Thursday, October 29, 2015

Mary and the Franciscans: a Seraphic - or Cherubic? - Order

One of the most important hymns in the Orthodox Liturgy is the so-called Cherubikon. This "Cherubic"  Hymn, which dates to at least the sixth century, is sung during the Great Entrance when the gifts of the Eucharist are brought into the altar sanctuary (i.e., the liturgical reenactment of the moment of the Incarnation). Its opening lines identify the worshippers singing this hymn as "those who mystically represent [εἰκονίζοντες] the cherubim," before calling on the congregation to "lay aside all earthly cares" in order to "receive the King of all." The church takes on the persona of the  "angelic orders invisibly escorting" Christ into their presence at this pivotal point in the liturgy.

What does an ancient Byzantine hymn have to do with our readings - all western, mostly Latin, and all dated to the later High Middle Ages - for this week? Well, these western, Latin texts explain the contemplative process in suspiciously similar terms: the Meditations of John of Caulibus, in particular, practically resounds with echoes or the Cherubic Hymn.
One of the major themes of this week's discussion was whether the "affective" focus of these readings represented a true innovation or the continued evolution of preexisting traditions. A modern approaching these texts for the first time may be overwhelmed by the specific literary and rhetorical devices used to elicit the reader's emotional involvement in the story, as we said - the thought of potentially accessing a "historical" version of Jesus is so tempting that we lose sight of the larger picture. But this emotional focus is in fact not unique to this period: earlier homiletic literature, such as the selections we read of Germanos I and Andrew of Crete, also relies on the reader/audience's emotional involvement to achieve its full rhetorical effect.

Like these earlier works, this week's selection from John of Caulibus' Meditations on the Life of Christ brings the reader directly into the action it describes. John places great importance on the goal of actually seeing God. A number of movements shared this objective and focused on achieving it through the practice of contemplation during the High Medieval period. Hesychasts (13-14th century Byzantine contemplatives) practiced strict asceticism and withdrawal from society in order to glimpse the Uncreated Light of God; Thomas Aquinas, known today for his role in the development of Scholasticism (the reconciliation of religion and Aristotelian reason), supplied the Dominican motto "Contemplata Aliis Tradere,"  "to hand over to others the fruits of contemplation." Franciscans like John and the Poor Clare the Meditations were destined for also had a notable connection to contemplation - it was, after all, after a vision (of a crucified seraph) that their founder had received the stigmata. Both eastern and western traditions emphasized the role of emotion in achieving this goal: the hesychasts believed a vision of God could only be achieved through eros, complementing the role we discussed in class of emotion in works like Anselm's prayers to Mary, the Stabat Mater, and John's Meditations.

Yet however much it relied on pathos, contemplation always remained absolutely connected to logos. The primary goal of these (at times, highly emotional) texts was to guide the reader in achieving a more perfect, intellectual understanding of the divine. This brings us back to the Cherubic Hymn: if the contemplative is moved by this practice towards a more perfect knowledge of God (the virtue, according to Pseudo-Dionysius, that exemplified by the Cherubim), once again we may observe the close association of angels and Mary, this time in the specific devotional context of meditating on her role in the Passion.

The Meditations open with a set of instructions. Like Germanos and Andrew, John acknowledges that the pursuit of ever more perfect devotion is not an easy task. He cautions that "to glory in the passion and cross of the Lord" requires the student to "persevere in earnest meditation" and the "mind's undivided attention" - that is to say, "with all [one's] outside cares put aside" (236). A suspiciously familiar turn of phrase, but one that may just be a coincidence. Once the reader has accomplished this, they move on to vividly imagine important moments from the Passion, as arranged around the liturgical hours. At first glance, this seems quite different from the Byzantine practices we examined earlier in the quarter: venerating an icon of the Mother of God is quite a different physical action than imagining scenes from the Passion. Yet icons were thought to really represent the essence of the holy figures they depicted, thus transporting those who venerated them into the real presence of the divine (and thus justifying the veneration of such images). According to John, "a person [following the exercise outlined in the Meditations] would place herself in the presence of each and every thing that had a bearing on that lordly passion and crucifixion" (236), and "notice every detail as if [they] were present" (239). (He even justifies his exercises exactly as Germanos and Andrew justify icon veneration, by "stating [nothing] in this little work that is not confirmed by sacred Scripture, or not spoken about either in the words of the saints or in approved interpretations" [236].)  Having laid aside her earthly cares, the Poor Clare is now ready to really receive the King of all. In theory, however, it could be argued that this is the duty of any praying Christian, and especially one dedicated to the monastic life. Perhaps this is where the continuity of the two traditions ends?

