effect that change — well, here we fall back on St Paul’s various lists of virtues and vices, of fruits of the Spirit, and his exhortations to pray, to worship God, to rejoice in the Lord, to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. It strikes me that what Ivo is doing is trying to find specific applications of St Paul’s general principles for the health of those Christians who write him letters or who use his canon law collection.

And one last thing — Ivo’s Christian is not alone, not sitting about performing penitential deeds in isolation. Ivo’s Christian, clerical or lay, is part of the militia Christi — the army of Christ. He or she is a communicating member of the local Church, having received the sacrament of holy baptism and partaking of the blessed sacrament of Holy Communion. He or she is a hearer or reader of God’s word, whether in sermon or from a book.

This is the context of ideal mediaeval penitence — the real life of the church as lived in community by real people.

Bibliography:

Christof Rolker, Canon Law and the Letters of Ivo of Chartres

Ivo of Chartres, Prologue, in Somerville and Brasington, Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity, pp. 132-158.

A penitent medieval stanza

Came across this this morning before popping Parsifal into the DVD drive:

Since first I could do harm I sinned my fill;
In deed, with mouth, with all my limbs did ill;
My grief for many sins, which now I spill,
Should earlier have flowed, with Christ’s good will.

This is from a stanza of a poem to the Mother of God in Medieval English Verse, the Penguin Classic translated by Brian Stone, p. 69. My Protestant sensibilities are not much moved by the poem’s appeals to St Mary the Virgin, but this stanza struck me as a potent reminder of the human condition, however much we may try to avoid speaking of it these days.

Wrongdoing runs deep in the human soul, and the mediaeval mind was profoundly aware of this fact, as were the pious men and women of the Early Modern Age.

Have our cries of, ‘Grace, grace!’ deafened our ears to the sounds of sin today? Would it be so wrong to ‘moan and bewail’ our manifold sins and wickedness as the 1662 Book of Common Prayer says? Perhaps some ages were too obsessed with sin. And perhaps a fault of our age is ignoring it and taking it too lightly.

A Lenten Psalm: Psalm 51

Eleison me Kyrie

One of the most popular Psalms of all time (right up there with 23 and bits of 119) is Psalm 51, Miserere mei. If you were at an Ash Wednesday service at the beginning of this holy season of Lent, you probably recited this Psalm, or at least heard it sung in Renaissance Latin polyphony by a beautiful choir (as I did).

The popularity of Psalm 51 is visible beyond worldwide Ash Wednesday services. It was part of the Daily Office in the mediaeval British Use of Sarum at both Lauds and Vespers. I have heard it sung at Eastern Orthodox Vespers on more than one occasion. Psalm 51’s presence in the Daily Office of the western church is no surprise, given that Benedict lists it explicitly as part of Sunday Matins (ch. 12). If one were to scour liturgical books, Psalm 51 would be one of those items that crops up fairly often.

The cause of Psalm 51’s popularity is given by St. Athanasius (d. 373) in his very interesting Letter to Marcellinus:

It seems to me, moreover, that because the Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his own soul, he cannot help but render them in such a manner that their words go home with equal force to those who hear him sing, and stir them also to a like reaction. Sometimes it is repentance that is generated in this way, as by the conscience-stirring words of Psalm 51 …

But suppose now that you have sinned and, having been put to confusion, are repenting and begging for forgiveness, then you have the words of confession and repentance in Psalm 51. (Trans. ‘A religious of CSMV’, 1982 ed., pp. 105, 110)

This is what Psalms are for. They are for singing and for praying. They are for providing us with a biblical outlet for our spiritual lives. Psalm 51, written by King David after he had been confronted by Nathan the Prophet following the death of Uriah the Hittite and David’s adultery with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, is a wondrously apt Psalm for repentance.

There are two great levellers in human experience — sin and grace. All Christians everywhere have felt the weight of their own sin at times. Even as grace lifts us up as children and heirs of God, sin brings us down to remind us that we are unworthy of this honour. And so time and again, we turn to Psalm 51 to lament our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness (as in the BCP collect for Ash Wednesday).

So let us all reflect upon the words of this Psalm. In 1662, you would have sung it or recited it in the words of Coverdale’s translation. If you know how to do a basic Anglican chant and you’re not in an office or a Postgrad study space, William Law encourages you to sing the Psalms aloud. Athanasius assures you that in singing you take up the role of the Psalmist more fully.

