On Language for the Liturgy, II

One of the issues that’s on the table when it comes to liturgy is the balance between poetry and prose. These two are not discrete things that stand apart from one another but, rather, describe two points on a spectrum of language use. On the prose end, the language ought to be clear, direct, and unmistakable. On the poetic end, language should be allusive/elusive and multivalent. Neither option is “good” or “bad”; instead, they serve different functions for different purposes. As a result, every piece of writing can fall somewhere on the spectrum between poetry and prose, some being more on one side of the spectrum than another.

Placing things on the spectrum is a matter of analyzing a number of qualities in a composition. Poetry tends to use ornamented language, elevated diction, archaic or antiquated language or constructions, and figures of thought and speech. Figures of speech include the subcategory of aural figures that most people commonly associate with the purer forms of poetry: alliteration (matching initial sounds), assonance (matching internal sounds), rhyme (matching ending sounds), and cadence (if it has a regular and/or repetitive flow).  A chief function of poetry is to communicate mood, feeling, or expression. Prose at its most prosaic is simple, clear, and direct. A chief function of prose is the communication of data or information. Most forms of writing that modern Westerners encounter tend to be prose or to be on the prose side of the spectrum; we tend to read more for information. However, even basic prose usually has some ornaments to spice it up and make it a bit more interesting.

Out of all of these various characteristics of both prose and poetry, I want to focus us on one in particular: valence. That is, how wide is the range of meanings that a word/phrase/sentence/paragraph can contain without the interpretation becoming strained or overtly non-literal? Another way to say this could be, where does the interpretive work fall? Is it on the part of the author and the text to communicate meaning and to make it clear or is it more on the part of the reader to interpret and find the possibilities inherent in the text?

Valence becomes particularly important when we talk about things like genre (what kind of writing it is) or purpose. Generally speaking, I’m a guy who loves poetry—but I have absolutely no tolerance for it in things like recipes or route directions! I don’t want to have to interpret how much salt I should put in a recipe: I vastly prefer “a teaspoon” to “a moonbeam’s worth.”  However, when I’m reading something that is designed to make me think, to make me reconsider how and why I live, to make me see the possibility in the worlds around me, I crave multivalent language, language that can mean many different things at once. Part of the fun of reading good writing is playing within the act of interpretation and teasing out the possibilities that fill the words and grammar.

So—to approach more closely to the topic at hand, how do we like our religious writing? Because I’m a guy who likes to think in poetry, I want the sermons I hear to have a good amount of the poetic within them. I don’t want them to be too flowery to the point where I have to do all of the interpretive work, but I’d rather have it make me think and consider than be too heavily on the prose side. Other people I know are the opposite. They ask for something different from sermons: cut the crap, tell me what to do. I think my brother is much more this way. And, for that reason, I see this to be—at least in part—a matter of hard-wiring. Some people prefer the more poetic, some the more prosaic. It’s not a value judgement, it’s human difference.

So—what about the liturgy? Where should it fall on the spectrum?

I think that this is one of the arguments that we are having but don’t stop to realize it, consider it, or properly ponder the implications.

As I see it, hear it, and feel it, a hallmark of classical Anglican liturgy is a high degree of poetry. The sound of it is important, the cadences, the assonance, the way words and sounds play off one another, the way the liturgy plays hide-and-seek with the words, meanings, and intentions of Scripture (particularly King James Scripture—a version where the translators were also poets and read it aloud amongst themselves before approving it.) The choice of diction, the vocabulary used is elevated. The language of both the King James Version and the prayer book betrayed some archaic qualities even in the time when they were written. Certainly for the KJV, this is due in some measure to the Tyndale and Lollard versions of the English that the translators looked back upon as they went about their work. The ’79 prayer book’s Rite I feels inherently more poetic to my modern ears precisely because of its archaic character and intentionally elevated diction (paging “inestimable” and “bewail!”)

But it’s not just sound and grammar, either. Consider the kinds of figures of thought that appear: Surely it is no accident that the Morning Prayer confession mentions that “we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep” in a prayer that appears just before the invitatory psalm where we recall that “he is the Lord our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand (Venite)” or “we are his people and the sheep of his pasture (Jubilate).”

Alright—so that’s my contention, that classical Anglican liturgy falls very much on the poetic end of the scale. So, what does that have to do with the present situation and discussion of revision and of the best kinds of language to use in the liturgy?

