Heard in Church: Anglican Chant Edition

Yesterday at mass I heard something that I couldn’t place, at first. It was during the psalm. The custom at our parish is that the choir sings the psalm in Anglican chant as the congregation looks on. I’d rather we all sing it, of course, so I’ll often hum the bass part under my breath. Well, this time I caught a sound that was high and faint moving along with the music. At first I thought it might be an overtone but then I realized it that it was Lil’ H  sitting next to me singing the melody line of the chant.

Say what you want about how Anglican chant is too difficult for congregational use, but I just heard a six year old do a good job of it sight-pointing the chant alongside choral and organ support. If she can do it…

Posted in Anglican, Chant | 4 Comments

Announcement #2: St Augustine’s Prayer Book

In looking over my traffic from the last couple of days, I noticed that I received some hits off a search for an online version of the St. Augustine’s Prayer Book. Sadly, there isn’t an online version of it.

For those unfamiliar with it, the St Augustine’s Prayer Book is a devotional manual historically associated with the (Episcopal) Order of the Holy Cross. St Augustine is one of their patrons. First coming out in 1947, the SAPB was revised in 1967 and has been reprinted multiple times. It’s a catholic supplement to the 1928 BCP that contains things like Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, Confession, Stations of the Cross, a wide variety of prayers, suffrages to the BVM, litanies, basic instruction in the catholic practice of the faith, the six precepts of the Church, how to hear mass profitably, etc.

If any of the items on this list sound familiar, they should… We find several of them in the additions to the Books of Hours and particularly the bilingual/vernacular primers mentioned a bit ago. In fact, the SAPB—as I see it—stands in a line of development beginning with the Books of Hours and primers. To give a really brief bird’s-eye view, the primer situation exploded during the reign of Henry the 8th as various factions attempted to sway the religious sentiment of the people by inculcating their beliefs into the devotional material of the primers. A whole line of protestant-leaning primers appeared in competition with the classical models. (Butterworth’s The English Primers (1529-1545) covers this material in close detail.) Finally—in 1545—King Henry decided to put a stop to the competing publications and promulgated a single authorized prymer that appeared in Latin, English, and bilingual editions. (Remember, Henry was liturgically conservative and the authorized liturgy of the Church of England under his reign was still the Latin-language Sarum Rite.) Authorized prymers remained in force throughout the tumultuous years of Edward, Mary and the young Elizabeth, operating (in the Protestant years) alongside the Book of Common Prayer. Prymer-like devotional books continued throughout Elizabeth’s reign in both English and Latin. Jumping ahead to the time of King Charles I before the Puritan unpleasantness, John Cosin, Dean of Peterborough then Bishop of Durham—and even later architect of the 1662 BCP—created an Anglican prymer at the request of the king. (There’s a great letter dated 1651 from John Evelyn that lays out the circumstances of its editing—the English ladies-in-waiting were much distressed that they didn’t have devotional books like the French ladies did who waited upon the king’s French-born bride.) After Cosin, a number of other works unofficial works continued the line until the Sarum Revival and the rise of the Ritualists who created the various Anglo-Catholic Manuals of Devotion. The SAPB derives in large measure from these.

As most users of such materials know, catholic liturgical supplements fell off a cliff in the late 60’s and early 70’s due to a combination of factors, the three most significant being worship book revision on both sides of the Pond, grappling with the fall-out from Vatican II, and the furor and subsequent departures around the ordination of women.  Thus, as with Ritual Notes and a host of other materials, the SAPB remained a very good supplement to the 1928 prayer book—which the Episcopal Church no longer uses.

Now to the announcement part of things…

A bit ago, folks from the Order of the Holy Cross asked Fr. David Cobb, a friend and mentor of mine, to do another revision of the SAPB that would bring it up to date—to make it a catholic supplement to the ’79 Book of Common Prayer.  This he proceeded to do, and Forward Movement will be bringing it out as soon as the final work is done. I’ve been asked to serve as liturgical editor (gilding Fr. Cobb’s lily, as it were…) to get another set of eyes on the work. We’re hoping for a fairly swift turn-around so that the presses can start rolling in the first part of 2013.

Personally, I’m quite excited to have this opportunity. I see the SAPB as one of the great tools for prayer book catholics—modelling the skills for integrating the riches of our catholic devotional treasury alongside our authorized book which partakes in the integral stream of our tradition but in no way exhausts it. Needless to say, I also feel a bit of trepidation—assisting in the updating of a classic is challenging: how to best steer the course between the soul of the original and the needs of the present generation?

So—things will get even busier around here which will probably result in fewer posts for a while and even worse delays in email responses. In the meantime, I covet your prayers for this work as we seek to be obedient scribes for the kingdom and select from our treasures what is new and what is old.

Posted in Administrative, Anglican, Spirituality | 15 Comments

Books of Hours: Images II

Last time we talked broadly about illustration issues and design elements in the Books of Hours. Today, let’s look more specifically at illustration content. As we saw with textual contents, the French Roman Catholic master of the field Leroquais identified a set of essential texts: “the Calendar, the Little Office or Hours of the Virgin, the Penitential Psalms, the Litany, the Office of the Dead, and the Suffrages of the Saints” (Harthan, The Book of Hours, 14). Over the centuries, a fairly stable set of illustrations—or at least themes upon which to base illustrations—became standard in the various Books of Hours. We’ll start by making a quick survey of these.

Again—we can properly use the language of “fairly stable”; whenever we’re dealing with medieval manuscript culture, there’s no such thing as “invariable” or “always” and you’ll find occasional exceptions to these if you look hard and broad enough.

The Calendar

Kalendars are, at base, a simple list of dates and feasts. However, it’s never been quite that simple. Due to the calculations necessary to determine when Easter falls, locating Sundays, and establishing the hours of day and night all before reliable clocks, a variety of astronomical entries are common in kalendars certainly in the early medieval period and likely earlier. While passages of the sun into the various heavenly houses tends not to appear in the kalendars of the books of hours, the zodiac certainly does. Alongside zodiacal symbols are a set of vignettes drawn from late medieval pastoral life. Thus, these are the standard images:

  • January: Feasting
  • February: Sitting by the fire
  • March: Pruning
  • April: Garden scene
  • May: Hawking or boating
  • June: The hay harvest
  • July: Reaping the wheat
  • August: Threshing
  • September: Treading the grape
  • October: Ploughing and sowing
  • November: Gathering acorns for pigs
  • December: Killing the pig or baking bread (Harthan, The Book of Hours, 24)

In many books of hours, because of the small size, one month will take up two pages. Thus, the occupation will often appear on the first side of the month, the zodiacal symbol on the other. In cases like the one above where the whole month appears on one page, one image may be at the top and the other at the bottom. In our example, however, the artist has already laid out a much more ambitious artistic program which he has followed through the kalendar: in the upper left is a saint in the month preaching to an eager audience (except for January depicting the conversion of St Paul which falls then); in the bottom is a paired prophet and apostle holding hands, the prophet pointing to the ruin of Jerusalem/the Temple/synagogue. In the top center is a combination of the zodiacal sign and sometimes (but not always) the occupation of the month seen through the arch. Both are here in the case of December: the killing of the pig, and a capricornian goat emerging from the tower.

Needless to say, much of the attention given to books of hours by medievalists focuses here—they get to see how medieval artists depicted the occupations of daily life, how they dressed the people and portrayed them going about their business. Too, it gives us an idea of how the wealthy consumers purchasing such books wanted their artists to portray such activities…

As a liturgist, what I find both interesting and useful here is the color scheme used for writing the saints’ days. Red and blue alternate to provide visual contrast, but gold identifies the greater feasts from the lesser. Note the gold for St Nicholas, Our Lady (yes—the kalendar is written in French, not Latin…) , St Thomas (Ap.), Christmas, St Stephen, St John, Holy Innocents, and St Thomas (M.). Books of hours can be tied (sometimes only tenuously!)  to times and/or dioceses through a careful investigation of the specific saints appearing in the kalendars.

The Little Hours of the BVM

These are likely the illustrations and manuscript prints that medieval-leaning church folk are most familiar with. I know I’ve got a bunch o these waiting to be hung around the house that M acquired from various museums even before we met.

