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A Book Review . . . A Marvel To Behold

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A Sense of the Sacred: Roman Catholic Worship in the Middle Ages, by James Monti (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2013), 684 pp.; $34.95. Available through www.igna or call 1-800-651-1531.

A monument of meticulous historical scholarship, a Herculean work of research in ancient liturgical texts, and a comprehensive account of medieval manuscripts, missals, and manuals, this book scrupulously documents the riches of the Catholic Church’s traditions that form the rubrics of the sacraments, the holy days of the liturgical year, and the other rites of the Church celebrated in events like the election of a Pope, the canonization of saints, and the consecration of virgins.
The riches of symbolism, the beauty of language, the holiness of ceremonies, and the exalted nature of sacred events discovered in these venerable treasures of the Church’s history fill the mind with a sense of awe and sublimity. This fullness of the riches of the Church’s liturgical art is a marvel to behold, like seeing St. Peter’s Basilica.
All the details, words, and actions of these ceremonies evoke beauty, history, and meaning. In the case of matrimony, for example, from a nuptial rite from fifth-century Spain, one hears the poetry of prayer at its highest: “May the fragrance of your life be redolent as a white lily, that you may ever ascend in mind toward Heaven. . . . May the Lord of celestial glory and the King of all ages bless you.”
From the Old Testament one hears the prayer of Sarah’s father that blessed her marriage to Tobias (“‘Here she is; take her according to the law of Moses, and take her with you to your father.’ And he blessed them.”). This is an event that sets the precedent for the solemn importance of a priest’s blessing of the couple “whose presence as a witness was defined as essential to the valid and licit reception of the sacrament.”
From Hugh of St. Victor comes the comparison of the union of bride and bridegroom to the love between Christ and the Church — an image that a 1488 custom from Switzerland illustrates with the exchange of rings and the accompanying words, “With His ring my Lord Jesus Christ has espoused me, and just as a bride He has adorned” (words recited in the rite of consecrating virgins).
All these readings, gestures, and ceremonies form a rich tapestry in which every thread contributes to the sanctity and beauty of marriage. These rites illuminate the spiritual riches of sacramental experiences.
In the case of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the same liturgical norms of beautiful art, biblical precedent, and exalted prayer shape the rite of Extreme Unction. From a tenth-century prayer for visiting the sick are these eloquent words inspired from biblical history: “Deliver him, Lord, even as you vouchsafed to deliver Adam from hell; Peter from prison; Paul from chains; Thecla from beast; Susanna from false accusation; the paralytic from his cot; Lazarus from his tomb.”
From St. Thomas Aquinas is the rationale for the use of oil to anoint: spiritual healing requires mildness, not severity: “It ought to be gentle, lest hope, of which the dying stand in most need, be shattered rather than fostered. Now oil has a softening effect.”
From the Letter of St. James mentioning several priests praying over the sick (“Let him call the elders of the Church, and let them pray over him”) proceeds the Carolingian (French and German) custom of many anointings from several priests — a testimony to “the depth of the Church’s solicitude for the sick.”
From the Rituale Romanum (1614) come the counsels that penance and Holy Communion also accompany the anointing and also the exhortation to the dying not to despair of God’s mercy: “Say also that he should not fear to die. . . . Neither should he fear death on account of his wife, his children, . . . nor for anything, but he should place all things under the ordinance of God.” Other rites include the reading of the seven penitential psalms, and the priest blessing all who have performed a corporal work of mercy by visiting the sick.
Just these few facts alone hint at the great thought, intricate art, and depth of spirituality that inform these rites of the ancient Church that make every detail significant.
The Mass, the heart of Christian faith, evokes the most contemplative thought, the most profound spirituality, and the highest art to do justice to this divine mystery. To capture “the cosmic dimensions” of the Mass, the sacrament incorporates in some of the various liturgical texts the dramatic moments in the life of Christ from the Incarnation to the Resurrection and Ascension — the Mass as a summary of salvation history.
In other texts, the Mass signifies an allegory of the cosmic battle between good and evil, Christ the King in bloody appearance leading the hosts of Heaven against the legions of Satan. The priest’s vestments correspond to the soldier’s armor. The prayers in medieval missals from England’s Sarum Rite conceive of the priest’s investiture as the use of many weapons for protection in spiritual warfare. The prayer that accompanies the amice placed over the head and shoulders signifies the protection of faith, the prayer that attends the alb seeks courage (“encompass me with the breastplate of fortitude”), the cincture arms the priest with “the custody of my mind.”
This military imagery continues in the Sarum Rite with the processional cross symbolizing a military standard or “a sign of the victory of Christ” that terrifies demons and recalls St. Paul’s teaching about glorying only in the cross of Christ. As the Mass begins with the Introit prayers, they signify the praise of the Chosen People, the praises of the patriarchs and prophets, and the Glory Be of the apostles. In the Confiteor the striking of the breast recalls the example of the publican who pleaded, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
In the Sarum Rite the Sign of Peace after the confession of sins represents, Monti explains, “an expression of peace and reconciliation brought by the confession and forgiveness of sins.”
The candles symbolize the Holy Spirit and the heavenly joy the Mass brings to the heart. The priest’s kiss of the altar, according to Pope Innocent III, testifies to the fact that “Christ joined Himself in marriage to the holy Church.”
In the incensing, the thurible corresponds to the heart of man, the fire which enkindles it, and the ardor of love and devotion with the smoke carrying man’s prayers to God. The crosswise motion of the censer lifts the prayers of the saints that flow from “The Passion of the Lord,” and the circular motions “symbolize the crown of glory” toward which the prayers of the saints lead man.

The Grandeur Of God

These glimpses into a few of the chapters provide an overview of the work as a whole. Each chapter lucidly and precisely explains how every action, prayer, symbol, and allusion teems with significance. The words and gestures that accompany these sacred rites have depths of meaning, layers of historical truth, and the riches of beautiful art that all combine to lift man’s heart, give God glory, and evoke a sense of wonder at the grandeur of God and the holiness of the Catholic Church.
It is a work that gives an even more authoritative understanding of Tradition — not just the repository of the past but the magnificence of the best, the perennial, and the eternal that God’s one true Church offers as light and beauty for nourishment of man’s mind, heart, and soul.
This is a work of scholarship that will pass the test of time and give glory to God and the Church He founded.

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(Dr. Kalpakgian is a professor of humanities.)

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