My own feeling is that one of the arguments that we’re not necessarily aware that we’re having is between those who want a more prosaic, didactic liturgy and between those who want a more poetic liturgy. Those who want to use the liturgy to convey information to be a teaching tool are going to want it more directly communicative and less multivalent. Those who want the liturgy to convey an elevated presence and experience of the mysteries of God are going to want it to be more ornamented and poetic. (This is not and probably shouldn’t be a strict either/or; like the poetic-prosaic spectrum there’s probably a spectrum here too…but I think there are definitely sides and preferences tending in these two directions.)

What should the liturgy be?

For my part, I’ll go back to Scripture to take my lead. Again, there’s a balance of poetry and prose in the pages of Scripture—Genesis and Acts, more prosey; Song of Songs and Revelation, more poetry. But I find our true paradigm in the Psalms. And I have in the past and will in the future make the argument that the Psalter is the first and truest language that the Church chose for Christian spirituality. The Psalms are poetry. The Psalms—given their central place in the Daily Office—have served as the guides for Anglican liturgy for centuries.

If revision happens, if the language of our liturgy changes, we must retain the poetic mode: this is the past, present, and future of Anglican liturgy and we risk altering the linguistic and spiritual balance at our peril.

Posted in Anglican, Liturgy | Tagged | 2 Comments

On Language for the Liturgy, I

There has been a certain amount of discussion in various Facebook groups about revisions to the prayer book. I include here the obligatory reminder that the Episcopal Church is not currently in the process of revising the BCP, there is merely discussion over the possibility of revision…

That having been said, one of the issues that has popped up several times is about the issue of language, specifically, the use of the English language in the prayer book and what constitutes “language understood by the people.”

When these discussions break out, it seems to me that several arguments are going on and within some of these arguments some important distinctions are being either conflated or being ignored altogether.

One of the discussions involves levels of literacy. To what degree should the English used in the liturgy be intelligible to people of various degrees of literacy? What happens when a multisyllabic or difficult vocabulary word appears in a liturgical text? A fine example here would be one of my favorite words in the Rite I General Thanksgiving: “inestimable.” This is a long word that some people do not know and that people with limited English literacy (children, non-native speakers) might have trouble with. The framers of Rite II weighed in by altering it to “immeasurable.” It’s still just as long, but has a more common and easily understood root (measure). To clarify, what is at issue in this kind of argument is literal comprehensibility.

A second discussion involves technical terms. There is a distinct science of Christian theology. Like any other science, it uses technical terms in order to apply linguistic precision to its discussions. Words like “consubstantiation,” “perichoretic,” or “eschatological” or a phrase like “prevenient grace” are examples of technical terms. Generally speaking, these words are not largely used outside of Christian or religious discourse.

A third discussion involves “terms of art,” a phrase that can shade into the word “jargon” used in a technical rather than pejorative sense. A term of art is a word that is used within the wider language but that has a specific and more closely circumscribed meaning when used by a particular field, discipline, or community. An example would be the word “cult.” In standard English, a cult is a negative term to speak about a small religious movement characterized by manipulation and a leader who demands total obedience, often for nefarious ends. When used by scholars of religion, though, “cult” simply refers to the worship practices of a group or worship towards a particular deity; it has no negative meaning. Or, to come closer to the topic at hand, people in the church will refer to a wafer as a “host.” While this word has a given meaning in standard English, its church use differs from the standard usage.

Most of the discussions about language are imprecise arguments around whether Christian liturgy ought to use technical terms or terms of art. Often this is couched in the language of hospitality and inclusion: is it exclusive to use language that non-Christians will not understand?

A key problem here is how we define “standard” English and how we identify when a given term become unintelligible. For instance, I have heard arguments that words like “redemption,” “repentance,” “forgiveness,” “sin,” and “salvation” are insider words that the church needs to avoid. I’m constantly confused by this because I hear these words plenty in popular American music. Can you really make the argument that a word is not understood by regular speakers when it shows up frequently in pop music or mainstream rock? The only way this argument makes sense to me is if you posit—and can demonstrate—that the meaning between a “popular” use and “church” use has drifted so far that the one is unintelligible to the other.

Far more frequently, I think something else is at work here especially as it tends to pop up around works like “sin” and “sacrifice.” These words have a meaning, and it is flavored by centuries of use within the church. When church people suggest that they are unintelligible and exclusive to non-church people, I wonder if the meaning is not clear or if they don’t like the meaning that the term currently has. I wonder if a desire for new language is an attempt to make an aspect of the faith more palatable to the church people who take issue with a term.