The way that this pattern works is that each hour is preceded by an illustration from the life of the BVM relating to the Incarnation:

  • Matins: The Annunciation
  • Lauds: The Visitation
  • Prime: The Nativity
  • Tierce: The Angel’s Announcement of the Nativity to the Shepherds
  • Sext: The Adoration of the Magi
  • None: The Presentation in the Temple/Purification of the BVM
  • Vespers: The Flight into Egypt and/or Massacre of the Innocents
  • Compline: The Coronation of the Virgin (Harthan, The Book of Hours, 28)

The Annunciation tends to be the first picture in most books after the kalendar and is one of the most elaborate. Too, it’s quite common for the historiated initial below the miniature to feature the book’s commissioner at his/her devotions, looking up to experience the Annunciation. You can see Duke de Berry in the one above if you squint… Harthan notes that the Announcement to the Shepherds is often also an interesting one because, as with the occupational images, it provides an opportunity for the artist to create a classic pastoral image.

If you’re used to looking at medieval liturgical books and looking at feasts, you’ll notice something interesting here: the hours appear in a ferial pattern. Remember that a feast will begin with a First Vespers so the first office encountered will be Vespers, then Compline, and only then Matins. Since the cycle here starts with Matins, it’s a reminder that the Hours of the BVM were a daily exercise, used without regard to feast or ferial days.

The Penitential Psalms

There’s quite a variety in the images before the penitential psalms. However, you can usually count on finding David somewhere in the scene. Typically, he’s the crowned figure holding a harp. In the example above, he’s hanging out in the historiated initial and there’s also a David & Goliath match-up occurring at the bottom of the page. (I’ll pass on commenting on the cardinal riding a rooster at the side of the page.)

The main miniature in this case is, of course, Christ surrounded by images of the four evangelists with their respective symbols. Given my own perspective, I’d interpret this choice of images as a reference to the medieval understanding of the omnipresence of Christ in the psalms, but that’s speculation on my part.

As the years wind on, one particular incident in the life of David does indeed become a standard image for the penitential psalms, which I happened upon by accident in some of my earlier research.


This is due, we’re told, to the superscription of Psalm 51: “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” As a guy, I’d say that’s a reason but not the reason… I’m sure there’s a lovely dissertation waiting to be written on piety, lust, and the imaging of the female body in late medieval/renaissance devotional materials.

The Litany


Harthan notes that it’s unusual to find miniatures connected with the Litany unless it’s a rare illustration of Pope Gregory leading a litany through the streets of Rome against a plague, or perhaps a saint hiding in the margin or in an initial.

There are none in the one we’re looking at, and the main decorative feature seems to be the spacer between the personage/saint being invoked and the abbreviated response on the far side of the page. Here’s another view from the next page:


Hours of the Dead

Unlike the Hours of the BVM and some of the other supplementary hours, there are only three Offices of the Dead: Vespers [Placebo], Matins [Dirige], and Lauds [Requiem]. As Harthan notes, there can be quite a lot of variability with the images here. The first one that Harthan mentions is the one I’ve seen the most, an image of the Vigil of the Dead, the service that occurs in the church in the presence of the catafalqued body.  Here’s another:


I love the corpse in the historiated initial below the miniature…


The Suffrages of the Saints


The Suffrages section is, after the Hours of the BVM, “the most profusely illustrated section in the book”  (Harthan, The Book of Hours, 31). It’s a series of prayers that, certainly in this example, have a miniature of the class of saint being invoked parallel with the prayer. This is also the source of the awesome miniature of the martyrs that I put up the other day.

Concluding Thoughts

The effect and impact of the images in the Books of Hours form an integral part of the piety that they shaped. These are only the essential texts. When we added in the secondary and accessory texts, we’ll find even more images that specifically went with them. While there are certain scenes and stories from the Bible that are familiar to us, I think it’s hard to calculate how much of the late medieval popular biblical knowledge came from looking at these images. Particularly once we add in the Hours of the Cross/Passion, there is a cycle of incarnational moments and a cycle of passional moments that serve to communicate in pictures the work of the Incarnation and Redemption in a way that has dropped out of modern Anglican piety. Likewise, the images around death serve both as a reminder of mortality and a means of bringing to mind the dead who remain inextricably linked with us—through Baptism—in the Body and Mystery of Christ.

Posted in Daily Office, Medieval Stuff | 1 Comment

SCP Presentation

M and I returned from the Annual Conference of the Society of Catholic Priests late last night. As always, we had a delightful time. Old friends were seen and caught up with; new friends were made.

As promised, I’m posting here my remarks. A few words about it: first, the overall focus of the conference was the Anglo-Catholic social witness. This was an interesting topic for me to tackle since typically one hears of opposition between catholic and “social justice” approaches in the church. As a result, I set myself the task of speaking directly to how the liturgy is an essential element of forming a catholic social conscience. I assumed that others might speak about and deal with what I consider to be the obvious direction—the connection between eucharistic devotion and social action captured so neatly by Bishop Frank Weston: “You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.” (Read his whole famous address here.) So—I went for the Office instead.

Second, like most of the presentations that I post here, it might read strangely because I wrote it specifically as an oral address. As such, it’s much more colloquial and familiar in tone than a piece of academic writing.

Alright—without further ado, here it is:

The 14th century devotional treatise The Mirror of our Lady recounts one particular edifying story. A Cistercian Abbot went into the choir one morning to sing the office of matins. As he stood singing his office, he saw a devil walking to and fro among his monks with a large bag tied around his neck. He seemed to be catching things coming from the monks’ mouths and stuffing them into his bag. When the devil came to the Abbot, the Abbot asked, “who are you?” The devil replied, “I am just a lowly Devil named Titivullus, and I must perform the office given to me.” “And what office is that?” asked the Abbot. The devil explained, “I must bring my master 1000 bags a day full of failings, unsaid or mis-said words that occur in reading or singing from your order or else I will be severely beaten!” From this point, the mirror goes on to talk about the importance of diligence in the office. However, I’m sure that at some point, some wise Cistercian teacher has pulled the moral out of the story in an easy and memorable form: “beat the Devil: be attentive!” This was probably accompanied with the helpful illustration—verbal or otherwise—of the poor demon Titivullus getting wailed on with a stick by a bigger and meaner demon because all of the Cistercians sang their offices well and he missed his quota again! “Beat the Devil: be attentive!”

If you don’t remember anything else that I say today, I want you to remember that: “beat the devil: be attentive.” Of course, these days, there’s no way that Titivullus could get the job done; I imagine instead whole sets of infernal landscaping crews with blowers and mowers gathering up the words and paragraphs and pages left unsaid, drifting like blizzards in the chancels and choirs of our churches today. And that is a shame.

When people think of Anglo-Catholics or Anglo-Catholicism or even Catholic Anglicans, they tend to think of vestments and smoke and sacraments, clusters of candles, and racks of rosaries; the daily office – not so much. And yet, the daily office is a central liturgical discipline that grounds so much of what we do. The Mass and the Office are not alternatives, they are complements. To cleave to the Catholic faith East and West is to give the daily office the honor and the attention – and the attentiveness – that it is due.

The two public rites of the church – the holy Eucharist and the daily office – have the same primary purpose: the worship and glorification of God. And that always has to be kept central. But the secondary purposes are different. The Eucharist is mystigogical and leads us into the heart of the mystery of Christ. The office is catechetical and instructs and forms us in the foundations of the faith. Now, you might be wondering… The dominant theme of our time together is the Anglo-Catholic social tradition. So why am I taking up time talking about the office? (Or, as I’ve heard some Episcopal clergy say, why are you spending your time talking about prayer when you should be talking about justice issues!) It’s because the Anglo-Catholic social conscience must be formed, it must be crafted, and the distinctive characteristic that differentiates a secular drive for a just society from one formed in the Catholic Anglican tradition is the process and method of its formation. The greatest tool that we have for molding a Christian social conscience is Scripture itself, and more particularly, the attentive practice of the daily office.

The wellspring of the Western liturgical tradition and particularly the monastic practices that have nourished it is the concept that the liturgy provides an ordered and bordered encounter with Scripture. Again, the liturgy provides an ordered and bordered encounter with Scripture .This is true of the Eucharist, it’s even more true of the office. It was true of the Sarum offices that the reformers received, and the Anglican offices received an additional infusion from Cranmer’s own Protestant love of the Scriptures.

