Sunday, January 29, 2017

Reason Number 242,357 Why the First Roman Canon Helps Me Pray

Supra quae propitio ac sereno vultu respicere digneris: et accepta habere, sicuti accepta habere dignatus es munera pueri tui justi Abel, et sacrificium patriarchae nostri Abrahae: et quod tibi obtulit summus sacerdos tuus Melchisedech, sanctum sacrificium, immaculatam hostiam. Supplices te rogamus, omnipotens Deus …

“Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as once You were pleased to accept the gifts of Your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of Your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim. In humble prayer we ask You, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of Your holy Angel to Your altar on high in the sight of Your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of Your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.  Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Of course, Mass isn’t supposed to be about warm fuzzies (which is why I didn’t title this post, as I had instinctively intended to, “Why I Like the First Roman Canon”).  But it is undeniably true that warm fuzzies help dispose one towards prayer; and the opinion, ever since I first heard it in college, has always struck me as probable that God wishes us to make use of all the crutches at our disposal as we seek to grow in grace.  So while the final cause of a good vocal prayer ought to be communication with God, it is probably the case for most of us that this communication will only take place through some medium which is heavily tinged with emotion—whether that emotion be one of comfort or awe, or one of sorrow or anxiety.  And thus, I think I can say that the Roman Canon helps me pray by cultivating warm fuzzy feelings in me.

To some who love the canon, that probably sounds disrespectful.  And to some who find the canon excessively lengthy or dull, with its catalogues of saints and repetitious phrasing, it probably sounds absurd.  But I have felt this way about the canon for almost as long as I can remember—and I began regularly hearing it as Sunday Mass before even receiving my first Communion.  That is doubtless part of the reason for my sentimental attachment to it (as opposed to an equally strong rational attachment, which would, however, be matter for another post).  I think now I understand another reason for the emotional appeal of the canon, a reason which also goes a ways towards characterizing some of its more idiosyncratic characteristics, such as the aforementioned catalogues.

I just finished reading C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image.

The lovely thing about having a preverbal baby, you know,
is that they don’t care what you read to them at bedtime.
No, I don’t think she’s actually reading.  That’s supposed to be lace.
No, I’m not sure why the baby is in a tub.  Maybe he was fidgeting?
You know how it is with those Dutch babies.

Lewis’s purpose is to explain the medieval worldview, the medieval model of the universe—“the Model,” as he calls it for most of the work, although his epilogue makes it clear that he thinks we moderns have our own model, as does every age.  One of the salient features of the model is (though I do not think this is Lewis’s term) its population: it is full to the bursting of beings at all levels, from the stones to trees to animals to humans to “longaevi,” to angels, to God himself.  There is not blade of grass has not its vegetable soul, nor a planet without its daemonic (in the good sense) intelligence.  The very night sky is not black, but golden, except where the shadow of our poor earth falls on it; not empty, but full of pulsating light and life, in the form of those intermediate beings which inhabit the space above our atmosphere.  The medieval model is, in fact, very much like medieval paintings.  It is, as Lewis says, anti-agoraphobic.

This is what the first Eucharistic prayer reminds me of.  Indeed, while the prayer has yet more ancient roots, it belongs aesthetically to that mediaeval age.  And the lists of saints, like the Homeric catalogues, fit within that sort of worldview: a worldview where heaven and earth and the heavens between are populated, as one used to feel as a child the whole backyard was populated, with God’s creatures, populo suo, the nearest not so very far from where you sat.  And so, as a child, you sat and played, alone to the eyes of the adults, but hardly lonely; and—you being mostly but not altogether unawares—He looked on your delights in that garden with a serene and kindly countenance, and your pleasures were as gifts acceptable and pleasing to Him, as you imitated in miniature the meals and doings of the grownups, your mother and father and even your grandparents and greatgrandparents; your forefathers, if you knew their stories.  And if you were especially lucky that day, you might think that you saw your not-loneliness embodied in the garden, saw a fairy dancing in the muddy rivulet that crossed the grass after every rain (to your father’s endless irritation), a fairy who might fly from the grass below you to almost the clouds above.  And if you had that fancy, you would wish wistfully, for a moment, that it could be true, for you mostly knew that fairies weren’t.

And the splendid thing about being a grownup, if only you can still feel that same wish, is to have it fulfilled, and to be for a brief moment satisfied: for you know that true it is, and better than true.

… jube haec perferri per manus sancti Angeli tui in sublime altare tuum, in conspectu divinae majestatis tuae: ut quotquot ex hac altaris participatione, sacrosanctum Filii tui Corpus et Sanguinem sumpserimus omni benedictione coelesti et gratia repleamur …


A bit more history, for the academically curious:


  1. Benedicite rores et pruina Domino, benedicite gelu et frigus Domino, laudate et superexaltate eum in saecula... and all the rest; and how could they do that, had they no soul, eh? hmmm??

    (a tiny remark, I readily admit)

  2. No, I don't think some of them had. The irony is--I was curious, and looked it up--I didn't know this before--but it was and is still in the Anglican book of common prayer. I bet Anglican-use Catholics get to hear it sometimes ...

  3. It is interesting that you should think that you like the Roman canon when it is clearly "unsatisfactory from a stylistic viewpoint." (According to the spokesman for the consilium that produced our 1970 Roman Missal...)

    Seriously though, I think it is interesting that you draw a fittingness between a medieval worldview and the language of the canon. It is quite possible that the canon was composed (or parts are from) as early as the first century. You either have to say that medieval thought was developed in some ways out of liturgical language and thought or that there has been a great continuity between the thought of antiquity and the later ages which has only been disrupted in our time. (I suppose I would be inclined to say both.)

  4. I have little doubt that the editors of the 1970 Roman Missal would also find this blog unsatisfactory from a stylistic viewpoint.

    Seriously, though ... yes, that's an excellent couple of points. The thought had occurred to me that we lost something previous ages held in common; but I hadn't thought that the medievals' thought might have been so actively shaped by the liturgy. Still, it would only make sense that it was!