Benedictus

isabella-breviary

From the Canticle of Zechariah

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

—Luke 1:78-79 (from the Canticle of Zechariah)

The Canticle of Zechariah is said at the close of Morning Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, or the Breviary—the official set of prayers marking the hours of each day and sanctifying the day with prayer. The Canticle of Zechariah, or Benedictus, was “intoned by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, when the birth of his son changed his life, removing the doubt that rendered him mute, a significant punishment for his lack of faith and praise.”* (The entire Benedictus, which begins at verse 68, appears below.)

I cannot find the Bible translation that contains the graceful phrasing above. In the GOD’S WORD® Translation, the text begins, “A new day will dawn on us from above because our God is loving and merciful”—matter-of-fact but clunky, though sweeter by far than the Jubilee Bible 2000 version, which opens thus: “Through the bowels of mercy of our God, whereby the dayspring from on high has visited us….” When I hear the words the tender compassion of our God, I am instantly comforted. Knowing that the dawn from on high shall break upon us fills me with hope. To the extent that I dwell in darkness—which is quite a lot, actually—the promise of the sunrise and of guidance for my clumsy feet into the way of peace gives me faith that this day, at least, I will walk in the light, and I will not walk alone.

isabella-breviary-calendar-page-july

Calendar page for July from the Isabella Breviary; note Zodiac sign, upper left, and depiction of peasants at work rather than regal grandeur. The “Isabella” for whom this Breviary was made is the Queen Isabella of Castile (a region of Spain) who, with her husband, King Ferdinand, sponsored Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World and also issued the degree ordering Jews and Muslims to convert or leave the country, leading to the infamous Spanish Inquisition; 1492 was a busy year.

The Liturgy of the Hours

The Liturgy of the Hours includes psalms, hymns, readings, and other prayers and antiphons. Together with the Mass, it constitutes the official public prayer life of the Catholic Church and forms the basis of prayer within Christian monasticism. The Liturgy of the Hours, along with the Eucharist, has formed part of the Church’s public worship from the earliest times. In the Middle Ages, elaborate breviaries were commissioned by aristocratic patrons for their personal ownership and as gifts for loved ones. Pictured here are two pages from the Isabella Breviary, a gift in 1497 to Queen Isabella of Castile (1472-1504) on the occasion of the wedding of two of her children to a son and daughter of Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian of Austria. The main illuminator of the manuscript was a Flemish artist known as the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, active in Bruges. One particular feature of his style was to treat the page as a solid background in which the place for the miniature was cut out, as in a passe-partout. A magnificent floral and foliate border frames scenes incorporating various episodes in the Old Testament. The image at the top of this page shows the principal scene, in which the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments are surrounded by musicians and David playing the harp. Below is a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi from the New Testament. —from the Web Gallery of Art and Wikipedia

*From an October 1, 2003, address by Pope John Paul II

isabella-breviary-adoration-of-magi

Adoration of the Magi, from the Isabella Breviary

Benedictus

Blessed be the Lord,
The God of Israel;
He has come to His people and set them free.

He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour,
Born of the house of His servant David.

Through His holy prophets He promised of old
That He would save us from our enemies,
From the hands of all who hate us.

He promised to show mercy to our fathers
And to remember His holy Covenant.

This was the oath He swore to our father Abraham:
To set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship Him without fear,
Holy and righteous in His sight
All the days of our life.

You, My child shall be called
The prophet of the Most High,
For you will go before the Lord to prepare His way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our Lord
The dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness
And the shadow of death,
And to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Glory to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning.
is now, and will be forever.

Amen.

Epiphany

adoration-of-the-magi-sandro-botticelli-c1475

Adoration of the Magi, Sandro Botticelli, c. 1475

God, send forth your spirit upon us.

Had we not wandered from the hearth
where burned the flame that gave us sight
and warmed our bones—had we not gone
from home, and left the fire behind;
then, captured in the snares of night,
we had no recollection of
from which direction we had come
nor could we see the firelight—
Until we knew that we were lost,
we did not call for you, O God.

Had we not wandered from the stream,
believing that the food and drink
we carried would suffice for thirst
and hunger—when the wells were dry,
our flasks were empty, long since gone
our meager stores of bread and wine—
and those who would have guided us
we pridefully had left behind—
Until the skies refused to rain,
we did not call upon your name.