Alright, so what do I mean by ordered and bordered? When I say “Ordered”, I mean that the Scriptures are laid out in a sequential pattern that provides maximal coverage of their contents, and this pattern is repeated on a set basis. In his preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer explicitly refers to the 9th century monastic legislation stipulating that the whole Scriptures should be read every year during the Night Office. Anything that didn’t get read in the Night Office would be read to the monks at mealtimes to make sure it got done. Cranmer’s own scheme attempted to echo this earlier monastic goal. By having four readings a day—two at each office—and making each one a chapter in length, he set up a pattern where the New Testament with the exception of the Book of Revelation would be read through three times every year, and the Old Testament would be read through once (excepts for some sections of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Ezekiel. And a few other bits.  Even when a Protestant says “All of Scripture” he doesn’t really mean it…!). These days, our prayer book lectionary uses shorter readings and only three of them so, when used faithfully, we’ll get through the majority of Scripture every two years. There are two main purposes for this ordering of Scripture. First, it gives you that foundational familiarity with the text. When you hear just a snippet at Mass, then you’ll recognize it, and know where it goes and have a sense of what all is happening around it. Second, it’s not enough to get this grounding once. Rather, it’s repeated year after year after year. It’s formational. We don’t just get to know the Scriptures, we get saturated in them. So—that’s what I mean when I say that the Scriptures are “ordered.”

Ok—so, what do I mean by “bordered?”  By “bordered” I mean that we don’t get handed the Scriptures flatly. Instead, we are given—through the Offices—a set of interpretive lenses that direct our reading and hearing of these texts. The Church year is one of these lenses; the seasons bring their own perspectives on the Scriptures. But so are the texts that we place around them. In the Sarum days before Cranmer, a variety of antiphons used to help facilitate this goal. Lines brought in from other parts of Scripture—or repetition of a significant verse—would open a new perspective, slightly shift the way that you heard a familiar text. However, the Refromation did away with most of these in the name of simplification. The texts that we repeat the most are the ones that guide us in everything else. In both the classical structure of the Daily Offices and in our Anglican, and particularly Episcopal, adaptation of it, the most important lenses that direct and shape our encounter with the rest of Scripture are the psalms and the canticles. These Scriptural songs give us our main interpretive entre into everything else that we encounter in the Offices. Through their repetition, we are given the hermeneutical keys to unlock the rest of Scripture and, in turn, to form us into a catholic social conscience. The psalms and canticles give us borders that help guide our reading of everything else.

Remember when we were talking about “ordered” and I said that we go through the Scriptures in a pattern that’s measured in years? St Benedict’s Rule laid down for the Western Church the common monastic tradition of going through all 150 psalms every week and he allowed that as a concession to the weakness of his day because it was said that real monks used to go through all of them every day. In Cranmer’s adaptation, he scaled it back even further and put the psalms on a one-month cycle, and that’s what we have in our prayer book. Actually, the official Daily Office lectionary uses a seven-week cycle but the monthly version is found written into the body of the psalter itself. Different orders around the church do it different ways as well; while the Brotherhood of St Gregory and the Order of Julian of Norwich both use the monthly cycle, the Order of the Holy Cross go through it every two weeks like many of their Roman Catholic brethren.  No matter if you’re on a one-week or seven-week cycle, that’s a lot of psalms and a lot of repetition of a lot of psalms and so their particular perspective on the Scriptures end up influencing (whether subtlety or obviously) everything else that we read.

And if that’s so for the psalms, it’s doubly true for the canticles. While our current book has multiplied our options, there’s a select set that from the time of Benedict in the fifth century have been prayed daily that has shaped our understand of what the Gospel message is all about: The song of Mary, the Song of Zechariah, the Song of Simeon, the Song of the Three Young Men, and the Te Deum sometimes called the Song of Augustine and Ambrose are key texts for us.

Thus: The Catholic Anglican tradition sees the Mass and Office in continuity with one another. The Mass is mystagogical, the Office is catechetical. The Office gives us an ordered and bordered encounter with Scripture. We go through most of it in two years and the chief interpretive lenses that the Office provides for directing our understanding of Scripture as a whole are the psalms and the canticles.

The reason the psalter was chosen for its constant repetition in the Office is because it has been recognized from the time of the Early Church as unique among the books of the Bible. One of the clearest expositions of this comes from Athanasius in his letter on the Psalms to Marcellinus where he pulls out two characteristics in particular. The first special characteristic of the psalms is that they are a microcosm of the rest of Scripture. Athanasius writes:  “Each book of the Bible has, of course, its own particular message—[and he goes on to list what some of those are]— Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one kind of special fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some of those of all the rest. [And then he goes on to connect a wide variety of psalms to events in the historical books of the Old Testament.] You see then, that all the subjects mentioned in the historical books are mentioned also in one Psalm or another; but when we come to the matters of which the Prophets speak we find that these occur in almost all.” Here, of course, Athanasius is talking about witnesses to Christ, and he offers another long section where he connects the psalms up to a long list of items from the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.  Of course, these days we not only recognize that the psalms contain messianic passages that the Church properly associated with Jesus but also that the Evangelists themselves used both passages and themes from the psalms in their own constructions of the Gospel narratives. So the psalms really do act as a microcosm. They contain all of the major genres of Old Testament writing from histories, to wisdom, to legal material, to prophetic curses and destruction oracles, as well as promises of hope and salvation, and also both represent and prefigure a host of New Testament themes—recalling that the New Testament quotes more from the Psalms than any other book of the Old Testament.

Now, having said that, we need to recognize the necessary corollary; if the psalms are a microcosm of Scripture, if they represent a summary of Scripture, a condensation of Scripture, then they have to be profoundly interpretive. When you summarize something, it means that you’re pulling out the key points. There’s not space for everything so the central items get selected for summarizing. Thus, the psalms don’t just summarize things, they put their own particular spin on them, they infuse them with their own particular angle such that when we encounter these out in the wider Bible, our perspective has already been shaped by the approach that the psalms have taken in highlighting what’s of primary importance.

So, the first special characteristic of the psalms is that they are a microcosm of the rest of Scripture. The second special characteristic of the psalms is their focus on interiority—they speak to the inner life of the individual and the community more consistently than any other set of texts. Athanasius says it this way:

Among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed and, seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that be done, you listen to the prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all of these things, you learn about yourself.

You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill. Prohibitions of evil-doing are plentiful in Scripture, but only the Psalter tells you how to obey these orders and refrain from sin. Repentance, for example, is enjoined repeatedly; but to repent means to leave off sinning, and it is the Psalms that show you how to set about repenting and with what words your penitence may be expressed.

So, here Athanasius is pointing to the personal and interior quality of the Psalms. No other book of Scripture—with the sole exception of Job—contains such intimate expressions of personal feeling. Not only intimate but uncensored as well in ways that sometimes both shock and offend us. Of course, as Athanasius reminds us, what shocks and offends may be a reflection of what we do not wish to see in ourselves.

That’s the second special characteristic of the psalms, the emphasis upon interiority. And indeed, this is one of the ways that the psalms place their own interpretive spin on the other biblical material. Sometimes the psalms give a flat account of something: In the beginning God created stuff. But far more often, the psalms embedded their summarization of other biblical events into personal or communal pleas:  God, we’re having a really hard time right now. Hey—remember that time in creation, when you created all of that stuff? We could really use you to do something like that for us now. The psalms don’t just recall the mighty acts of God, they show us how, in prayer, we remind both ourselves and God himself of the mighty acts done on behalf of our ancestors and gives us the courage and the boldness to beseech God’s mercy for mighty acts here and now.

Thus—those are two reasons coming from the Early Church why the psalms get such a special place: they’re a microcosm of the rest of Scripture, and they also give us a particular view of the internal spiritual life of the people of God.

Alright—so, the forming of the catholic social conscience. Which is what we’re here to talk about… Through our attentive practice of the Daily Office, the psalms and canticles of the Office give us an interpretive lens through which we experience the rest of Scripture. There are three fundamental concepts within the psalter that are crucial and inescapable elements of the catholic social conscience. First, they show us the center—that is, they define a reality where all creation is oriented towards God and participates together in the mutual worship of God. Second, they emphasize the rule of law—that is, they emphasize that justice is a key attribute of God and that justice, righteousness, and equity must be central values for us because they flow directly from the identity of God himself. Third, they form us in the habit of empathy because they place in our mouths the words of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and they invite us to see the world through those eyes, and to recognize the injustices seen through those eyes. I’ll unpack each of these in turn.