Bottom line: if you take issue with the use of the word “sin” in the liturgy, your root problem may not be that visitors can’t understand it…

There’s more to be said about this topic, though, especially around what kind of language liturgies can or ought to be written in. I’ll get around to those shortly.

 

Posted in Anglican, Liturgy | Tagged | 7 Comments

Modern Myths

Continuing the thoughts on engaging a secularized society from the previous post but one, I approach the issue of a secular age from a slightly different direction. Rather than starting from secularity, I start by looking for myth and go from there. If the principal tenet of 20th century secularity thought is that a grown-up society doesn’t need myths and superstitions, then it seems to me that modern society has decisively proven this to be false. The chief refutation is the veritable explosion of the genres of speculative fiction in the past century, and in particular in pop culture in the last fifty or so years.

Speculative fiction is the formal label for genres like Science Fiction, Fantasy, and various blendings of the two.

Once considered the provenance of nerds, geeks, and misfits, the American Entertainment juggernaut has moved them mainstream over the last half century. Whether they have created a market or found one is, no doubt, a matter for debate, that it has become so is not really up for debate. Think about it: Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, the Marvel universe, the DC universe, Dr. Who, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Game of Thrones—the list can go on as these are only some of the major players in America… The embrace of these myth cycles and the obsession of their respective fandoms is telling.

Humans need myth. We need stories that speak to our deep desires around power, around what makes us human, around the true nature of reality and how that truth confirms, denies, or transcends our quotidian experience of the material world.

I’d even go a step further and suggest that these various modern myth cycles have a built-in liturgical component. If we understand liturgy in its broadest possible terms—an engaging experience where we are intellectually and emotionally connected with the myth and its thought world—then the movies, video games, and tv shows that transmit these (even moreso than the books or graphic novels from which they may have been born) should be seen as the liturgical underpinnings of these modern myths.

Now—there are a whole lot of directions we could go in from here. However, let me make just one point… When we consider these modern “secular” myths in relation to something like Christianity, a major distinguishing factor is that the barrier to entry and the myth’s demands on the person are much less.

By “barrier to entry” I’m referring to the faith-claim necessary; it’s much lower for these. No one asks whether Star Wars or Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings “happened,” whether they are historically true. Rational people accept that they are works of fiction—albeit ones that engage in discussion of things that can be both deep and true despite their obvious lack in the historicity department. Likewise, as in the polytheistic pluralism that marked much of the Greco-Roman world, enjoying one does not mean foreswearing all of the others.  There is less to believe, and that belief does not have to be exclusive.

Too, these various fandoms do not require the kind of personal transformation that a religion with a weighty ethical component demands of its adherents. Sure, you can choose to hold certain beliefs inculcated by the various thought-worlds, emulate the deeds of certain core characters, but nothing requires that.

As I said—much more could be and probably should be said around this topic, but this is all I have time for now. I suppose the bottom line for me is this: we may live in a modern age, but I seriously question the degree to which it is secular. We still live in a deeply mythic world because that is the nature and character of the human imagination. The question is how we use that to reflect upon, embody, and proclaim the Gospel.

Posted in Evangelism | 2 Comments

Breviary Update & A Survey

I’ve been working in fits and starts now for almost a year on new back-end code for the St. Bede’s Breviary. I do believe we’ve turned a corner and are in the final stretch. In fact, I’m hoping to be able to unveil something in time for its patronal feast on May 25th…

In addition to the new code, I’ve been considering some new approaches as well, some suggested readers in the past.

The whole reason I programmed the breviary was because I wanted something that was thoroughly faithful to the prayer book, but also allowed a host of configurations, options, and traditional add-ins. Rite I, Rite II; 8-week psalm cycle, monthly psalm cycle—it could all be accommodated with code manipulation.

I like praying from my Kindle, that’s how I do it every day. However, I know that’s not the standard; many people much prefer to pray from an actual physical book. And, I’ve had any number of people suggest that I do a physical form of the breviary.

The idea of producing a physical form of the breviary is growing on me…

However, that means making choices that I’ve been able to leave up to individuals. What I’m considering is a book where the experience of praying the Office would be just like it is in the computer form: straight text, no clicking, no flipping. The Office in an easy-to-pray format. I would include all the bells and whistles—Marian stuff, hymns, 2 readings at Evening Prayer, etc.—with reminders that people feel free to skip whatever they like.