And still you came with angel hosts
and gave from Heaven’s bounty all
we needed—what we needed most:
the certainty that when we call
on you, already you have come
with love and grace to lead us home.

reading-a-letter-by-delphin-enjolras-1857-1945

Reading a Letter, Delphin Enjolras, 1857-1945

From Wikipedia: Epiphany—also Theophany or Three Kings’ Day—is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God in his Son as the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In Western Christianity, the feast commemorates principally (but not solely) the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles. Moreover, the feast of the Epiphany, in some Western Christian denominations, also initiates the liturgical season of Epiphanytide. Eastern Christians, on the other hand, commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, seen as his manifestation to the world as the Son of God. The traditional date for the feast is January 6.

Colloquially, an epiphany is an “Aha!” or “Eureka!” moment, defined at merriam-webster.com as “an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.” The poem/prayer “Epiphany” above represents my own realization that only in darkness does light have meaning but the light is never withdrawn….

 

 

 

Why I Pray

13th century Madonna with Child in the Italo-Byzantine style

13th-century Madonna with Child in the Italo-Byzantine style

More often than not, I pray out of desperation.

I’ve reached the end of my rope. I summon all my resources, and they come up short. My emotions have taken possession of me, body and spirit. I’m angry at someone else and disgusted with myself. I’m drowning in depression, overcome by anxiety, paralyzed by fear. I throw myself into God’s lap, bury my face in God’s shoulder, and cry out, “Help me, Father, for I cannot help myself” or “Get me the hell out of here!”—words to that effect.

I usually refer to God as “Mother-Father” when invoking God-as-parent, but in the throes of hopelessness, Father is often the appellation from my heart. I don’t know what that says about my family of origin—both Mom and Dad were always there for us to lean on. Probably it stems from my earliest prayers, from the time I first understood that I could present my ugliest, most self-absorbed, least honorable self to the Creator and be embraced with unconditional love and limitless compassion—and in the 1950s, in my Christian community, we prayed to God the Father.

Sometimes, however, I need a supernatural mother. Though I wasn’t raised Catholic, I turn to Mary, the mother of Jesus, when I’m suffering parental pain. In extremity, I don’t worry about whether my prayer is theologically correct or if I’m committing sacrilege.

In fact, praying is the one thing I do without wondering if I’m doing it wrong. All I need when I show up is honesty. I can pray in my pajamas. I can use unholy language. I can blame and curse and carry on. I can think, as Anne Lamott puts it, “such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

Anne Lamott has written much on how our brokenness allows God to heal us. “On the spiritual path,” she writes, “all the dreck and misery is transformed, maybe not that same day, but still transformed into spiritual fuel or insight.” There’s a great deal of dreck on my spiritual path.

I pray to confess and repent.

In the safety of God’s presence and the assurance of God’s forgiveness, I open the closets where the skeletons and monsters are. I bring them into the open and give them a once-over. When I know what they look like, I can steer clear of them. They are not “me.”

I pray for stuff.

I’m not ashamed to say that I come to God with wish lists. I pray for prosperity but also for compassion. I pray for healing—for myself and for others—but I also pray for the greater blessing. I might want a motorcycle. God might want me to have a pickup truck. I’ll take the pickup truck if it’s offered, trusting that I’ll know the reasons for it down the road.

I pray not so much to change God’s mind as to keep tabs on my own. I lay my petitions before God in order to remember what I want, which is ultimately who I am. Following the path of least resistance won’t take me to my destination. Left to chance and circumstance, my hopes and dreams will get lost in the distractions and emergencies of day-to-day living. They’ll succumb to entropy and gravity if I don’t tend to them. Pretty soon, I’ll forget where I meant to go in the beginning. It’s okay if my goals change and my passions evolve. I just don’t want it to happen because I lost track of them.

I make a ritual of love.

Jan Havicksz Steen The prayer before the meal

Jan Havicksz Steen, The Prayer before the Meal

Out of love and compassion, I offer prayers of intercession. Where I feel less than loving, I pray that my hostility and fear will be transformed.

Any number of physicians now agree with Dr. Larry Dossey that to exclude prayer from their practices is as negligent as to withhold medicine. Some believe in the power of thought to heal or to harm. Prayer, they say, is a form of thought that heals, whereas hate and fear are unhealthy for the bodies that hold those feelings and for those around them. Whatever the scientific rationale, one study reports that nearly 80 percent of Americans believe in the power of prayer to improve the course of illness. When I pray out of love, I am certain that in some way I bring sacred energy to the situation. Because my love is tainted with distrust and insecurity, I ask God to filter out the toxins and pollutants. Hate can’t keep its footing in the honest intention to shine more brightly in the world.