First, once again, they show us the center —that is, they define a reality where all creation is oriented towards God and participates together in the mutual worship of God. We see this most clearly in the lauds psalms—147 to 150—and in the Te Deum and the Song of the Three Young Men. The Song of the Three Young Men, the Benedicite, is a 2nd century BC or so expansion of Psalm 148 that calls sequentially upon all parts of the created order to praise God: “O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord; praise him and magnify him for ever.” Then we proceed from the Cosmic Order with the angels, the heavens, the sun, moon, showers and dews, frost and cold, nights and days to the Earth and its creatures with the mountains and hills, the whales and all that move in the waters, the fowls of the air, the beasts and cattle and finally proceed to the people of God, the priests of the Lord, the servants of the Lord, the spirits and souls of the righteous. This is nothing less than a doxological ontology: things have and persist in existence to the degree that they recognize and praise the Creator who created them. There is a center, there is a source, there is a stable point around which everything else that is anchored. And it is God. God himself has made us and not we ourselves.

This is a crucial point in establishing a social conscience of any kind. There is something greater. There is something beyond us and beyond our desires to which we are accountable. Our desires and appetites, the desires and appetites of those who currently hold political, economic, or social power, stand accountable to something greater, to something more permanent, more stable and more real than they are—than we are. It is from this place and in orientation to this reality that we are able to offer a critique of existing systems—even existing systems within which we find ourselves ensnared. We renew this orientation in our acts of worship and praise. As Evelyn Underhill reminds us, the heart of true worship is adoration: she writes, “For worship is an acknowledgement of Transcendence; that is to say, of a Reality independent of the worshipper, which is always more or less deeply coloured by mystery, and which is there first.” This adoration, this acknowledgement of Transcendence, this reality independent of ourselves of which Underhill speaks is the pure and unadulterated praise that we find ourselves called to in the psalms: “Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the world; Young men and maidens, old and young together. Let them praise the Name of the Lord, for his name only is exalted, his splendor is over earth and heaven.”  Notice that the political powers here get put on notice. But the psalms are happy to get even more explicit than that: “Praise the Lord, O my Soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them. When they breathe their last, they return to the earth, and in that day their thoughts perish. Happy are those who have the God of Jacob for their help! Whose hope is in the Lord their God; Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps his promise forever…” The very strong message here is that all—all—political powers and systems are transitory and ephemeral in the face of God and in the face of the reality that endures beyond even the full span of creation. There is a standard—and you ain’t it.

The other part of this is that as all creation persists and perdures in and through its ceaseless praise of God, all of creation stands as fellow witness with us to the creating Word. When we despoil and disdain the created order and fail in its stewardship with which we have been tasked, we presume to cease that which is not ours to silence. As we diminish creation, the universal song of praise to God is likewise diminished.

So—that’s the first concept in the psalms and canticles for the formation of a catholic social conscience: they show us the center—that is, they define a reality where all creation is oriented towards God and participates together in the mutual worship of God. We stand rightly within this order when we join in acknowledging God as the center and ground of all being and when we offer the respect due to our fellow witnesses to the glory of God.

The second fundamental concept in the psalms and canticles is that they emphasize the rule of law—that is, they emphasize that justice is a key attribute of God and that justice, righteousness, and equity must be central values for us because they flow directly from the identity of God himself. One of the things that’s so fascinating about this is how often we see it in direct relation to the first—the worship of God flows directly into praise for his justice: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth stand in awe of him. For he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth, and with righteousness to judge the world and the peoples with his truth.” For those of us who pray the Morning Office in Rite I we hear these words almost every morning. It’s composed of two snippets from Psalm 96 that have been grafted onto the end of Psalm 95. And that’s entirely appropriate because these two psalms form part of a block from 93 to 99 that celebrate God as king and that underscore this tight connection between the universal praise of God and the universal justice of God. Thus we get the end of 96: “Tell it out among the nations: The Lord is King! He has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity. Let the heavens rejoice and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein. Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his truth.”

The end of Psalm 98 resounds with the same theme: “Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing. Sing to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the voice of song. With trumpets and the sound of the horn shout with joy before the King, the Lord. Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, the lands and those who dwell therein. Let the rivers clap their hands, and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord, when he comes to judge the earth. In righteousness shall he judge the world and the peoples with equity.”

One word on this judgment language: We Christians can sometimes hear this with the wrong ears and take this the wrong way. In so many of our traditions, judgment is about sin and you’re always going to come out on the short end of the stick, and thus the judgment of God is something to be feared rather than rejoiced over. (Why are the trees so darned happy about this? Do they really hate me that much?) C. S. Lewis in his writings on the psalms gives us a very helpful frame of reference to better hear this as the good news that it is. He says that too often we hear judgment and think of it as a criminal proceeding where God is going to put us in the dock and find against us. The judgment here in the Psalter, however, is best thought of as a civil case—it’s a property matter. The world is not as it should be. Things are not the way that God intended. The resources of the land and seas, the bounty of the earth are not distributed as they ought. The good news here, the reason why the trees and woods and floods rejoice is that God is going to set things to right. The goods that God intends for us will be apportioned as he designed. This judgment is good news because of the justice and equity of God.

Implicit in this judgment, however, is that there are those who are taking more than their appointed share. There are individuals and cliques and powers and systems that accrue benefits to themselves that were intended for others. Remember that psalm we mentioned a second ago, the one that said, “put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth”? The first half of that psalm which I quoted is a call to the praise of God; the second half hammers this point home: “Happy are those who have the God of Jacob for their help! Whose hope is in the Lord their God; Who made heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them; who keeps his promise forever; Who gives justice to the oppressed and food to those who hunger. The Lord sets the prisoners free, the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts us those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked. The Lord shall reign for ever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!”

From here, of course, it’s a clear and easy jump to the Song of Our Lady that has grounded Evening Prayer for lo these many centuries: “He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away .”

The justice and equity that stands as a primary characteristic of God must be a plumb-line for us as well. The justice and equity of God demand that we insist upon and advocate for the just rule of law. Rule of law is a very simple concept: it’s the notion that there is a system of standards that apply equally to everybody. The rules are the same for everybody. No matter your power or your prestige. That’s equity. Now, I’m a privileged 21st century American. This culture is all I know and every once in a while I need to be reminded that the way I live and the justice system that I take for granted is an anomaly within the long stretch of human history. This way of life is the exception—not the norm. When I taught preaching at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, one of the best sermons that I heard in my four years of teaching was from a Nigerian Anglican priest working through a passage from Deuteronomy—it was a celebration of and a stirring call for the rule of law. Which is tenuous at best in his homeland. It opened my eyes. I can assume it. We can assume it. And when we start assuming it is when we stop safeguarding it. The justice of God, the equity of God demands that we open our eyes to ensure that the rule of law is being carried out even in our remarkably well-run systems here in America and Canada. The psalms insist on God’s concern for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the blind and disabled—in short, those who had no voice or power and thus no recourse to justice in the patriarchal and often capricious justice of the first millennium BC. Our own social conscience is formed and aligned with the Scriptural witness when we ensure that the poor and marginalized in our communities are receiving their just due under law. That the justice modeled by God is being practiced by our courts and systems. In the grand scheme of human history, it’s only fair to say that they’re doing a much better job than they could be and yet they still fall far short of God’s vision for justice.

The Scriptures speak of sin, and our own lives can attest to its reality and power. Thanks to the enduring power of sin we must be watchful lest those in positions of power and privilege use their prerogatives for oppression. Vested systems of power, whether that be in governments or corporations or the church itself, need to be held accountable to the rule of law and the demands of both justice and equity that it requires.  This attention, this attentiveness, is part of the preferential option for the poor that has driven so much of Roman Catholic social teaching in the 20th century.

So—that’s my second point: the psalms and canticles emphasize the rule of law—that is, they emphasize that justice is a key attribute of God and that justice, righteousness, and equity must be central values for us because they flow directly from the identity of God himself.

The third key concept for a catholic social conscience from the psalms is that they form us in the habit of empathy because they place in our mouths the words of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and they invite us to see the world through those eyes, and to recognize the injustices seen through those eyes.

