Monday, January 22, 2018

The Eastern Church Five Years On, Part IV: Devotions & Liturgy

Devotion has a near limitless applicability to the Christian life. One might even say that it is the general spirit of living the Christian life, doing what is beyond the written requirement of law. In Christian terms one can be devoted to figures of inspirational sanctity or dedicated intercessors for one's causes. One may find reason for devotion to a past event or minor revelation that succors one's sufferings or spiritual ailments in modern times. Devotion to feasts and their anticipation is one of the most ancient Christian devotions, most visible in novenas and the great vigils of the ancient rite. In the last millennium pilgrimage was the highest level of devotion, it being a metaphor for the greater pilgrimage from detachment on earth to meeting God in heaven. Today various types of private prayer dominate devotion, especially rosaries and chaplets. Devotion is everywhere, and after five years, going on six as of this writing, I now think that the place of devotion is one of the most noble problems in the Roman liturgy.

Devotion—an expression of love of God and His saints in the Christian life outside the essential functions of the Eucharist and the Office—is an essential part of Catholicism, if only because it is done out of desire rather than command, which reflects a spiritual maturity and an intimacy with the Divine. More often than not, contemporary devotion means kneeling near a statue in a church and saying the Divine Mercy chaplet or thumbing through the Sorrowful Mysteries on one's rosary at home. It reflects a systemic approach to private prayer and meditation. Alone, this is a reduction of past people's broader, fervent idea of devotion. In context, however, the emphasis on devotion in an atomistic, modern, post-Reformation society has elicited deleterious effects on the Roman liturgy and was one of the principal movers in its gradual disassembly.

The basic concept of devotion and its practice persists East and West. A person enters a church, goes to a corner with a holy image, lights a a candle, shoves a dollar into the box, and acts for God to intervene for the good in someone's life. Popularly, novenas once occupied an evening slot at most Latin parishes and continue as a means of private prayer; the Ascension is often called the beginning of a novena running into Pentecost, mimicking the oriental process of anticipating great feasts. More dramatically, pilgrimage to holy places in Jerusalem, Rome, Egypt, and the sights of Marian miracles, for the fulfillment of promises and the remission of sins, remains a congruity between the the Greek and Latin traditions. What differs practically, however, is that much of Latin devotional piety is based on the chiliastic premonitions associated with private apparition and their accompanying semi-salvific promises; the Miracle of the Sun may have been seen by 70,000 people, but the bestowing to Saint Simon Stock of the Brown Scapular, a common "get out of purgatory free" card, has far less reliable origins. Such complete promises of salvation shift the focus of devotion from God to the promise itself, from the mysteries of God to the bare minimum to fulfill vicariously living out a full religious life. Consequently, Marian feasts inspired by new devotional titles proliferated (Holy Family, Apparition of the Blessed Virgin, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Queenship feast, Immaculate Heart, the Holy Name, the September feast of the Seven Sorrows, the Maternity of Mary—which is not Christmas, and more local feasts). As local feasts these would be harmless. On the General Roman Kalendar they break up the seasonal rhythm of the liturgy and alter the attention of the seasons from the reliving of Christ's life to scattered pieties observed by the few.

Hail O Virgin and
Bride Ever Pure!
By contrast, this writer found the Greek liturgy to be a revelation not in that it ignored devotionalistic piety, but that it found a seamless manner of integrating it into the Eucharistic and hourly rites without diluting them. Byzantine etiquette for entering a church prescribes reverencing the icon on the icon stand in front of the iconostasis. Few things say "Byzantine" like an icon, but they did not always occupy a place of prominence in the official Greek worship. The faithful took to using and, often, abusing the sanctity of icons, leading to their banishment from churches by a superstitious emperor only to return as a tell-tale sign of one's orthodoxy. Years after the Sunday of Orthodoxy the Byzantine Church had hung icons about the screen around the altar and gestured to the Virgin and Our Lord at their mentions and the conclusion of litanies; icons were placed in the center of churches during Liturgies in honor the depicted saint; and icons were the ticket for a place aboard the processions commemorating that first Sunday of Orthodoxy. Prayer before icons and their place in the corner of one's home did not prevent them also from becoming an innate part of Constantinopolitan worship.

The greatest devotional treasure in the public worship of the Greek liturgy, however, is the Akathist to the Theotokos sung during Great Lent. This year the Annunciation will fall on Palm Sunday; last year it was on Good Friday. While the Latin Church often transfers the feasts until after Low Sunday, the Eastern tradition holds the feast to be of such great importance that it is immobile. Saint Gabriel's words to the Mother of God were initially welcomed—so theorize liturgical historians—as sung sermons or plays during the Fast, both meant to instruct and to inspire devotion.

Over time this devotion became "liturgized" and even integrated into the Liturgy itself. Although not fundamentally part of the Liturgy in the sense that the Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Office are, Greek rite monasteries customarily sing the Akathist to the Mother of God during Great Compline on the Lenten Fridays prior to the feast. In practice, when parishes sing the Akathist as a stand alone service they add the traditional beginning of the Hours, with the priest's blessing, the Trisagion, and the singing of a psalm (50). Then follow the Odes, the Chants, and finally the reverence of the icon of the Virgin. Although not an Hour, it possesses all the structure of an hour and a layman attending for the first time could simply treat it like assisting at Vespers and the kissing of an image, two things he already knows how to do. In an entirely familiar way he can hear the echoes of the angel's words to the Virgin and contemplate her fiat until he hears those words spoken during the Gospel of the feast itself.