Thus, when I pray, I cultivate a spirit of gratitude. I practice thankfulness as I once practiced the piano—to form a habit that is more dependable with every repetition. I make gratitude a ritual—deliberately bringing joy into my field of awareness until it’s all but effortless. I believe in ritual. Some find it tedious. For me, it brings both comfort and inspiration.

I love the idea of the Rosary: the intention to pray announced with the sign of the cross; the tactile familiarity of the beads; the well-known phrases—“Give us this day our daily bread…. Hail, Mary, full of grace… pray for us sinners…. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end….” Orthodox Jews recite approximately a hundred benedictions every day. There are worse ways to spend one’s time than these.

I pray to invoke all that is sacred, regardless of where it resides.

Fra_Angelico,_Fra_Filippo_Lippi,_The_Adoration_of_the_Magi

The Adoration of the Magi, Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi

Some sincerely spiritual people believe that each of us embodies all holiness. Whether or not it’s true, to me it feels lonely. My primordial self believes in mystical forces and sacred powers that come only when they are called. It is said that angels will not violate our free will. Maybe it’s my dinosaur intelligence speaking, or maybe I’m hedging my bets, just in case Michael really is the angel of protection or of my life’s purpose, as Doreen Virtue claims.

I am a monotheist. I believe in one God, whose essence is love. How God dispatches helpers or emissaries transcends my human understanding. In fact, almost everything about the Divine is beyond my ken. Knowing, to the extent such things can be known, that God is love and God is supreme, I consider it not only possible but likely that God sends angels and other benign spirits to guide and protect us.

I pray to rest my spirit.

Prayer is not meditation, whose benefits are well documented. Meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and the risk of heart attack and stroke, and to improve creative thinking, compassion, and emotional well-being. I promote meditation at every opportunity, and I meditate regularly.

Prayer is a different practice, though I bring elements of meditation into my time of prayer. I try not to make praying a mental exercise with discrete steps and a checklist. When I’m troubled, I might literally pray without ceasing. When I feel fear or antipathy, or when someone says, “Pray for me,” I pray right then and there. When I sit down with my prayer list, I begin mechanically—prayer is, among other things, a discipline—but at some point I let go. I pray to enter the collective unconscious, to immerse myself in life’s mighty ocean.  I let the prayer be bigger than I am. I lean back on the the universe, as one leans on the water when learning to swim, and trust that it will always hold me up.

In the mystical communion that is prayer, it doesn’t matter whether I’ve prayed for five minutes or an hour, whether I’ve prayed daily since childhood or I’ve never consciously uttered a prayer in my entire life. My spirit rests and is refreshed, and it arises pure and new. Love cleanses me and fills me, and I am indestructible. This is why I pray: To invoke the mystery of transformation; to love as God loves; and to walk in the world with fearlessness and grace.

 

Virgin Mary in prayer by Sassoferrato 17th century

Virgin Mary in prayer, by Sassoferrato, 17th century

WHY I PRAY
Act One

I pray for many reasons. Let me say at once: I’m
not above presenting God with this and that
request. But better yet, because it never fails: I
pray to give my mind a rest. The second I’m
awake—before I even make the bed—it races off
without premeditation. Where to go, and for
what purpose? Whom to benefit? It doesn’t
care. To be in motion is its sine qua non. If it
hopes in passing for a map to manifest, or for
some audible advice on navigation—”Stop”; ”Go
right”; “Go left”—that must suffice for caution,
and for prayer. At length it pauses, takes a
breath because it must (exhaustion trumps
intemperance) and—thus deactivated, and
belatedly remembering that haste makes
wreckage, cringing at the thought and
wondering what finer things it might have
done with less velocity and more compassion—
makes a small apology to Heaven.

“God,” it says,
“I did my best. Please fix it.” Then it doubts,
regrets its course, and promises thenceforth to
be more circumspect and not to ever leap
before it looks again. And this is when I catch
up and my mind pretends it hasn’t wasted an
entire day behaving like a cocker spaniel
wearing roller skates and never mind the frail
old gentlemen and soft-pink roses, daddies
walking babies safe in sturdy strollers; never
mind the halt, the lame, the twilight, and the
stolen kiss it passed because it couldn’t stop in
flight to pray. Look what you’ve done, I say. See
what you didn’t do?
My mind and I survey the
damage. It’s… not awful. Not by half. Expecting
a calamity, we got a gift.  While we were out
attacking entropy, we might have missed the
chance to be delighted by the shadows and the
rabbits and the white moon fading in the west,
but we did more than just not die today. We
lived, and it was effortless.

Mary Campbell
April 2, 2016