If I were to do this, it would probably be a book for the year: I.e., “The St. Bede’s Breviary: 2017” and would contain everything for the four offices for each day of the year.

But there are three things that determine the shape of the Offices in such a way that they cannot be left optional or variable: the language of the Rite (Rite I vs. Rite II), the distribution of the Psalter (8-week vs. monthly), the kalendar (Lesser Feasts & Fasts 2006 [the official Calendar of the Episcopal Church] vs. A Great Cloud of Witnesses [an unofficial supplement available for use] vs. the House Kalendar [my own crazy concoction which is LFF+other stuff])

I simply can’t foresee creating physical formats for all of these choices. That’s simply too much work to do the formatting and editing and all for each of these. So in order to get a general sense of what thoughts are out there, here’s a brief survey on the matter…

Would you consider purchasing a physical book form of the St. Bede's Breviary?

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Which rite would you prefer the physical book to contain?

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Which psalter scheme would you prefer the book to contain?

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Which kalendar would you prefer it to use?

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Let me know what you think and we’ll see where it goes from there…

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Thinking about the Secular Age and Church Futures

One of the things I find myself thinking about more and more these days is interacting with a culture and society not engaged with the church and does not see the church as a useful source for answers (or even questions!) about ultimate meaning.

This past week I ran across an interesting DMin thesis by Jeffrey Seaton, a minister in the United Church of Canada, who did his studies at Duke. The thesis (available here) is entitled “Who’s Minding the Story?: The United Church of Canada Meets A Secular Age.” I know about the United Church of Canada, but not a whole lot; that’s ok, because he spends some time getting his readers up to speed. Essentially this union of a variety of Methodist and Reformed bodies chose to take a left-turn in the Sixties and consciously embrace both a national identity and a self-understanding rooted in social justice ministry.  I see many parallels to a large swath of the Episcopal Church in the movement that he describes. He connects a lot of the energy and ideas in this turn to the work of John A. T. Robinson (Honest to God) and Harvey Cox (The Secular City) and to some deliberate engagement the UCC conducted with some secularist thinkers at the time. All of this sounds quite familiar.

However, he finds an interesting foil to these thought patterns with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Taking lessons and categories from Taylor, he looks at two major figures in modern church growth/relevance circles in the UCC who have extended the secularizing premises in enthusiastic but different ways (think Spong-style folks and, indeed, Spong puts in a brief appearance…) , and who offer their strategies as possible futures for the UCC. And, speaking demographically, the current extrapolated future for the collapse of the UCC is just as bleak as that for the Episcopal Church—if not more so.

His fundamental critique—as I read it—is that both of these thinkers fundamentally mistake what is baby and what is bathwater in their attempt to jettison the un-useful parts of Christianity and to retain what they see as useful for a modern, secular age. In particular, both make the error of buying into the maturity model of religious development. That is, one of the ways of understanding how patterns of belief (primarily in the Western World) have changed over the centuries/millennia is to place it in parallel with how children mature intellectually into adults.  Taylor, and Seaton following Taylor, reject this notion: that religion and religious belief are a primitive, infantile stage that a “grown-up” intellectual society “out-grows.”

At the end of the work, Seaton offers a different model of engaging with secular society. Instead of—essentially—a model of capitulation to the culture shown by the two other alternatives he explores, he suggests a model of “progressive orthodoxy.” It is progressive in that it retains strong commitments to social justice work broadly understood, but orthodox in that it holds strongly to the church’s classic belief in the divinity of Jesus. It understands its social justice commitments as neither apart from or parallel with its theological beliefs, but as flowing strongly out of an orthodox understanding of both Christ and the Trinity. While the old model suggested in Cox’s Secular City saw the church as engaging in kerygma (proclamation), diakonia (service), and koinonia (modeling an alternative way of being), the model Seaton recommends adds two more factors, leitourgia (worship and sacraments) and didache (teaching discipleship according to the Way of Christ).

While the last section couldn’t go into details and left me with some unanswered questions about some specific points of engagement between the church and secular culture, I found this a fascinating read. In particular, it reminded me a a lot of the things I have heard out of the Acts 8 Movement and others like that who are committed to growth in the Episcopal Church grounded in solid creedal theology.

