I’ve translated a prayer to St. Michael from a mid-15th century Book of Hours, and I thought I’d share it in between typing light setting reports.
Books of Hours were very popular in medieval Europe. While few laypeople would be able to own, never mind read, a Bible for much of the Middle Ages in much of Europe, a lot of people owned Books of Hours (comparatively speaking). They are so named because they are built around the hours of the day – not the 24 hour setup we know, but the monastic and ecclesiastical hours that the day of a monk or nun or priest was divided into. These “hours” (sometimes called “offices” today) are Matins (basically the first chunk of prayers, at rising or dawn or however you have your day sorted), Lauds or Prime (about 6 am), Terce (about 9 am), Sext (noon), Nones (about 3 pm), Vespers (evening, about 6 pm or at sunset, depending), and Compline (night, about 9 pm or before retiring). Some monasteries had a midnight office (if it has a name, it is escaping me right now), and there were variations depending on where you were and where in the liturgical calendar you were in terms of season/time of year. The prayers would vary, as well, depending on the larger church calendar, the day of the week, etc.
When laypeople began performing these monastic prayers themselves around the 13th century, Books of Hours were introduced as an abbreviated form of the prayer collection called a breviary that was used in monasteries. So this is less a system by which one tells time, basically, or expects everyone else to be in sync with; rather, it’s a way of ordering your day around prayer-times according to the liturgical hours of the day.
This kind of prayer I have reproduced below is technically called a “suffrage,” and can be seen in its original context here. A suffrage is a short intercessory prayer – ie, a prayer said to seek the intercession of a saint. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, orthodox Catholics do not actually worship saints or petition them directly for favors, exactly; you don’t actually pray for St. Expedite to do something like bring you enough rent money by Friday (not if you’re an orthodox Catholic). Technically, what you do when you petition a saint is ask for that saint’s intercession, i.e. ask that the saint to intercede with God for you, to communicate on your behalf to God. It is God who answers prayers, not saints, and God in and through whom all things are possible.
So you might honor a saint, but when you are thanking a saint, you’re thanking them for their intercession, not for their direct action. For example, if you get the rent money by Friday, God has granted your prayer through the intercession of St. Expedite, who also prayed for you, and who by his superior grace and holiness and proximity to God made your own prayers more effective. Thus it does not mean that without the saint, God would not know about your prayers, nor does it mean technically that the saint carries your prayers to God. It’s more like the saint sort of adds some oomph to your own prayers by virtue of his or her own personal holy qualities and residence in heaven.
The Council of Trent in the mid 16th century articulated the parameters of this practice and the belief system it implies: saints in heaven pray for us, the living, just as we the living pray for the souls of those in purgatory. We, too, can be intercessors, in other words, and there are active, continuing relationships between and among saints, angels, living, dead in purgatory, God, the Virgin Mary, and Christ. (The practice and the belief system that supports this predated Trent by ages, though – Thomas Aquinas had discussed it in the 13th century, and Jerome had written about it in the 4th-5th centuries.)
So when we invoke or petition a saint, we are (supposed to be) asking that saint to pray to God on our behalf, to throw in their lot with us and help us make our prayers more effective by lending us some of the power of their sanctity. Basically, not to put too fine a point on it, God loves everybody, but he likes some people more than others. And some people, living or dead, have more prayer mojo than others, in essence.
Now, in the regular day to day scheme of things, even clerics and monks and such would probably not always observe this sort of fine distinction in the Middle Ages, especially not when it came to the wording of ex tempore prayers, or to the acquisition of and desire for relics of saints. The common hoodoo practice of doing something to a statue or image of a saint in order to elicit a response from the saint is very, very old. People today will sometimes take the baby Jesus out of St. Anthony’s arms until he grants their petition, usually involving the return of a lost item — if they have a statue with a detachable baby figure, that is. (You can get those and that is what they are for. In fact, you might even be able to find one with a drawer in the base to hold the baby Jesus statue when it’s out of Anthony’s arms. And that’s exactly what it’s for.)
Some people who do not come from this kind of background are shocked about all this and express their certainty that such practices are debased, degraded superstition that dishonors the saint by trying to coerce him and stuff like that. But this is a very old practice with very deep roots. These medieval monks who ordered their days around the liturgical hours? They lived with the saints, like neighbors or even roommates, and today’s folk Catholics do the same. A saint with whom you have a relationship is like a member of the family; they have an altar in your home, you talk to them all the time, you give them flowers. You ask St. Christopher’s blessings on your way out the door, and St. Anthony responds to your prayers when you can’t find your car keys. These are not distant, dusty figures whom one approaches groveling; they were fallible, living human beings and even in sanctified death, they are still human and have personalities.
It was even more the case in medieval Europe – belief in the intercession of the saints was very real, and belief that the beloved departed were in purgatory and could be helped by prayers and masses was also. You asked St. Foy’s help like you might ask for your neighbor’s, and the saints had responsibilities to the living, in the community – if the monastery’s patron saint fell down on the job and the monks had no harvest to get through winter, that was bad news and the saint was slacking. Monks might take a statue off its niche or shelf and set it on the floor in displeasure, telling the saint that he was staying there until the rain came and the fennel grew again. Nuns might bury a medal of St. Joseph on land they needed help in obtaining.
And the saints responded in visible, sometimes tangible, ways. A knight might petition St. James for healing of his arm, and promise to make a pilgrimage to the saint’s “home,” the property at which his relics resided, as thanks when the arm was mended. When the knight failed to keep his word, St. James intervened to see to it that his other arm was broken. [*] These so-called “punitive miracles” were frequent occurrences – saints got involved in all kinds of matters, from mundane farm troubles to rivalries between monasteries to inheritance of property and succession of kings.
