One of the weird things about humans is that we have bodies. We are not pure spirit like the angels; we are spirit and flesh united. Nor are we souls trapped in bodily shells; our bodies are crucial parts of who we are. They inform how we experience the world, how we feel, and how we think. Because it’s the only thing we know, it’s easy to forget how interesting this conjunction is. From a Christian perspective, we are both spiritual beings in a corporeal world and corporeal beings in a spiritual world. We cannot divorce our bodies from our spiritual lives; they are the vehicle through which we accept or reject God’s love.
Christians throughout the ages have certainly noticed the body’s relationship with the spiritual life. This is especially evident in the medieval Christian texts we discussed in class. Peter Damian, for example, clearly appreciated the body’s ability to encourage sin, noting how “the desire of sensual allurements” (p.130) that led Adam and Eve to sin continued to plague mankind. As Professor Fulton described in class, Peter Damian was exceptionally sensitive to “sins of the flesh,” and strove vehemently to obstruct them in the clergy.
The methods Peter Damian encouraged to avoid sin are similarly rooted in the appreciation of the body’s influence on spiritual life. He advocated clerical celibacy and self-flagellation –both of which are experienced fundamentally in the body. Furthermore, the primary defense he offered to sinners is prayer –particularly, praying the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Praying is not something typically described as something done bodily –it seems, rather, like a means of escaping the physical world to the spiritual one. However, I disagree. I would like to use the rest of this entry demonstrating that praying, particularly praying the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is action done in both the body and spirit.
Praying can be hard. In my experience at least, one of the main reasons praying can be hard is that we have bodies. We are able to do many things besides be in communion with God. We have thoughts that wander, backs that hurt, senses that distract us, and desires (such as hunger, thirst, fatigue) that stubbornly draw our attention away from what we are trying to focus on. One of the benefits of having beautiful forms of prayer like the Little Office is that, rather than trying to resist these impulses, they incorporate them into the act of praying; both the external form of the prayer and the text of the prayer itself redirect our senses away from the things that distract us and focus them on God.
I’m sure you all did the readings and saw these already, but I found the illustrations in Painted Prayers to be just beautiful. Such lovely images surely help to focus the one in prayer on their subject:
In addition, there are many visual images that can be found in the text of the Office --more than I could possibly include in this entry. Here are a few of the ones that struck me the most:
- “Who is she that comes forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array?” (Canticles 6,9 in Prime)
- “Hail, O refulgent Hall of light” (Canticles 6,8
--Cathedrals may not represent Mary, but after praying this phrase every day, they cannot but remind one of her.
- “O Angels of the Lord, bless the Lord; O heavens, bless the Lord.
O all waters that are above the heavens, bless the Lord; O all powers of the Lord, bless the Lord.
O sun and moon, bless the Lord; O stars of heaven, bless the Lord.
O every shower and dew, bless the Lord; O all spirits of God, bless the Lord.
O fire and heat, bless the Lord; O cold and heat, bless the Lord.
O dews and hoar frosts, bless the Lord; O frost and cold, bless the Lord.
O ice and snow, bless the Lord; O nights and days, bless the Lord.
O light and darkness, bless the Lord; O lightnings and clouds, bless the Lord.
…” (Canticle of the Three Children)
--How much more effective than simply saying, “O everyone, bless the Lord.”
Although the Little Office can be recited (and probably was by the majority of lay people in the middle ages and after), even greater richness of the prayer is achieved when it is sung, as it was intended to be. I refer you to these recordings of the Te Deum and the Ave Maria. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good recording of the Little Office, but I did want to include a recording that gives an idea for how it would sound. Here’s a recording of Compline from the Divine Office. It may not have the same psalms and prayers as the Little Office, but I believe that the Little Office probably has the same rhythm to it. It’s also in English.
The Little Office engages the sense of touch less explicitly than it does sight and sound. Instead, the theme of Mary as Mother of God permeates the prayer, evoking the feeling (as in physical contact) of the Lord. The primary example of this is the theme of Mary pregnant with the infant Jesus. I’ve never been pregnant, so I don’t know what that feels like, but I’m sure it’s unmistakable. Even those who do not have children, however, can relate to the feeling of having a baby nestled against you, as referenced in the line, "He Whom the heavens could not contain rested in your bosom." These relatable sensory images really bring home the physical reality of the Incarnation of the Lord.
Taste & Smell
Admittedly there are less tastes and smells to be found in the Little Office than there are examples of the other senses, but there are a few. Here are some that stood out the most to me:
- “For you my soul has thirsted; for You my flesh, O how many ways!
In a desert land, and where there is no way, and no water: so in the sanctuary have I come to You , to see Your power and Your glory.” (Psalm 62)
- “Butter and honey shall he eat” (Isaiah 7:14-15).
--Pointing out that the Lord had to eat; He, too, was made of flesh!
- “Like choicest myrrh, you have yielded a fragrance of sweetness, O holy Mother of God.” (antiphon for psalm 118 in matins, and elsewhere)