I’m an educated straight white male from the American middle class, meaning that I’m in the upper class globally, with a steady paying job and a house that my wonderful wife lets me live in. I’ve got it good. And that’s who I am. I can’t be anyone other than who I am. These combined conditions can create a perspective that assumes that everyone has had and will have the same advantages that I have. But how do I get a clearer picture of the world as it really is and as it is experienced by the millions and billions who have not had the advantages I have? So how do I transcend myself? How do I raise myself out of my cultural ghetto for a broader and more informed view of the realities of the world?  Certainly, travel, seeking out the experiences of others, directly serving the poor and the homeless and addicted at the South Baltimore Station with my parish are all good things. But these experiences are magnified and aided by the daily reminders tucked into the psalms about life in a situation far, far different from mine.

Old Testament scholar John Day calls the individual lament psalms the “backbone of the Psalter.” Depending on how you classify them, almost one third of the psalms, 46 of them fall into this category. If you add in another thirteen or so communal laments we’re definitely at over a third and quite a lot of the individual and communal thanksgiving psalms start from a situation of need and desperation. When we pray these psalms, we take into our mouths the pleas, complaints, and cries of those who know oppression, who have experienced loss and injustice. Sometimes the laments are familiar to us. Sometimes they offer us comfort because we recognize in a voice almost three thousand years old a shared experience of betrayal or attack. At other times they imaginatively invite us into these experiences and challenge us to relate to them.  They engage our empathy, then require us to exercise it, to stretch it, to understand the world in a different way, to see life through other sets of eyes, eyes that have seen things that many of us here have not seen and, honestly, that I earnestly pray we never see.

One of the hardest sets of psalms to wrestle with are those we refer to as the imprecatory psalms, the cursing psalms. And even bits that make us recoil pop up in some of the other, nicer, psalms. If you’re curious which ones these might be, all you have to do is take at the Daily Office lectionary in the back of your prayer book. They’re the psalms that are marked as optional; they’re the verses that have parenthesis around them to let you know that you don’t really have to read them.  I want to take a look at one of these. I want to invite us to consider this psalm from an empathetic point of view.

Psalm 137 starts out so beautifully. In fact, the whole first section of it is a favorite of many people. Furthermore, my sources from the generation before me tell me that there was even a very popular folk song based off of it: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion. As for our harps we hung them up on the trees in the midst of that land. For those who led us away captive asked us for a song, and our oppressors called for mirth: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let me tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”

There you go—beautiful, plaintive, a true cry from the heart. Then we get these verses:

Remember the day of Jerusalem, O Lord, against the people of Edom, who said “Down with it! Down with it! Even to the ground!” O Daughter of Babylon doomed to destruction, happy the one who pays you back for what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”

We’re shocked and offended by these verses. Is that seriously in the Bible? Certain atheists take joy at pointing out the horrible sentiment expressed here at the joy of baby killing and offer it up as an example of the warped mentalities of religion.

A little context is helpful here. This psalm dates shortly after 587 BC when the Babylonian armies sacked Jerusalem for a second time. They’d already been there ten years earlier when Judah rebelled against their Babylonian overlords. The first time, many of the leaders (including the prophet Ezekiel) were taken off into exile in Babylon as a warning against further revolts. The rulers of Judah didn’t listen and they didn’t learn. They revolted again and the second time the Babylonian retribution was unrelenting. The city was entirely leveled to the ground, the Temple was utterly destroyed. The vast majority of the population was put to the sword and those who survived were taken to Babylon in chains. The Babylonian client states in the region were welcome to whatever was left behind and Edom in particular savaged the refugees. The book of Lamentations gives a more sustained sense of the devastation and despair while the oft-overlooked book of Obadiah explains in detail Edom’s betrayal of Jerusalem and calls an oracle of wrath upon them for their actions.

That’s the background of Psalm 137; that’s the experience of these singers who refusing to sing a song of joy in their captors’ land. In short, they are wishing against Edom and Babylon the horrors already visited upon their homes, their families, their children. So—is that an excuse, does that experience make these lines ok? No—of course not. If you’re offended by these lines, then congratulations: that means your moral sense is intact. But what these lines should cause us to do is not to question the morality of God or the psalmist but to try and wrap our heads around the kind of horrific experiences out of which this kind of plea makes sense. I’ve never experienced the brutal sack of my homeland, and I pray I never will. I don’t want to understand this psalm. And yet, the stark reality of the situation is that there are multitudes of people around the world, both victims and veterans—some of whom are in our congregations—who understand this only too well.

When I take these words into my mouth, I am forced to consider what kind of experience that must be, what depths of pain would cause otherwise rational and faithful people to make this kind of plea to God. I have never had this experience of oppression, but the Psalter places it before my eyes, my heart, and my imagination. In praying these alien lines, I am forced into an exercise of empathy that will broaden my soul. Likewise I can say: “Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth. For the arrogant have risen up against me, the ruthless have sought my life, those who have no regard for God.” Or “My enemies are saying wicked things about me: When will he die, and his name perish?” Even if they come to see me, they speak empty words; their heart collects false rumors; they go outside and spread them. All my enemies whisper together about me and devise evil against me” or even “I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.” While I cannot honestly claim these words as my own, I can imaginatively extend my own experiences of betrayal and trouble to better understand them, and as resources in my conversations with those who know them far more intimately than I. And that’s important too: I’m not trying to suggest that the regular praying of the psalms in the Office is a substitute for actually engaging the people in your communities in these situations. What I do believe, though, is that your encounters with them may well be aided as a result of this sort of diligent—attentive—empathetic exercise.

So that’s the third fundamental concept from the psalms: they form us in the habit of empathy because they place in our mouths the words of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and they invite us to see the world through those eyes, and to recognize the injustices seen through those eyes.

A catholic social conscience is formed in a number of ways. However, I will contend that it must start with the Scriptures. Yes, healthy devotion to the Eucharist will lead to care and concern for the poor as well, but the connection between the two is mediated by Scripture. And, indeed, there have been many times and places where the social conscience has lagged far behind the devotion for want of that critical mediating term. A regular discipline of praying the Daily Office nourishes the soul with the psalms and canticles that have the potential, have the opportunity, to shape these concerns with in us and see aid us in seeing them more clearly throughout the rest of Scripture. When we allow the psalms to speak their wisdom to us, they will form in us the conviction that God is the center and the source by which all other systems and powers are critiqued; that the justice, righteousness, and equity that characterize God himself must be reflected in our societies and systems; that we can transcend ourselves and situations by exercising our empathy and broadening our souls to the experiences of others. But it doesn’t happen on its own. Simply running through the words isn’t enough. All of the catechetical and formational potential of the Daily Office, all of the potential of the Psalter and the canticles, all of the potential of the Scriptures is for nought without the discipline of attentiveness. “Beat the devil: be attentive.”

Praying the Office just every once in a while isn’t enough. It has to become a discipline. That doesn’t mean that if you miss it once you’re lost or anything, but its power lies in the force of habits. Habits of mind, habits of devotion, habits of thought. That’s what transforms us—patterns of life.

Same with the psalms. The benefits that we’ve talked about only occur with attentiveness. If you are not being attentive, then you could just as well be reading the sports page. It is only while reading these words with our minds and our hearts engaged, with our souls open to the movements of the Spirit, that they can unleash their potential to melt our hearts of stone.

It is only when we bring these habits of devotion, the wisdom gained from these words, together into a hurting world that the circuit becomes complete. The spiritual wisdom from the psalms and from the Office must impact our actions and our advocacy. We must translate in our very limbs what God is calling us to do. Behold—he says—I am making all things new. Behold, now it breaks forth, do you not perceive it? Well, we will—but only if we’re attentive.

Posted in Daily Office, Formation, Spirituality | 9 Comments

Announcement #1: SCLM

Word has officially gone out at the Cafe and over at ENS about the new line-up for the Standing Commissions and the Joint Standing Committees of the General Convention/Episcopal Church.

Thanks to nominations from some of you, I have been invited to serve for the next two triennia on the Standing Commission for Liturgy & Music.

I look forward to serving, and am committed to providing a perspective that is grounded in an appreciation for the Catholic and Anglican roots of the prayer book and is directed towards a classic spirituality to nurture discipleship for a 21st century world.

Posted in Administrative, Anglican | 14 Comments

Miniature for the Martyrs

In preparation for a follow-up post on the standard pictorial sequences for the books of hours, I was leafing through the aforementioned Little Hours of John de Berry (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, ms. lat. 18014). In wandering through, attempting to decipher the artwork and seeing which prayers were present and which absent, I came across this terrific miniature that I couldn’t not share immediately:

This comes from a sequence of prayers to various saints and groups of saints. This one is to all the holy martyrs and, while several of the saints pictured are holding the implements of their demise, the center figure with the strangely full halo is holding his head as blood continues to squirt from his neck!

