01 December 2012
Advent Begins, and the Liturgical Year with It
This year I am returning to Dom Prosper Gueranger's classic The Liturgical Year as fuel for meditation. With Advent starting, I wanted to post some excerpts from Gueranger's General Preface in order to give a glimpse into the plan of the work, his genius, and most especially the genius and inspiration of the Catholic liturgical prayer handed down to us over the centuries.
We live in a time when the Church is besieged by enemies; so did Gueranger. He faced down heretical sects and revolutionary government with simple Catholic Faith; we must do the same.
I have taken the liberty to add my own emphases in orange:
...Now it is in the holy Church that this divine Spirit dwells. He came down to her as an impetuous wind, and manifested Himself to her under the expressive symbol of tongues of fire. Ever since that day of Pentecost, He has dwelt in this His favoured bride. He is the principle of everything that is in her. He it is that prompts her prayers, her desires, her canticles of praise, her enthusiasm, and even her mourning. Hence her prayer is as uninterrupted as her existence. Day and night is her voice sounding sweetly in the ear of her divine Spouse, and her words are ever finding a welcome in His Heart.
The prayer of the Church is, therefore, the most pleasing to the ear and heart of God, and therefore the most efficacious of all prayers. Happy, then, is he who prays with the Church, and unites his own petitions with those of this bride, who is so dear to her Lord that He gives her all she asks. It is for this reason that our blessed Saviour taught us to say our Father, and not my Father; give us, forgive us, deliver us, and not give me, forgive me, deliver me. Hence we find that, for upwards of a thousand years, the Church, who prays in her temples seven times in the day and once again during the night, did not pray alone. The people kept her company, and fed themselves with delight on the manna which is hidden under the words and mysteries of the divine liturgy...
For whilst prayer said in union with the Church is the light of the understanding, it is the fire of divine love for the heart. The Christian soul neither needs nor wishes to avoid the company of the Church, when she would converse with God, and praise His greatness and His mercy. She knows that the company of the bride of Christ could not be a distraction to her. Is not the soul herself a part of this Church, which is the bride? Has not Jesus Christ said: ‘Father, may they be one, as We also are one’? [St. John xvii. 11]. And, when many are gathered in His name, does not this same Saviour assure us that He is in the midst of them? [St. Matt. xviii. 20]. The soul, therefore, may converse freely with her God, who tells her that He is so near her; she may sing praise, as David did, in the sight of the angels, [Ps. cxxxvii. 1] whose eternal prayer blends with the prayer which the Church utters in time.
But now for many ages past, Christians have grown too solicitous about earthly things to frequent the holy vigils, and the mystical Hours of the day. Long before the rationalism of the sixteenth century had become the auxiliary of the heresies of that period by curtailing the solemnity of the divine service, the people had ceased to unite themselves exteriorly with the prayer of the Church, except on Sundays and festivals. During the rest of the year, the solemn and imposing grandeur of the liturgy was gone through, and the people took no share in it. Each new generation increased in indifference for that which their forefathers in the faith had loved as their best and strongest food. Social prayer was made to give way to individual devotion. Chanting, which is the natural expression of the prayers and even of the sorrows of the Church, became limited to the solemn feasts. That was the first sad revolution in the Christian world.
But even then Christendom was still rich in churches and monasteries; and there, day and night, was still heard the sound of the same venerable prayers which the Church had used through all the past ages. So many hands lifted up to God drew down upon the earth the dew of heaven, averted storms, and won victory for those who were in battle. These servants of God, who thus kept up an untiring choir that sang the divine praises, were considered as solemnly deputed by the people, which was still Catholic, to pay the full tribute of homage and thanks giving due to God, His blessed Mother, and the saints. These prayers formed a treasury which belonged to all. The faithful gladly united themselves in spirit to what was done. When any affliction, or the desire to obtain a special favour, led them to the house of God, they were sure to hear, no matter at what hour they went, that untiring voice of prayer which was for ever ascending to heaven for the salvation of mankind. At times they would give up their worldly business, and cares, and take part in the Office of the Church, and all still understood, at least in a general way, the mysteries of the liturgy.
Then came the so-called reformation, and at the outset it attacked the very life of Christianity: it would put an end to man’s sacrifice of praise to God. It strewed many countries with the ruins of churches: the clergy, the monks, and virgins consecrated to God were banished or put to death; and in the churches which were spared the divine Offices were not permitted. In other countries, where the persecution was not so violent, many sanctuaries were devastated and irremediably ruined, so that the life and voice of prayer grew faint. Faith, too, was weakened; rationalism became fearfully developed; and now our own age seems threatened with what is the result of these evils - the subversion of all social order.
For, when the reformation had abated the violence of its persecution, it had other weapons wherewith to attack the Church. By these several countries which continued to be Catholic were infected with that spirit of pride which is the enemy of prayer. The modern spirit would have it that prayer is not action; as though every good action done by man were not a gift of God: a gift which implies two prayers, one of petition that it may be granted, and another of thanksgiving because it is granted. There were found men who said: ‘Let us abolish all the festival days of God from the earth’ [Ps. lxxiii. 8]; and then came upon us that calamity which brings all others with it, and which the good Mardochai besought God to avert from his nation, when he said: ‘Shut not, O Lord, the mouths of them that sing to Thee!’ [2 Esther xiii. 17].