There’s a lot of different directions that could be gone in from  here, but—if you are interested in the church’s conversation with secular culture and the missionary enterprise, this work may give you some very interesting fodder for thought!

Posted in Evangelism, Review | 3 Comments

Writing Things Elsewhere

I came to the odd conclusion that my workout schedule has been messing with with my writing… I’ve been doing more weight-training before we head into the racing season, and have not been out on the road much. I realized the other day that my lack of writing seems to be related to a lack of running outside.  So—hopefully as I start doing more outside running that’ll translate to more writing and posting here!

However, I have been doing some writing that’s appearing in other places. I have a piece in the latest issue of The Living Church; I was invited to write a piece on prayer book revision: that can be found here.

I’ve also gotten some writing done on the next volume of the Cassiodorus project. Since the subtitle of that work is “Praying the Psalms with Cassiodorus and the Church Fathers,” I begin with a discussion of what prayer is and then move into how modern people and the Church Fathers understood prayer and the overlaps and differences between the two. The first part of that has appeared over at Grow Christians and indicates the direction I’m going in: that can be found here.

Posted in Administrative, Random | 1 Comment

Checking Things Off!

I’m slowly working my way down a list of things to get done.

I’m trying really hard to not start any new projects this year. Instead, I’m trying to finishing a bunch of things that I had started but never actually completed.

Chief among those are the Anglican Breviary project and the upgrade to the breviary which I started on but got stuck in the middle.

An important part of deciding what to do is also deciding what not to do. The Anglican Breviary domain is expiring, and I’m trying to make the decision whether to renew that and continue that project in the way I had been, or to move it into a different space. We’ll see… I’m also still paying for the podcast service even though I haven’t been actively podcasting for a while. As much as I enjoyed that project, I don’t know if it’s worth continuing in its current incarnation. It served a particular role in my research for the Cassiodorus books. With the first volume done, I’m evaluating whether it’s an effective use of time.

Posted in Administrative, Random | 4 Comments

Update and Recommendation

Yesterday, I sent the manuscript of Honey of Souls: Cassiodorus and the Interpretation of the Psalms in the Early Medieval West off to Liturgical Press and received confirmation that it had arrived.

Whew.

That’s a big weight off, and it must come with thanks and gratitude to Barbara and Bill who painstakingly read through it and offered advice and corrections small and great! And, obviously and always, thanks and gratitude to my beloved M and the girls for whom this book has been more difficult than the others.

There’s more work to be done on it, of course, and I have no doubt the editors will recommend many more changes—all to the good—but at least it’s off my plate for now!

I do have volume 2 to go: Psalming Christ: Praying the Psalms with Cassiodorus and the Church Fathers, and I hope to be posting more of that here as I hack through the remaining parts of that work.

Today, however, I’m taking a break from all that. I learned just last night that my colleague David Peters would be at Virginia Theological Seminary today to give a presentation on his latest book, Post-Traumatic God: How the Church Cares for People who have been to Hell and Back. I haven’t read it yet, but was blown away by his Death Letter: God, Sex, and War which contains his journals that he wrote on his return from service in Iraq as he struggled with what he saw and did there, the break-up of his marriage, and wrestling with the breakdown of what most of us know as “normal” life. It’s a brutally honest and intimate account that offers insight into a soldier’s life for those of us who will never know those experiences. M has been working with a veteran in very similar circumstances—multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, marriage collapsed while overseas, trying to pick up the pieces while dealing with PTSD—and these books have been tremendous resources in her work.

If you do ministry, I would recommend these—whether you know you are working with veterans or not. If you’re in the DC/NoVA area, I encourage you to come join us at his talk (today at 1PM). (And, of course, stop by and say hi!)

((And, no, nobody has asked me to review or promote these books—just David himself!))