So it’s important to understand the worldview in which saints are a part of everyday life, more like members of the family than distant, cold oracles or spirits. This is a world in which flogging a saint’s statue, or turning a saint’s photo upside down, is not some horrible, sacrilegious thing that clergy would be appalled at – clergy often participated. It is a worldview which someone from a Protestant Christian background is unlikely to really “get” at first, so that is why I go to the lengths I go to in order to explain some of this stuff.
Was there a council declaring that a saint could be flogged if the monastery suffered bad weather? Of course not. Strictly speaking, if scholastics and theologians had weighed in on such a thing, it’s easy to imagine them disapproving. But your average local parish priest was no Thomas Aquinas, and while Aquinas was concerned with the nature of the Trinity and the relationship of soul to matter and body, a local priest had more mundane and pressing matters to consider, and frankly just a different mission in life and vocation. Same with an abbot or abbess in charge of the religious community and order. They worried about God and their souls and purgatory, but they also worried about carrots and milking cows and firewood, and they shared their lay neighbors’ concerns about local politics and land disputes.
So these finer points of theology and doctrine regarding the precise nature of the intercession of the saints, among other things, have not always been of the utmost concern to the faithful, a thousand years ago or today. And the potential for abuse or idolatry in the day to day practices of Catholics and in the system outlined by the Council of Trent is one of the major bugs that Protestant reformers got up their bums; they didn’t like the whole praying to saints thing much more than they liked the idea and system of indulgences (which is another hugely misunderstood system which I will also have to write about one day).
And a great many people who are Christian are of the Protestant stripe informed by such thinking (and this category includes the majority of rootworkers, by the way), so there is often misunderstanding and even mistrust of the whole “working with saints” thing. A lot of my clients don’t really “get” the saints or are very unsure about how to proceed in working with them.
In itself, there is nothing wrong with not knowing and with starting somewhere – I have found that the saints don’t really care whether or not you are strictly in conformance to every decree from Vatican City, and in fact don’t always care if you’re Christian (it depends on the saint). You are probably not going to piss them off unless you’re an ass with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement.
But what happens not infrequently, a lot of newcomers to saints’ work, their very first approach to a saint, their very first saint, is buying a bottle of oil and imperiously demanding something from the saint. This is akin to barging up to a total stranger and demanding a favor. When they don’t get it, they quit working with that saint or with saints altogether (or the really idiotic ones write me emails saying “your saints oil had no energy in it”).
So that’s why I keep beating the “relationships are important” horse so that folks can understand how all of this works. Work with the saints is *fabulous.* But it’s work, in the sense that maintaining a relationship is work. Saints are not vending machines.
Anyway. Back to Books of Hours and the intercessory prayers they contain. (One of these days, I am going to make my own Book of Hours. I have to learn to write properly with a quill on vellum, first, though – so maybe I”ll cheat in the meantime and make an improper and informal Book of Hours that I’ve cherrypicked my favorite prayers for. I wish I could earn a living making custom Books of Hours for people; I think I would really enjoy doing that work. For a while, anyway – I might change my tune after I did a few!)
Here is the St. Michael prayer transcribed. I’ve expanded abbreviations in the manuscript, or tried to, and I may have made some errors, so if you have medieval Latin feel free to correct me:
Laudemus dominum quem laudant angeli quem cherubim et seraphim sanctus sanctus sanctus proclamant.
V. In conspectu* angelorum psallam tibi deus meus.
R. Adorabo ad templum sanctum tuum et confitebor nomini tuo.
[I don’t know/can’t read the word in red, but it has to mean that everybody prays as a group now.]
Deus qui miro ordine angelorum ministeria hominumque dispensas, concede propicius ut a quibus tibi ministrantibus in caelo semper
adsistitur ab his in terra uita nostra muniatur. Per Christum [?].
Let us praise the Lord whom the angels praise, to whom the Cherubim and Seraphim cry holy, holy, holy.
V: In the sight of the angels I will sing to you, my God.
R: I will worship in your holy temple and confess your name.
God, who in miraculous order arranged the ministry of angels and men, grant, merciful, that by those ministering eternally to you in heaven,
our life may be attended and defended by these on earth. Through Christ [etc].
The above is fairly literal and so a bit clunky, as I need to make sure I’m reflecting the grammar in the initial translation even where it doesn’t make for pretty English (so if you read medieval Latin and you see where I’ve made an error, let me know? I mangled the ut clause, I think.)
[*This doesn’t look like conspectu to me, but maybe the smudge is hiding a symbol for abbreviation that accounts for the p I can’t see to save the life of me. No other word makes sense here.]
Now all that was a big windup for a teeny little prayer! I have a stack of reports to type still, and I don’t even want to think about my inbox (I”m not kidding about getting in 70 or more emails every single freakin’ day) so I need to get back to them, but I have a ton more prayers to Michael and some other angels I will post eventually. In the meantime, here’s a picture I took last summer of a tapestry-stitch and needlepoint piece of St. Michael. It was stitched in 1955 and is on display in the tower portion of St. Michael’s church in Oxford, England, which has lots of lovely images and statues.
NB: unless noted as mine, like the photograph above, all images are public domain.
[*] Sumption, Jonathan. Pilgrimage: An Image of Mediaeval Religion. London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1975. 240.