Friday, April 13, 2012

To everything a season

It's asparagus season again! Did you know that?

(Don't worry, I swear I'm going somewhere with this. Stick with me!)

So. It's asparagus season. What does that even mean? What does that have to do with, well, anything? Especially, of all things, the Office of the Virgin Mary?

Peter Damian, in Letter 17, explains the practice of the daily services of seven hours by neatly aligning it with the "seven slight and small sins which we cannot avoid because of the weakness of human frailty" (p. 147). But while this provides a theological explanation of the practice of honoring God (and the Virgin) with daily offices that satisfies the Medieval frame of mind, I feel like there's something more basic to be examined here. Yes, the hours "should be performed by all Christian faithful as a daily task of service to God." But why does it take this form? Why not just one long prayer, or a different order of prayers? Why the same thing over and over, day in and day out?

To say that the service of hours is a practice is far from a simple definition. When we practice something, we may do it to to some end that we wish to improve (speaking Spanish, playing piano, learning lines for a play) or, as in the case of daily devotionals, we perform it with no end it sight, with no eye to a finished product. So if not to produce something, what is the value of repetition, of re-seeking the same thing over and over? The practices of each hour change from one to another, but not from day to day: a cycle, in other words. The daily routine of prayers is a beautiful way to honor God and especially his mother, not just of the content of the meaning but by the form of the practice itself. It acknowledges change from day to day, but in a predictable way.

I've been thinking a lot about these kinds of cycles because, yes, it's asparagus season. Three years ago, I didn't know asparagus had a season. It's always there in the grocery store, nestled between perennially-buxom tomatoes and perfect, crisp lettuce. But then I spent a summer working on a farm, weeding and harvesting and literally humbling myself with my hands in the dirt, and I learned that to everything there really is a season. There is a reason that people used to greet the return of Spring with such utter joy, and it was about more than just the return of warm weather and the impending end of the school year. Things begin to grow again, little stalks of asparagus poke out their heads in a reassuring reminder that though things change, they change in cycle.

This is the power that I see in the practice of the hours. The people of the Middle Ages knew the earth moved in circles. Consider the refrain of regnabo, regno, regnavi, the turn of the wheel of fortune, and the figure of Fortuna herself. Without getting too biological, I don't think it's a coincidence that a woman is the one to represent a constant turning of fate in cycles. She changes routinely, like the seasons, like the practice of the hours. To honor not just God, but Mary, who as a woman who knew in her body the regular rhythm of change before conceived the God-man who would redeem us, in the cyclical recitation of prayers works, a microcosm of the steady up-and-down waves seen in all of creation with human practice. It's a way to "help the Christian to live out a theology where language fails," as we have wondered about before. Peter Damian clearly had his own ideas about why the hours-as-such are necessary, but his ideas still ring more prescriptive than descriptive to me. Then again, his dramatic stories about the natural disasters that ensue when the hours are not practiced suggest that maybe he was aware of the link between the pattern of nature and the form of this devotional practice.

This is, of course, mostly my own conjecture, but it's what's been on my mind as I get ready for spring. I'm not going to claim there's necessarily anything sacred about heading up to the Farmers' Market and buying up a glut of new spring vegetables. And I don't want to descend into a kind of Brother-Sun-Sister-Moon false nostalgia for the times when people were truly "connected to the Earth." But I will say that there is a difference between eagerly waiting for the return of green to the fields and plucking out a bag of spinach from the year-round Eden of the produce section. There's knowing and awaiting the daily rise of the sun versus being jolted by the unexpected flicker of a fluorescent light. There might be a natural truth in the form of the hours that we've let fall away. After all, is it just a coincidence that we call Jesus "the fruit" of Mary's womb? Just a lovely bit of meaningless poetry, or does it invite us to think, daily, about the regular change of God's creation, and she who engendered it?

(As an addendum, for anyone interested in a far more eloquent and literary [albeit secular] treatise on the beauty of seasonality and food, I cannot recommend this book enough. And if you'd like to meditate more on the meaning of asparagus, I'll be volunteering at this market Saturday morning--please come say hi!)


  1. Oh, most definitely, yes! I appreciate your caution about descending into a false nostalgia for the time "when people were truly 'connected to the earth,'" but even if that is a false image as we have it now, there is still so much imagery in descriptions of Mary having to do with things growing from the earth, we have to think about why. When Adam and Eve ate of the fruit, they were cast out into the world to spend their days toiling in the soil. The "fruit" of Mary's womb redeemed not just humanity, but the whole of creation, including the cycles of growth. Think, too, of the imagery in the books of Hours: all of those flowers and fruits! One of the books of Hours in the Regenstein collection (MS 347) even has carrots in some of its initials. A clear sign of the relationship between prayer and things that grow in the earth!


  2. I loved the phrase “regular rhythm of change” that you used. It describes, so accurately, the fragile malleability of humanity constantly changing and being created and destroyed under the eternal and unchanging hands of God. A prayer which cycles within a repetitive and permanent structure would consequently regulate a soul to become more stable and more God like. And how can you truly align your spirit with God without tempering some of the unpredictable and chaotic undulations of humanity? The parallel to the cycle of nature and growth is even more enriching. Not only does it remind us that spirituality is the nourishment of the soul but it links all of God’s creation (human and nature) together. Like the season and the crops we must also cycle. And where does Mary fit in? She teaches us the ride the waves of change with grace and humility. With all our overly structured routines of today and our constant thirst for doing something new, always trying to be more efficient and more exciting, we’ve lost the beautiful simplicity of a regularly cycling prayer; maybe we’ve gotten out of touch with that “regular rhythm of change” that practicing an Office to the Virgin brought.


  3. Blair: First, I love asparagus (but didn’t learn to until adulthood). As I indicated in a previous comment, I’m with you on the “magic” of agriculture. I think you have hit on an unmistakable Christian theme of right practice corresponding to a more harmonious creation (nature). Eden before and after the fall, nature “grieving” at Christ’s death, etc. Though the creation is fallen, it can be redeemed through proper works* (e.g., performing the hours) and the intervention of God. I could give you my take on the way these kinds of ideas affected civil and religious policy in 17th-century Spanish Christian Lima.

    I am convinced of this motivation behind liturgical and devotional practices: One can “right” oneself and even help to “right” the world by bringing God into the world through correct practices (think of the Eucharist, for example). In this sense, does the idea of improvement mean that “practice” of the hours is much like practicing the piano or anything else? That is, to get better (not just at the recitation, but in a much more holistic sense involving self and world)?

    *I have found that many scholars forget that in the original disagreements of the Reformation it was Protestants who were arguing faith against the works that were performed through the Church. This is due I think to the popularity of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.