 

Posted in Community, Spirituality | 1 Comment

On Boethius

In 522, another great Roman aristocrat was showered with honors. Theoderic in Ravenna selected one of his sons to be the consul of Rome representing the West while Justin in Constantinople selected his other son to be the consul representing the East; he himself was tapped for the high position of Master of Offices. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, a scion of one of the two great Roman senatorial families, the Anicii, was a philosopher as well as a public servant. As far as we know, he was the single greater intellect in the West than Cassiodorus—certainly the only one from whom we have writings. He wrote treatises on music, theology, arithmetic, and geometry. As fluent in Greek as he was in Latin (an achievement becoming more and more rare in this time), he translated the only texts of Aristotle from Greek into Latin that the Medieval West would know until the Crusades brought the Arabic editions of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina to light. In the introduction to his Commentary on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione, Boethius lays out a plan for how his philosophical work would unfold:

I wish to translate the whole work of Aristotle, so far as it is accessible to me, into the Roman idiom and conscientiously offer his complete utterances in the Latin tongue. Everything Aristotle wrote on the difficult art of logic, on the important realm of moral experience, and on the exact comprehension of natural objects, I shall translate in the correct order. Moreover, I shall make all this comprehensible by interpretive explanations. I should also like to translate all Plato’s Dialogues, and likewise explain them, and thus present them in a Latin version. When this is accomplished, I will furthermore not shrink from proving that the Aristotelian and Platonic conceptions in every way harmonize, and do not, as is widely supposed, completely contradict one another. I will show, moreover, that they are in agreement with one another at the philosophically decisive points. This is the task to which I dedicate myself, so far as life and leisure for work are vouchsafed to me[1].

Unfortunately for him and for the unfolding of the Western philosophical tradition, the leisurely fulfillment of this ambitious plan of work was not to be for philosophy was not his only ambition. For somewhere in the year 522 or 523 also came the death of Eutharic, the strong and appointed heir of Theoderic, the presumptive next king in the West.

The Master of Offices was—just below the Praetorian Prefect—one of the two highest civil posts in the Empire. The Master of Offices received his title because his position oversaw four offices which handled all of the imperial correspondence and all foreign envoys who came to address the Emperor. All information about doings in the Empire and relations with its neighbors flowed through this office. If a wealthy, intelligent, well-connected man of ancient birth steeped in Plato’s Republic and its vision of philosopher-kings wanted to subvert the Empire, this was the perfect place from which to do it.

We do not have clear visibility into what happened next. Our usual source for government dealings of the time is entirely silent upon the events; there is one Eastern-leaning history by an anonymous hand that gives one take on events, and then we have Boethius’s side of the story. In short, he was arrested on a charge of treason in 524 or 525. He was accused of conspiring with other members of the senatorial class and of holding treasonous correspondence with the Emperor in the East. Imprisoned within a church in Pavia—a city in northern Italy—Boethius embedded his side of the story in a book that would become the most important work of philosophy for the Early Medieval West behind the Bible, the Consolation of Philosophy. In a dialogue between himself and Lady Philosophy, a personified woman hearkening back to the figure of Wisdom in the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclessiasticus, he pours out “a long and noisy display of grief” (his words!) where he explains that he was set up by means of forged letters by a cast of ne’er-do-wells unhappy at his attempts to reign in corruption[2]. However, even his self-defense does seem a bit weak at important points: “I am accused of having desired the safety of the Senate. . . . But the fact is that I did desire the safety of the Senate and will never cease to. . . . Should I count it a crime to have desired the safety of the Senate[3]?”

The Consolation itself—entirely apart from the guilt or innocence of its author—is a splendid work. A Neo-Platonic meditation composed alternately in prose and verse, Boethius explores his situation, his rise to tremendous heights and his tragic fall to the depths, and offers later ages two related themes that wrestle with questions around the unfolding of history, the justice of God, and the lament—old in the days of Job—that bad things do indeed happen to good people. The first theme is a differentiation between Providence and Fate/Fortune (he uses the two terms interchangeably). God, who stands outside of the flow of time, knows, sees, and directs the big picture—Providence—in order that all will end well. This is the plan in the mind of the all-knowing and all-loving God. The big picture is therefore fixed; we know its happy end. The route by which this plan is accomplished, however, is far more sketchy. This is Fate. Thus, “the simple and unchanging plan of events is Providence, and Fate is the ever-changing web, the disposition in and through time of all the events which God has planned in His simplicity[4].” You could say that Providence is the plan while Fate is its execution.

What Boethius gets out of this formulation is the ability to say that God is good and just and can affirm alongside St. Paul that “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). In the end, he will affirm alongside the future words of Julian of Norwich that all things will be well. But, thanks to Fate, that doesn’t mean that everything is guaranteed to turn out okay for you! In the various vagaries and improvisations of Fate towards the irresistible end of Providence, even the wisest, the wealthiest, the most powerful person is but Fate’s pawn. And that brings us to the second major theme of Boethius of which all of America has heard—but maybe not in the sense he intends: the Wheel of Fortune.