But by the mercy of God we have not been consumed [Is. x. 20-22]; there have been left remnants of Israel [ Acts v. 14]; and the number of believers in the Lord has increased [Lam. iii. 22]. What is it that has moved the heart of our God to bring about this merciful conversion? Prayer, which had been interrupted, has been resumed. Numerous choirs of virgins consecrated to God, and, though far less in number, of men who have left the world to spend themselves in the divine praises, make the voice of the turtle-dove heard in our land [Cant. ii. 12]. This voice is every day gaining more power: may it find acceptance from our Lord, and move Him to show the sign of His covenant with us, the rainbow of reconciliation! May our venerable cathedrals again re-echo those solemn formulae of prayer, which heresy has so long suppressed! May the faith and munificence of the faithful reproduce the prodigies of those past ages, which owed their greatness to the acknowledgement paid by all, even the very civic authorities, to the all-powerfulness of prayer!
But this liturgical prayer would soon become powerless were the faithful not to take a real share in it, or at least not to associate themselves to it in heart. It can heal and save the world, but only on the condition that it be understood. Be wise, then, ye children of the Catholic Church, and obtain that largeness of heart which will make you pray the prayer of your mother. Come, and by your share in it fill up that harmony which is so sweet to the ear of God. Where would you obtain the spirit of prayer if not at its natural source? Let us remind you of the exhortation of the apostle to the first Christians: ‘Let the peace of Christ rejoice in your hearts; let the word of Christ dwell in you abundantly, in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another, in psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing in grace in your hearts to God.’ [Col. iii. 15, 16].
Let not then the soul, the bride of Christ, that is possessed with a love of prayer, be afraid that her thirst cannot be quenched by these rich streams of the liturgy, which now flow calmly as a streamlet, now roll with the loud impetuosity of a torrent, and now swell with mighty heavings of the sea. Let her come and drink this clear water which springeth up unto life everlasting [St. John iv. 14]; for this water flows from the very fountains of her Saviour [Is. xii. 3]; and the Spirit of God animates it by His virtue, rendering it sweet and refreshing to the panting stag [Ps. xli. 2]. Neither let a soul that is in love with the charms of contemplation be afraid of the pomp and harmony of the chants of liturgical prayer, as though they could distract her; for what is this soul herself but an instrument of harmony responding to the touch of that divine Spirit who possesses her? Would she, when she wishes to enjoy the heavenly interview, comport herself differently from the royal psalmist himself, that model of all true prayer, recognized as such by God and the Church? Yet he, when he would enkindle the sacred flame within his breast, has recourse to his harp: ‘My heart is ready,’ he says; ‘O God, my heart is ready: I will sing, I will give forth a psalm. Arise, my glory! arise, psaltery and harp! I will arise in the morning early. I will praise Thee, O Lord, among the people; and I will sing unto Thee among the nations. For Thy mercy is great above the heavens, and Thy truth even unto the clouds.’ [Ps. cvii. 2-5]. At other times, if, in the interior recollection of the senses, he have entered into the powers of the Lord [Ibid. lxx. 16], then, in his meditation, a fire flameth out [Ibid. xxxviii. 4], a fire of holy excitement; and, to assuage the heat which is burning within him, he bursts out into another canticle, saying: ‘My heart hath uttered a good word; I speak my works to the King’; and publishes again and again the beauty and victories of the Bridegroom, and the graces of the bride [Ps. xliv. 2]. So true is it, that for contemplative souls liturgical prayer is both the principle and the consequence of the visits they receive from God.
But in nothing is the excellency of the liturgy so apparent, as in its being milk for children, and solid food for the strong; thus resembling the miraculous bread of the desert, and taking every kind of taste according to the different dispositions of those who eat. It is, indeed, a divine property, which has not unfrequently been noticed even by those who are not of the true fold, and has forced them to acknowledge that the Catholic Church alone knows the secret of prayer. Nay, might it not be said that the reason that the Protestants have no ascetic writers, is that they have no real liturgical prayer? It is true that a sufficient explanation of the absolute want of unction, which characterizes all that the reformation has produced, is to be found in its denying the holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, which is the centre of all religion: but this is virtually the same as saying that Protestants have no liturgical prayer, inasmuch as the liturgy is so essentially and intimately connected with the Eucharist. So true is this, that wheresoever the dogma of the real Presence has ceased to be believed, there also have the canonical Hours ceased, and could not but cease.
It is therefore Jesus Christ Himself who is the source as well as the object of the liturgy; and hence the ecclesiastical year, which we have undertaken to explain in this work, is neither more nor less than the manifestation of Jesus Christ and His mysteries, in the Church and in the faithful soul....
Now, what the liturgical year does for the Church at large, it does also for the soul of each one of the faithful that is careful to receive the gift of God. This succession of mystic seasons imparts to the Christian the elements of that supernatural life, without which every other life is but a sort of death, more or less disguised. Nay, there are some souls, so far acted upon by the divine succession of the Catholic cycle, that they experience even a physical effect from each evolution: the supernatural life has gained ascendancy over the natural, and the calendar of the Church makes them forget that of astronomers.
Let the Catholic who reads this work be on his guard against that coldness of faith, and that want of love, which have well-nigh turned into an object of indifference that admirable cycle of the Church, which heretofore was, and always ought to be, the joy of the people, the source of light to the learned, and the book of the humblest of the faithful.
The year thus planned for us by the Church herself produces a drama the sublimest that has ever been offered to the admiration of man. ... Human ingenuity could never have devised a system of such power as this. ...For what is the liturgy, but an untiring affirmation of the works of God? a solemn acknowledgement of those divine facts, which, though done but once, are imperishable in man’s remembrance, and are every year renewed by the commemoration he makes of them? ...It is true that the liturgical cycle has its integrity and its development nowhere but in the Catholic Church; but the sects which are separated from her, whether by schism or by heresy, all pay the homage of their testimony to the divine origin of the liturgy by the pertinacity with which they cling to the remnants they have preserved - remnants, by the way, to which they owe whatever vitality they still retain.