Here it is:

Psalm 51. Miserere mei, DeusHave mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness : according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences.
2. Wash me throughly from my wickedness : and cleanse me from my sin.
3. For I acknowledge my faults : and my sin is ever before me.
4. Against thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight : that thou mightest be justified in thy saying, and clear when thou art judged.
5. Behold, I was shapen in wickedness : and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
6. But lo, thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.
7. Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean : thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8. Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness : that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
9. Turn thy face from my sins : and put out all my misdeeds.
10. Make me a clean heart, O God : and renew a right spirit within me.
11. Cast me not away from thy presence : and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
12. O give me the comfort of thy help again : and stablish me with thy free Spirit.
13. Then shall I teach thy ways unto the wicked : and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
14. Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, thou that art the God of my health : and my tongue shall sing of thy righteousness.
15. Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord : and my mouth shall shew thy praise.
16. For thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it thee : but thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
17. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit : a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.
18. O be favourable and gracious unto Sion : build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
19. Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness, with the burnt-offerings and oblations : then shall they offer young bullocks upon thine altar.

Lent in 1662: The Commination

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, an edition of said book that was to endure for centuries with little or no modification, and from which all of today’s Anglican Prayer Books, from Edinburgh to Toronto, from New York to Singapore, from Nairobi to Wellington are descended.

This book is descended from the work of Thomas Cranmer in the sixteenth century, itself a reformed, Anglicised version of the mediaeval Latin Use of Sarum (from which I have my translations of the marriage ceremony and a version of Vespers available on this site).

1662 includes, for Ash Wednesday, ‘A Commination‘ (literally, ‘threatening of vengeance’), descended from 1549’s service for the First Day of Lent. This service breathes fire; those with a knee-jerk reaction to things Reformed will take one look at its preface and declare, ‘This is why I’m not Reformed!’

Here is the fiery text of 1662:

BRETHREN, in the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin were put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend.
Instead whereof, until the said discipline may be restored again, (which is much to be wished,) it is thought good, that at this time (in the presence of you all) should be read the general sentences of God’s cursing against impenitent sinners, gathered out of the seven and twentieth Chapter of Deuteronomy, and other places of Scripture; and that ye should answer to every Sentence, Amen: To the intent that, being admonished of the great indignation of God against sinners, ye may the rather be moved to earnest and true repentance; and may walk more warily in these dangerous days; fleeing from such vices, for which ye affirm with your own mouths the curse of God to be due.

The service proceeds to list various sinners the Bible calls ‘accursed’ — not just idolaters or cursers of parents, but those who move their neighbour’s landmark as well. Most of us would agree with someone who listed these sins that they are bad — those who purposefully divert the blind, adulterers, fornicators, murderers of the innocent for profit, those who trust humans rather than God and the rest.

But we are careful today to use the word ‘cursed’ of those who commit these sins. Deuteronomy isn’t, declaring a whole swathe of sinners cursed (Gk. epikataratos, Lat. maledictus)* before entering the Promised Land. And in Deuteronomy, as in 1549 and 1662, the people are to answer, ‘Amen,’ to each declaration of cursedness.

I do not think that this service is either excessively ‘Reformed’ in the most dour vision of the Reformed or ‘mediaeval’ in the most fire-and-brimstone vision of mediaeval piety.

The purpose, as with much mediaeval and Reformed proclamations of sin, is to call sinners to repentance. No doubt the Mosaic version had much the same bent. Sin is a reality and it has real consequences. Part of Lent, at least in western views since the Middle Ages, is to repent us of our sins.

If the list of sins seems a bit much to us, perhaps that is good. Perhaps we need a reminder of our own ‘wretchedness’ (to use another BCP word). Once we stand face to face with our own depravity, then can we all the more rejoice in God’s grace.

This is the end goal of healthy mediaeval and Reformed piety. Not for us to spend our lives in sack cloth and ashes, rubbing excrement on our faces like King Priam upon the death of Hector. No, rather, it is for us to acknowledge our own brokenness and to turn to the redeemer for the grace he gives and to be transformed into his likeness.

Finally, a note for those who think this sort of call against sinners is ‘Old Testament’ or ‘too mediaeval’ or ‘Reformed’, take note of the lists of sinners who will not partake in the Kingdom of God according to St. Paul, take a look at Tertullian’s work On Modesty, observe Leo the Great’s calls to sinners, read the Eastern Greek Mark the Monk’s fear for his own salvation despite his asceticism. It is a healthy balance to our joy, not something to abandon because of certain excesses in particular times, places, and traditions.

*If I can’t do Hebrew, I can at least pull out the Classical languages!