The famous television game show is named after an ancient concept that reached its finest formulation with Boethius. He was not the first person to come up with the concept and other thinkers had written similarly about Fortune before, of course. The 2nd century BCE tragedian Pacuvius had said:

Philosophers claim that Fortune is insane, blind, and savage,
That she stands on a rolling and treacherous stone—
Whichever way chance tips that stone, fortune falls nearby.
They say that she is insane because she is merciless, unsteady and faithless.
They repeat that she is blind because she does not see where she goes;
she is savage because she makes no distinction between a worthy or worthless man.

Boethius makes a more subtle but not fundamentally dissimilar argument. As he sits in his dungeon bemoaning his fall from glory, Lady Philosophy essentially shakes him and asks him what he thought was going to happen:

You are wrong if you think Fortune has changed towards you. Change is her normal behaviour, her true nature. In the very act of changing she has preserved her own particular kind of constancy towards you. She was exactly the same when she was flattering you and luring you on with enticements of a false kind of happiness. You have discovered the changing faces of the random goddess[5].

As Lady Philosophy concludes her discourse she breaks into a ditty that will be graphically illustrated in dozens of medieval manuscripts and even find its way into the trump cards of the tarot deck:

If you are trying to stop her wheel from turning you are of all men the most obtuse. For if it once begins to stop, it will no longer be the wheel of chance:

With domineering hand she moves the turning wheel

Like currents in a treacherous bay swept to and fro

Her ruthless will has just deposed once fearful kings

While trustless still, from low she lifts a conquered head;

No cries of misery she hears, no tears she heeds,

But steely hearted laughs at groans her deeds have wrung.

Such is the game she plays, and so she tests her strength;

Of mighty power she makes parade when one short hour

Sees happiness from utter desolation grow[6].

The standard depiction of the wheel throughout the middle ages depicts a spoked wheel set upright: a king robed in splendor is perched at the top while the same figure appears at the bottom, clad in rags and crushed with pain—sometimes with the crown toppling from his brow. On one side he is clothed in finery as he makes his ascent; on the opposite side he is in beginning his fall into despair. The point is that Fortune is inherently fickle. No matter how high or how low people rise or fall, the condition is temporary for change is inevitable.

The story of Boethius does not end well. Both he and his guardian/father-in-law Symmachus were executed at the order of Theoderic. The brilliance of his Consolation ensures that his side of the story is never forgotten, though; it’s easy to buy the caricature of the noble Roman philosopher unjustly accused and killed by a thuggish barbarian ruler. We’ll probably never really know the true story and Cassiodorus never tells us. But, then, he’s not entirely a neutral observer either…

[1] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, xv-xvi.

[2] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 1, 16.

[3] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 1.4, 11-12.

[4] Boethius, Cosolation of Philosophy 4.6, p. 105.

[5] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 2.1, p. 23.

[6] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 2.1, p. 24

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Love Song to a Psalter

Here’s a section from the manuscript. The poem stays in, but I’ve trimmed away most of the supporting material…


People who are familiar with the Bible are usually aware of the rather scandalous contents of the Song of Solomon (also known as the Song of Songs): it’s erotic love poetry narrating an unnamed woman’s quest for her lover, King Solomon. Clearly some of the more prudish interpreters in the Christian tradition have sought to downplay the literal sense of the text and have interpreted it in a spiritual direction. Thus, to some it is the soul’s quest for God, or perhaps the personified Church’s quest for God, or the Blessed Virgin Mary’s quest for God. And, thanks to the power of multi-level reading, at can be all three at the same time!

But readers formed in a modern Protestant perspective may not know that there is a complementary style of lyrics tucked away in the Wisdom Literature where a man is portrayed questing and lusting after a woman. While there are references and early forms of it in the books of Proverbs and Job, it reaches its apex in the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (also known as The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach). To medieval readers, these two books were simply “Bible” but Protestant reformers placed them in the Apocrypha, a section of literature dating from between the Old and New Testaments, and even most faithful Bible readers never read them.