I’ll say more about this later but I do think that the martyrs are rather seriously neglected, particularly in our proposed calendrical revision. Consider for a moment two categories, one which feels more highly favored than the other under the new scheme: “martyr” and “prophetic witness”…

Here’s the thing: looking at the above image, is there any way that you can see martyrdom as anything other than “prophetic witness”?!


Posted in Medieval Stuff, Saints | 7 Comments

Books of Hours: Images I

After having discussed the texts of the Books of Hours, we’ll now turn to the images. Ironically, most people who study the Books of Hours are more interested in this facet than in the texts themselves as most students are going after the art-history angle rather than late medieval devotion. (Go figure!)

There are several different ways to lay this topic out and to work through it. At the moment I’m relying mostly on the art-historical data from Harthan (totally worth picking up if you’re interested at all either in the topic or in pretty medieval pictures…) cross-referenced with images from a variety of the digitized Books of Hours linked to in a previous post.

First, we’ll take a look at major kinds of images and where they appear on the page, then (likely in a subsequent post), we’ll take a look at the various possible contents of these images. Needless to say, our focus here will be primarily on the deluxe manuscript Books of Hours. That’s not to say or imply that there weren’t images in the printed Books of Hours and prymers however—there were, and I do hope to touch on those but exactly how and when that’ll happen, I can’t say.

In his section on “Decoration,” Harthan states, “The varying stress laid at various times on decoration and illustration, the problems of reconciling the inventive fantasy of the artist with the demands of the text, and the several solutions adopted for combining the separate units of text, initial, miniature and border into a decorative ensemble, represent book illumination considered as an art form” (Harthan, Books of Hours, 19). His identification here of four fundamental units on the page: 1) text, 2) initial, 3) miniature, and 4) border is quite important. Unfortunately, he leaves one of these out as he begins his explication of the illuminated elements: “The basic elements in illumination are the initial, the miniature and the border” (Harthan, Books of Hours, 19-20). While he’s correct that most of the text is not technically illuminated, we’ll keep an eye on it as we go…

So, before looking more at Harthan, let me throw up an image that contain all three (four) elements. Here we have a page from the beginning of Matins of the BVM from the British Library’s fifteenth-century Royal MS 2 A XVIII (f. 25r):

We have the picture of the Annunciation above the text. That’s the miniature. We have the big “D” with a woman with her own Book of Hours looking up at the scene. (Chances are this is the person for whom the book was commissioned). That’s an initial—but so are the smaller ones done in blue, red, and gold sprinkled down the page. We have an outline that bounds the text, containing lots of flowery stuff  between the boundary and the page; that’s the border. Text-wise, notice that we have a rubric—the text in red—and a fine, clear, easy-to-read Gothic text containing the aforementioned smaller initials.

In manuscript terms, “miniature” doesn’t technically refer to size but to the practice of painting; the Latin miniare means to paint with vermillion. Basically, it’s any large free-standing picture whether bordered or not. In the later books we see this become full page illustrations as in this great one standing before Sext from Bibliotheque nationale, Latin 1173:


Miniatures are miniatures and there’s not a lot to say about them until we start discussing content. Next up are the initials.

There are two fundamental types of initials in Books of Hours (as in other medieval manuscripts), decorative and historiated. Decorative are those initials that are decorated and embellished with backgrounds and various kinds of pen-strokes; historiated means that there is an image inside of it. In Books of Hours whether you’ll see one or the other tend not to be an either/or situation but a both/and. Thus, on the page with the Annunciation on it, we have a large historiated initial (with the woman in it), and a number of smaller decorative initials. Here’s another example from an earlier period, coming from Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, 288 (f. 17r) from the first quarter of the 14th century:

Again—a both/and; we have a historiated initial of Jesus with bloody sweat in the Garden, then a number of decorated initials. Note the alternation of colors in the decorative initials. The most typical scheme is blue and red but I’ve seen gold or green instead of red in some and, occasionally, a three color alternation with blue, red, and gold. These denote sense-breaks and indicate when different elements begin. As you know, the Offices were originally communal affairs with alternation between individuals and groups or between two parts of a choir. The colors provide indications of hen each “part” changes, but does not assume either private or public use. We know from contemporary writings, however, that people (often women) would use their books of hours in pairs with a companion; the colors would give an indication as to when one person was to stop and the other start.

On the text, note that we have three different kinds of visual cues in the text-block: We have a “regular” text for the bulk of the material, we have rubrics (those in red) identifying the parts of the Office, but then we also have a “lesser” text identified by the smaller writing used for the invitatory antiphon. Directly after the rubric “Invitatorium” is the text “Regem xpm crucifixu: venite adoremus [the last word appears just under the “venite,” at the right ogf the new line rather than the left]” in a smaller font than the surrounding text. This becomes visually important as we move down the page because we will consistently be able to identify the antiphon even when it’s not marked because it will remain visually smaller as we see here when the second half of the antiphon is repeated after the blue decorative initial “V” (that does look sort of like a “U” if you’re not used to this script):


As for borders, they are often visually outgrowths from initials. For instance, if you look at the images above, you’ll see that the line in the left border of the second picture begins as a line coming off the historiated initial in the first. Citing Harthan:

Originally introduced to enclose the miniature and separate it from the text, the rectangular frame-border in Anglo-Saxon and Romanesque manuscripts (for example, in the English Winchester School of illumination) was often enlarged to form wide panels around the miniature, which were filled with a variety of closely packed acanthus ornaments or an interlace of foliage with climbing beasts and human figures. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, in the Gothic period of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, a second type of border appeared with irregular edges. Beginning as a tail-like extension of the initial into the margin, it developed into the prolific ivy- or vine-leaf border composed of curling tendrils from which sprouted tiny leaves picked out in gold. The ivy-leaf border was to become one of the most characteristic decorative features of northern Books of Hours in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. (Harthan, Books of Hours, 20)

He describes how images started escaping their initials and how miniatures would likewise escape their borders, and around 1420 would become full-fledged paintings with perspective, movement, etc. as opposed to the more cartoon-like look that we saw in the image of Jesus in the garden…

Parallel with the miniature, the borders are undergoing a similar evolution. At first, the blank margins of the text are filled only sparsely by the tail-like extension of initials from which sprout the first shoots of vine- or ivy-leaf ornament. But when these ‘tails’ extend to the corners they throw out cusped bars at right angles which provide platforms to support drolleries, grotesque figures, monsters, birds, and animals. Playful secular imagery of this kind is sometimes said, on not very clear grounds, to indicate the artists’ emancipation from clerical control. It derives more immediately from the natural inventiveness of artists and from the willingness of their clients to be diverted from their religious texts during long services in church or periods of private devotion; Books of Hours were taken to church as well as read at home. In the late fourteenth century the emphatic ‘bar borders’ supporting drolleries and little human figures gradually give way to lighter and more graceful ivy-leaf designs which now completely frame the miniature and text with a dense but delicate mass of foliated scrolls or rinceaux. (Harthan, Books of Hours, 21)

Alright—enough citing…

The Little Hours of John de Berry (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, ms. lat. 18014) is a delightful book that shows a wide variety of decorations including most everything talked about here. What Harthan can’t always give a sense of is the balance of illustration. Some pages get lavish attention artistically; in others it’s quite scant. However, this set of hours demonstrates how decoration on a variety of levels was deployed within the same text and how beautiful results were achieved on all levels.

First, a page virtually devoid of decoration:

We have vernacular French prayers with just a couple of decorated initials and no border at all. The regularity of the text and punctuations of color make it work.

Now, decorative initials moving towards a pseudo-border in Psalm 8:

or this one:


Then there’s the full-on ivy-leaf border of which Harthan speaks deployed at the start of the Lauds of the BVM:

That’s enough for now—more on the content later.

And this is why I’ve always said that the breviary doesn’t live up to my dreams of what a well-crafted electronic text could live up to…





Posted in Daily Office, Liturgy, Medieval Stuff | 2 Comments

Quick Quiet Day Thought

It struck me yesterday that, with all of the discussion of Spiritual but not Religious present in our culture that it might be interesting to do a quiet day that would address this topic head-on.