Like Patristics, the act of liturgizing devotion is not something foreign to Latin Catholicism or outside its tradition, but it is something that has fallen by the wayside and which the so-called "Traditionalists" seemingly have no interest in reviving. How did the Roman rite mirroring this seemingly Hellenic adaptation of devotions into public worship? Have you ever seen a side altar?

Mass at the altar of St Gregory the Great in St Peter's, Rome
Side altars have a fascinating history that is probably worth its own original research (beyond my scholarly pay scale), but at the height of their use they represented the strongest assimilation of lay piety into the common parish's liturgy. Originally venues for monks to celebrate Requiem Masses for deceased benefactors or for votive Masses by monks unassigned to the conventual Mass, side altars quickly permeated parishes in the Middle Ages, being built and financially maintained by lay associations. Guilds under a certain patronage or town magistrates interested in their own local saints would pay for the construction of altars and shrines within their own parish churches and hire priests, approved by the local ordinary, to maintain services at these altars. A "Massing priest", who did not have the faculties to hear Confessions or administer Baptism that the pastor possessed, would provide the requisite Office and Mass proper to the shrine on a daily basis. At the "Jesus altar" he would sing the Office and high Mass of the Five Wounds of Christ every day but Sunday using the Missal and vestments provided by his benefactors; the guild or lay association owned those, not the priest or the parish. Saturdays of Our Lady originated in this fashion. On more solemn occasions, like funerals, guilds would join the priest in singing the full Office of the Dead the night before a Requiem, calling it the Dirige after the opening words of the Mattins psalm (and the origin of the word "dirge").

More anciently, the Roman gallery of great martyrs inspired the people of the Eternal City to keep vigil the night prior to feasts at the church which housed the relics of the day's saint or at least which was under his or her patronage. Over time this praxis became recognized as the "stational churches" for Papal Masses, noted in Missals printed prior to the 1960s. Over time the acts of devotion during these stational Masses augmented into great events in their own right, like the carrying of an image of Christ from the Lateran into Santa Maria Maggiore during Lauds for the Assumption. To this day Masses are said for stational feasts and for the days of Lent at their old locations, although only sparingly by the Pope himself.

One wonders what might have happened if not for the Reformation and erection of the SCR in 1588, which stunted the natural process of adapting the traditional liturgy for the needs of those who heard it and whose beneficence enabled it. Might the Corpus Christi or Candlemas mystery plays of York have somehow become liturgical acts along of the same lines as the akathist to the Theotokos? Or might the hymnody from those plays have found place in the liturgy as they did in popular culture? Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament in the form of Benediction did become a quasi-part of the liturgy. Whatever might have happened did not come to pass, which leaves it to us today, in the process of recuperating liturgical tradition, to recover the proper place of devotion as part of the Roman rite's "stuff." Far be it from importing an Eastern perspective into the Latin Church, the Greek tradition cleaned the lens for looking at our Roman inheritance.


  1. "which the so-called 'Traditionalists' seemingly have no interest in reviving" -- that sounds a bit gratuitous. At our local FSSP parish, most weekday Masses are followed by Litanies, chanted in Latin by the priest, with the congregation chanting the recurring responses, of St. Joseph (Mondays), the Sacred Heart (Fridays), and Our Lady of Loreto (Saturdays). I am pretty sure (though I may be wrong), that in indult days before the Fraternity recently took over, these were recited in the vernacular, not chanted solemnly in Latin. In any event, their new mode of celebration fits seamlessly with the end of Mass and I have seen/experienced them as analogous to the singing of an Akathist or Moleben after liturgy or vespers at our various local Byzantine churches. In fact, this practice has really made me appreciate Litanies (and their paraliturgical potential) in a way I hadn't before.

    1. These are fair partial recoveries and seriously improved over how things were when Summorum came out. Where I was going, though, was towards the fuller things that were done quite commonly prior to the 20th century: regularly scheduled Requiem Masses for benefactors, the Office of the BVM on Saturdays, Sunday Vespers & Benediction.

      Reviving devotions in the way you mentioned it, to be sure, a good thing and something that always featured prominently in parish schedules "back in the day."

    2. In this time of replanting and rebuilding, our urgent task at hand is to nurture any and all real plants poking their heads out through the dead concrete of the oppressive, modernist liturgical monoculture. Rome wasn't built in a day, and it sure as heck won't be rebuilt in a day, either. But I'm personally encouraged. My canonical parish now has weekly Evensong in the Ordinariate use, and the local FSSP apostolate has been moving toward more and better liturgical music and fuller celebrations, with budding talk of Sunday Solemn Vespers somewhere down the pike. There are also probably at least 3-4 different opportunities for regular Liturgy of the Hours in the ordinary form within an hour's drive.

  2. Speaking of liturgizing devotions, we Filipinos have our peculiar structure of doing our novenas, patterned after the Divine Office.

    1. There is a Possibility of Integrating The Pentecost Novena with OF Vespers or so I Have read in the Directory on Popular Piety(2001).