In these poems, the sage is questing after wisdom, personified as a beautiful woman. She is to be preferred above all else, and he will spend his time, effort, and wealth in order to woo her. There is a long section from chapter 6 to 9 in the Wisdom of Solomon that recounts Solomon’s wooing of Lady Wisdom in terms parallel (although not as explicit) as the Song of Solomon:

Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate. . . . I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem, because all gold is but a little sand in her sight, and silver will be accounted as clay before her. I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light, because her radiance never ceases. All good things came to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth. I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them; but I did not know that she was their mother. I learned without guile and I impart without grudging; I do not hide her wealth, for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals; those who get it obtain friendship with God, commended for the gifts that come from instruction. I loved her and sought her from my youth; I desired to take her for my bride, and became enamored of her beauty. She glorifies her noble birth by living with God, and the Lord of all loves her. For she is an initiate in the knowledge of God, and an associate in his works. (Wis 6:12–14; 7:8–14; 8:2–4)

Needless to say, monks were quite familiar with these texts and often cast themselves in this same role: forsaking all else in search of wisdom and in service to the Gospel.

These wisdom lyrics are the necessary context for a poem written by an old monk at the furthest range of the time period we are considering. The Irish monk Mael Isu O Brolchain died in 1086 in a monastery in Armagh having received the title “chief sage of Ireland.” At some point, he wrote a poem which for many years was assumed to be about an elderly nun in a kind of ascetic marriage. However, James Carney, a specialist in medieval Irish poetry, recognized the true object of the poet’s affections:

The problem lay upon my mind for many years before the easy and natural solution suggested itself: it was a poem written by a religious in his old age to an old and tattered copy of the Psalms which had been his first lesson book. The solution, which has found general acceptance by scholars, emerged quite clearly when I noted that in early Ireland a boy destined for the Church began his education at the age of seven, and that the Psalter, from which he learned Latin, reading, singing and religion , was his first lesson book. This book which he had used in his youth in its virgin freshness passed through four generations of young scholars before by some chance it came back into the old priest’s hands again.[1]

We have talked at some length in these two chapters about the Psalter and about when and how a student would have encountered it. What this poem reveals, though, is what they felt about it. Here, with the sages’ songs to Lady Wisdom echoing in our heads, we see the thoughts of an old man taking in his hands again the book of his youth:

 

Crinóc, lady of measured melody,

not young, but with modest maiden mind,

together once in Niall’s northern land

we slept, we two, as man and womankind.

 

You came and slept with me for that first time,

skilled wise amazon annihilating fears

and I a fresh-faced boy, not bent as now,

a gentle lad of seven melodious years.

 

There we were then on that firm Irish earth

Desirous, but in pure and mystic sense;

Burning with love my flesh, still free from fault

As fool of God in smitten innocence.

 

Your counsel is ever there to hand,

we choose it, following you in everything:

love of your word is the best of loves,

our gentle conversation with the King

 

Guiltless you are of any sin with man,

Fair is your name, and bright, and without stain,

Although I know that when you went from me

Each in his turn, four lay where I had lain.

 

And now you come, your final pilgrimage,

Wearied with toil and travel, grimed with dust,

Wise still but body not immaculate:

Time it is that ravished you, not lust.

 

Again I offer you a faultless love,

A love unfettered for which surely we

Will not be punished in the depths of hell

But together ever walk in piety.

 

Seeking the presence of elusive God

wandering we stray, but the way is found,

following the mighty melodies that with you

throughout the pathways of the world resound.

 

Not ever silent, you bring the word of God

to all who in the present world abide,

and then through you, through finest mesh,

man’s earnest prayer to God is purified.

 

May the King give us beauty back again

Who ever did his will with eager mind,

May he look on us with eagerness and love,

Our old and perished bodies left behind.[2]

 

In Mael Isu’s poem, Lady Wisdom—the beautiful, the desirable, the beloved—is none other than the Psalter itself. Images of fleshly intimacy are cooled with a spiritual admonition, but the monk paints with exquisite colors a lover who initiates him into the arts of love and directs him to ultimate love in God: the Psalter is his Diotima.

Of course, this is one look at the Psalter from the far end of the learning process. Undoubtedly other young Irish lads did not feel this way while slowly learning the text. The second earliest evidence of the Psalms we have in Ireland is a student’s tablet, wooden boards covered with a layer of wax, into which has been scratched with a stylus Psalms 29-31 in the Gallican translation. This artifact is known as the Springmont Bog Tablets because that is where they were recovered. While we will never know how they came to be there, I like to imagine a particularly willful student hurling his tablet into the bog in a fit of pique after a difficult time with his lesson!

[1] James Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. xxviii.

[2] Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics, p. 75-79.

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