Thus, exploring:

  • What does it mean to be “Spiritual”?
  • What does it mean to be “Religious” (speaking honestly about some of the difficulties here…)
  • What does it mean to be Spiritual and Religious?
Posted in Formation, Random | 6 Comments

Books of Hours: Contents

Medieval Books of Hours were manuscript devotional texts. The two most significant words here are “manuscript” and “devotional”; both of them remind us that the contents of these books were largely based around the desires of the people who commissioned them or the sense of the market by those who produced them. Therefore, in considering both the Books of Hours and the prymers that developed from them, we need to gain a sense of what elements were typical, and what sort of devotional material was expected.

One of the resources that will help us get a sense of this terrain is the landmark study of the Books of Hours conducted by Abbe Leroquais, Les livres d’Heures. Manuscrits de la bibliothèque nationale in three volumes. Not having this readily to hand (or the thousand or so bucks on hand to pick it up off the used market), however, I rely on John Harthan’s work, The Book of Hours, for Leroquais’s classifications of contents:

The Abbe Leroquais established a basic classification of the contents of Books of Hours. Three elements are distinguished: essential, secondary, and accessory texts. The essential texts are those extracted from the Breviary: the Calendar, the Little Office or Hours of the Virgin, the Penitential Psalms, the Litany, the Office of the Dead, and the Suffrages of the Saints. Like the Breviary, the Book of Hours in its turn attracted further texts which extended its devotional scope as well as increasing the variety of its contents.

These secondary texts comprise the Sequences, which are the passages from the four Gospels in which the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John describe the coming of Christ; the account of the Passion given in the Gospel of St John; two special prayers to the Virgin which enjoyed great popularity, the Obsecro te (‘I implore thee’) and O intemerata (‘O matchless one’); a number of shorter alternative Offices, the Hours of the Cross, of the Holy Spirit and (less often) of the Holy Trinity; the Fifteen Joys of the Virgin; and the Seven Requests to the Saviour.

Even this substantial addition was not enough to satisfy the yearning for devotion among the laity. It was increased by Leroquais’ third element, the accessory texts. These comprise more extracts from the Psalter, and miscellaneous prayers. The Fifteen Gradual Psalms (also present in the Breviary in this form) and the Psalter of St Jerome represent a further appropriation of the inexhaustible riches of psalmody. The Gradual Psalms comprise numbers 119-33 [Vulgate numbering], the short and beautiful psalms sometimes considered to be those recited by Jewish pilgrims ‘going up’ (gradus, a step) to Jerusalem. The Psalter of St Jerome is an anthology of 183 verses from the Psalms compiled for the use of the sick by an unknown writer but traditionally associated with St Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin and author of three versions of the Psalms. The miscellaneous prayers were of widely diverse character. Many were of venerable antiquity, going back to the prayer books (libelli precum) of Carolingian times. Most were anonymous, but some were attributed to major saints or Fathers of the Church to give them status and perhaps greater efficacy.

The arrangement of a ‘typical’ Book of Hours is given below. Only the essential and secondary texts are included. It must always be remembered that no two manuscript Books of Hours are exactly alike. Except for the Calendar at the beginning, the order of the seperate parts was never fixed, and the number of texts included could vary as much as their position in the Book.

  1. Calendar
  2. Sequences of the Gospels
  3. The prayer Obsecro te
  4. The prayer O intemerata
  5. Hours of the Virgin
  6. Hours of the Cross
  7. Hours of the Holy Spirit
  8. Penitential Psalms
  9. Litany
  10. Office of the Dead
  11. Suffrages of the Saints

(Harthan, The Book of Hours, 14-5)

As a practicing medievalist without access to the text of Leroquais, I immediately grant his specific grouping of elements a conditional status accounting for time and place. Even the most cursory glance through the holdings of the BN (which, to be fair, is all I’ve given it…) notes that there appears to be a predominance of Books of Hours from the Diocese of Rouen. We will thus note but bracket the possibility that Leroquais’ assessment of contents might reflect local use and may differ from English norms—either Sarum or York.

Duffy in his Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers is wisely reticent on the exact contents of the French and English books that he surveys, remarking on the development of the form “All the earliest books contain the Little Hours of the Virgin, but their consistency ends” (Duffy, Hours, 10). In speaking of the 15th century hours and their proliferation with the advent of printing he allows himself to become a bit more specific and, indeed, produces a list that accords well with the observations of Leroquais:

All these people, then, high and low, aristocratic and plebeian, were using the same book. That book contained a standardised selection of psalms, antiphons, hymns and prayers arranged for recitation in honour of Mary at each of the eight monastic divisions or hours of the day. To these ‘hours’ of the Virgin were added the Office for the Dead or Placebo et Dirige (Vespers, Matins, and Lauds for the dead), the short Hours of the Cross, which in books for the English market were usually inserted between the Hours of the Virgin, the long Psalm 118 (119) called the Commendation of the soul, the seven Penitential Psalms and the Litany of the Saints, the fifteen Gradual Psalms, and a series of individual ‘suffrages’ or short prayers to saints, especially to the Virgin Mary. These made up the core contents of the Book of Hours, which by the later fifteenth century had expanded to become a compendium of popular devotions. By then most included also a series of devotions (with accompanying illustrations ) to the Trinity, the Wounds, the Passion and the Veronica or Holy Face of Jesus, prayers to the Virgin such as the popular prayers beginning Obsecro Te and O Intemerata, hymns to and about Mary, such as the well-known poem on the Passion, the Stabat Mater, or the Marian hymn against the plague Stella Coeli extirpavit. Many also included eucharistic devotions like the Anima Christi (‘Soul of Christ, sanctify me, Body of Christ, save me…’), designed to be recited at Mass, and almost all contained the shortened version of the Psalter known as St Jerome’s Psalter, which included almost 200 verses from the psalms including the whole of Psalm 50 (51), the Miserere, and which normally carried a prefatory legend which guaranteed the user protection against the devil and untimely death (Duffy, Hours, 28).

Note that Duffy includes the Commendation among the standard contents, agreeing (against Leroquais’ essentials) with what I’ve seen in the English sources.

We gain an even clearer picture of the types and variety of what Leroquais dubs secondary and accessory materials when we look at the survey in Hoskins’ introduction on English Books of Hours:

Six primers of the thirteenth century which are known to exist show that taking one book with another the Primer uniformly contained (a) A Kalendar, (b) The Hours of the Virgin from Purification to Advent, (c) The seven penitential psalms, (d) The Litany of the Saints, (e) The Office for the dead, (f) The Psalms of commendation, (g) the fifteen or gradual Psalms, and (h) The prayers of St. Bridget commonly called the 15 Oes; while one Primer or another has, “Hore de S. Trinitate,” “Hore de passione,” or, “Heures de Nun Jesu,” “Hore de S. Johanne Baptista,” “Hore de S. Katherina,” “Hore de S. Spiritu,” Rubrics in French, and pictures with prayers on the sacred mysteries (Hoskins, Horae, xi).

The list gets even more interesting and diverse as we go later and make the language jump into English:

The contents of thirteen Primers in English of the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries which are known to exist are the Hours of the Virgin from Purification to Advent with the Hours of the Cross, a Kalendar, the Seven penitential psalms, the Fifteen or Gradual psalms, the Litany, the Office of the dead, the Psalms of commendation, devotions to the Virgin, the psalm De profundis, Psalms of the passion, A Christian man’s confession, Misereatur, Pater Noster, Ave Maria, Credo, the Ten commandments, Six manners of conscience, Seven deadly sins, Five witts outward and inward, Seven works of mercy bodily and ghostly, Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, Seven words, Sixteen properties of charity; together with instructions on many of the above subjects, and the words of Paul (Hoskins, Horae, xiv).

My sense is that a fuller investigation will prove and make explicit what seems nascent here: the Latin books—and Latin texts within mixed-language books—consist primarily of the standardized liturgical devotional material; the shift into vernaculars (notably French and English for the scope of my curiosity) introduces not only additional devotional material but a greater influx of catechetical contents.

Posted in Liturgy, Medieval Stuff | 10 Comments

Teaching the Torah

I got an e-mail from a reader regarding Scripture and Christian formation.  The reader reported that his parish was beginning a study of the Torah, and the priest began with a presentation on the Documentary Hypothesis. For those unfamiliar, the documentary hypothesis is a product of 19th and 20th century German and American scholarship that seeks to identify specific strands and layers of sources within the Torah. As one of the key features of this theory involves the names for God, J and E stand for two of them while the other two (P and D) identify theological emphases. I can see why a priest might start this way–it’s typically taught in seminaries at the start of OT study. I have nothing against the documentary hypothesis as a tool for scholarship; I think some scholars take it way too far and I find some of the methodology problematic, but it’s how some folks have made their academic careers.