The liturgical hours were important in any monastic practice, but among the Franciscans they acquired a still greater meaning, especially in connection to the Passion. St. Francis' Office of the Passion consists of a number of original psalms - actually centos that retell the Passion story through rearranged verses of the Biblical Psalms - and constituted an important and original part of Franciscan worship. Like the basic Divine Office, the psalms of the Office of the Passion were recited at the liturgical hours of the day, and were accompanied by readings, prayers, and antiphons. John's Meditations, as we discussed, follow a similar hourly structure, starting at Matins and concluding at Compline. Like the Office of the Passion, the Meditations use the Psalms as the paramount examples of prayer - they're what Christ himself uses to pray to the Father in Gethsemane (240-241). The Office of the Passion, however, has another deeply significant connection to Mary: its antiphon is almost an elaborated Hail Mary. Just as the works of Andrew and Germanos identified the audience with angels through the use of anaphoric chairetismoi or "greetings" - the repetition of "hail" and a Marian epithet, echoing the original greeting of Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation - so these Franciscan examples of devotion on the Passion transform their practitioners into true angels of the Seraphic order. In the end, participants of the Office or in the Meditations really do end up "mystically representing" the angels in heaven.

It is impossible to say for certain whether or not John had the Cherubic Hymn in mind when composing the Meditations. A Latin translation of the hymn exists from the tenth century, but it never seems to have gained the same prominence in the West as it enjoyed in Orthodox liturgy. Echoes of the Cherubic Hymn seem obvious to a (or at least this) Byzantinist's eye, but its content admittedly overlaps with more general sentiments of Medieval Christian thought - detachment from the world, imitation of the angels, anticipation of Christ's return. Yet both traditions hinge on the involvement of Mary, especially her involvement at the Passion. Her suffering then was unique because she saw God as no other human - even the Apostles - ever did. Meditation on her role at the Passion is one of the only ways the faithful could understand that relationship. The fascination of these sources with emotion and their reliance on emotion to facilitate understanding is simply one manifestation of the overriding human desire to understand God - the same desire we've identified over and over in our readings this quarter.

-- F. S.


  1. Excellent contextualization and reincorporation of both the homilies that we read from Andrew and Germanos and Francis's Office of the Passion--I had not thought about how important it was that he used the Marian antiphon as a frame for his own "psalms," and yet, as you show, this is the key to the whole exercise! You do a beautiful job here showing both the continuity between the Eastern and Western use of rhetoric to excite emotion and the role of angels in enabling contemplation. At the risk of being overly excited, I think we have almost all of the pieces of the puzzle here! Now to get them in the right relationship to each other! RLFB

  2. A really perceptive post, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I especially like that you note that, while there is a distinction between pathos and logos for these authors, the two must be inextricably linked in the fulfillment of contemplation. Indeed, I might suggest that one of the key things one sees from the heights of contemplation is the fundamental unity of the two (I think Anselm's Cur Deus Homo points to this very clearly). What else might we see from these heights?

    I also really enjoyed your insight about the antiphons of the Franciscan office. It brought to mind the common medieval idea that we would be associated with the angels after death based on our station and actions in the world. What clearer example could we get of individuals seeking a foretaste of this (that is a foretaste of heaven ultimately) in the current life?