But how useful is it to the church?

I want to be careful to answer this in the right way – it can be useful when it is set in its proper place and used for its specific purpose. It’s like the miter saw of the Christian formation workshop: there are a few specific tasks that it does well, but most of the time it should sit on the shelf. If you try and do large-scale woodworking with it, you won’t accomplish your task and you’ll screw up your tool!

Alright, smarty-pants – how would you do it?

What needs to happen first, in my opinion, is an orientation to the Old Testament in general and the Torah in particular. The place to start is by setting down some fundamental ground rules. Then as the group reads or studies, we can go back to these guiding principles and apply them as needed.

1. God and history: the first guiding principle must be something like this: as Christians, we believe that God has decisively interacted in history, but that history cannot define God. The basis of our faith is the understanding that the Supreme Being is not just a good idea – rather, we identify the Supreme Being as an active, hands-on presence at work in the world, in the lives of nations, and in the lives of individuals. Furthermore, God’s character is revealed to us through the patterns of action that emerge from God’s decisive interactions with history. However, the historical record itself rarely captures these interactions in an obvious or simple fashion. Thus, corollaries:

1.1.    Historical events must underlie the decisive interactions between God and humanity: for example, creation occurred; Israel was freed from Egypt; the Jerusalem Temple was built and destroyed.

1.2.    History and archaeology are blunt instruments that rarely confirm or deny the spiritual truths that Christians locate within these interactions: for example, the fact of creation does not prove the existence of a creator; historical science can tell us that population movements occurred, but cannot conclusively explain why they occurred; even when the facticity of an event is not in question, history and archaeology cannot hope to answer all of the natural and/or supernatural factors involved.

2. History and literature: the second guiding principle serves to complicate the first. History, and the facticity of God’s decisive interactions, are important to us. But they are usually not available to us. History is a complicated thing. The scholarship of the last 50 years or so has only reinforced that point. We now see history as more subjective, and less objective, always remembering the dictum that history is written by the winners. There are solid historical facts: cities existed, cities fell; kings reigned, kings died. But the fullness of the factors around these events is complex and imperfectly preserved. Any three competing histories of the Vietnam War will demonstrate that even in an era of recording and photography, history, interpretation, and truth are easier said than arrived at. In particular, interpretation is a big piece of any work of analysis and there are no “objective” stories; even an author striving to be as objective as possible will come from a particular perspective and read certain events in certain ways. Move into antiquity, and things get a whole lot more complex. Move into a body of religious literature, and understand that interpretation is central. The Bible, as we have received it, is literature. It is a written record. It is a written compilation of a wide variety of oral and written sources transmitted from different times, places, and purposes. (And this is where the JEPD thing comes in.) The collection as a whole does have a particular purpose. All of the texts within it were edited and selected (remember—there are books from the period not preserved within it; the OT isn’t just “everything ever written in Hebrew in antiquity”) for a reason: to recount the relationship between God and his people and to transmit the identity and consistent character of God through these stories.  In large measure, then, especially in the Torah, and particularly in Genesis, we are not accessing history directly, but reading literature recounting stories set in the past that preserve history or historical remembrances as a secondary purpose. As such, we encounter it first as literature, and second as a record of the events recounted. As a result, our primary tools should not be of a historical nature, but of a literary character. The question on everyone’s minds at this point is whether the Bible is true. My answer is a simple yes – it is. It communicates the relationship between God and humanity as understood by the writers and editors of the canon. A more nuanced question asks whether all of the events recounted in Scripture are historically factual. My response (that some people may see as a cop-out) is that we are asking historical questions of a large collection of documents without first assessing the literary character and purpose of the section we happen to be reading. The first task of a literary expedition is to assess the genre of the text in front of you. In light of the specific question that we’re asking, we have to ask what the purpose and function is of the text we’re reading: is it seeking to document history according to 21st century American standards? The answer must be no. Some texts and passages do come closer than others. For instance, certain sections of the Samuel-Kings complex read as being very factual—some parts of Genesis read as less so. Does it mean that we trust one and not the other? No—it means that we regard their historicity differently, holding one more lightly than the other.  Neither historicity nor facticity equal truth—if that were so, then we would not read Tolkien or Shakespeare or Coleridge and be transported and transformed by them. Nevertheless, this point must be held in tension with the first: we do believe that God has decisively interacted with history and thus we should not be too quick to write off the historicity of what we read. So, to state the corollaries:

2.1.    Historicity does not exhaust truth.

2.2.    The primary purpose of Scripture is to communicate the relationship between God and humanity and to reveal the consistent character of God and humanity.

2.3.    While we do believe that God has decisively interacted with history, historicity is always at most a secondary concern of the literary text that we have received.

3. Literature and interpretation: Not only is the Bible a compilation of documents and sources, it is largely a compilation of theological interpretations either of life itself or specific events including certain historical events. A lot of interpretations are set side-by-side one another. Some of these are complementary, some are supplementary, others are conflicting. That is, the same historical events or life-events are understood in (sometimes drastically) different ways. Cases in point are the two different interpretations of the destruction of the Temple found in Psalms 74 and 79 or the differing approaches to life threaded throughout Proverbs and Job. What does this do to the “truth” status of Scripture? Nothing as far as I’m concerned… Rather, it means that different authors and editors have understood specifics about the relationship between God and humanity differently. They are united in their witness to the relationship, though, despite not reaching the exact same conclusions. Corollaries:

3.1.    The Bible consists of a collection of diverse theological interpretations.

3.2.    Even when biblical interpretations directly conflict, they are united in their witness to the nature and character of God’s relationship with humanity.

4. Purpose: Why do we read the Old Testament, the Torah, or Genesis? Because it gives us the backstory of the relationship into which we have entered. In the Nicene Creed we confess that the Spirit spoke through the prophets, affirming that the relationship described in the Old Testament is in fundamental continuity with the relationship described in the New Testament and the relationship lived out today in the life of the Church. As 2 Timothy reminds us, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” We read so that we can learn the relationship, grasp the character of God, and unite our lives in witness to that character and the reconciling will that proceeds from it. It goes back to the fundamentals: how does this passage reveal God’s desire for the church to be built up in love for service and reconciliation?  Sometimes Old Testament passages may seem to be remote from this question. When we find ourselves wrestling with that kind of passage, we can ask a few basic questions that can help re-orient ourselves to this question:

4.1.    What does this passage show about the consistent character of God?

4.2.    What does this passage show about the consistent character of humanity?

4.3.    What does this passage reveal about the relationship between God and humanity?

4.4.    How does this passage confirm or challenge what we understand to be the consistent character of God or humanity?

4.5.    To what degree does the character of God or humanity revealed here cohere with the consistent character revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and confessed by the church?

4.6.    How do these findings tie into what God desires from a mature Church participating within the reconciliation of God’s creation to himself?

One of the great strengths of the Church’s “pre-critical” typological and allegorical reading strategies is that they focus around the concept of a consistent character and pattern of behavior running through the relationship: God works in particular and consistent ways to maximize human freedom and liberation (despite humanity’s spotty record in cooperating with the divine will!).

Moving from these basic guiding principles, I’d open the Torah with a drive-by overview of the main genres that make up the first few books. Thus, we would identify the first 11 or so chapters of Genesis as cosmological epic. The point here is less historicity (certainly not scientific or anthropological accuracy!) than setting the stage: God is the author and source of creation, humanity works at cross-purposes to the divine will, yet God cares for creation and for humanity, working in particulars—through individuals and families. From chapter 12 on we are working with family epics that narrate the experiences of the great patriarchs and their families from Abraham through Joseph. The historicity factor may be a bit higher, but what is at issue is the relationships between family members with one another and with God and his liberating works. (The Icelandic family epics are very useful analogues for how and why people record family squabbles and internecine disputes.) With Exodus, we see a shift to a bit of heroic epic in the beginning with a focus on Moses, his origins and actions, before a move towards legal materials after the Sinai experience.

So—This is how I would go about introducing and contextualizing the reading of the Torah within a Christian community. What are your thoughts, questions, and caveats?

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