Friday, August 6, 2010

The Dormitionist Rite of Mass

Mass: foretaste of the eternal rest and peace that we will have in heaven, per omnia sæcula sæculorum and world without end!  Is this not the joy we ought have, even here and now, at Mass?

How many of the laity now long for the sacred ceremonies and hushed murmur of Low Mass, without the jangling distractions bedevilling the beleaguered at too many liturgical “celebrations” these days, which cruelly torment souls desiring only rest?  Too many, forsooth.

Mass is an image of death, the Death of the Lord: for through His death we enter into eternal rest.  It is therefore pleasing that many of the faithful attempt to die to themselves, or appear as if dead, when at Mass.  An old-fashioned "meditation Mass" can have this quality, as can many an Ordinary Mass I find.

That most noble and retiring of Orders, the unique, cloistered, contemplative men of the Canons Regular of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Dormitionists for short, have in their ancient liturgical forms taken this lesson to heart.  Let us in spirit fly to their choirs, and in imagination observe what we long for so in reality….

First and foremost, rejecting those who make a foolish fetish of ridiculously early Mass, even any morning Masses at all, these religious stedfastly stick to evening Mass – before or even after their Compline.  (I well recall the pleasure of serving a certain friar’s meditative private Mass, which he preferred to offer after 10 pm.)

The O.Dorm.’s place much emphasis on their seemingly contrary hour of celebration, at once after and yet ahead of all other Masses: for, still beginning the liturgical day with first Vespers, in fact all their Masses are vigil Masses said, by anticipation, on the eve or in the early night of the succeeding day.  (This example doubtless inspires a certain holy priest in Perth of whom a like practice is remarked.)  “Evening came, and morning came” – thus the order of the days of Creation (cf. Gen. i).  Again, “The last shall be first, and the first, last”.

One Lamb is to be offered in the morning, one Lamb at evening, these devout Canons aver, alluding to Exodus xxix, 39-41 and Numbers xxviii, 4-8.  Was not the Passover held ad vesperum (Lev. xxiii, 5)?  Was not Israel, that is, the faithful, delivered, and Egypt, that is, Satan, punished at night?  Again, the Last Supper was held in the evening, “and it was night”.  When Our Lord died, the sun was darkened – betokening the Divine preference for night-time Mass.  Just so, the Lord broke bread with the disciples at Emmaus in the darkening dusk (cf. St Luke xxiv).  Thus, while the One Lamb is offered throughout the Church in the morning, the Dormitionists keep up the holier parallel by offering up the One Lamb in the evening.

It is not customary among these Canons Regular, as holy religious, not worldly, secular priests, to celebrate daily, let alone more than once a day (strange thought!).  Given the Order’s special charism, the brethren with due reticence approach the awful altar (just as Bl Pope Innocent XI only celebrated Mass himself on Sundays and feasts, and otherwise was content, in his humility, with hearing the Mass of his chaplain; Bossuet did much the same; and as a well-known Jesuit at the Gregorian used to celebrate only every second day, lest his devotion slacken by overfamiliarity).  Perhaps only a few Masses, sometimes just one, are offered in each House of the Order each day.

Dormitionist Low Mass, apart from the rites recorded here, bears a strong resemblance to the Dominican – unsurprisingly, for its peculiar rites arose in a similar milieu; just as some of its prayers, such as the Apologia, to be discussed infra, are otherwise found in the Use of Lyons only, and a certain Carthusian simplicity, a deliberate simplification of ritual (itself traceable to the Church of Grenoble), pervades the Order.  All these traces point to this Use’s origins lying within mediæval France.

Mass in the Order begins with the most awful solemnity: the brethren prostrate and the Canon celebrant, having first mixed the chalice at the altar (just as the Dominicans do in their own traditional Mass), immediately re-descends its steps and throws himself down in humiliation – for, instead of the more modern Confiteor and allied prayers, the Dormitionists preserve here its ancient forebear, the sacerdotal Apologia of Carolingian times.  This long, intensely penitential self-accusation, added to the full prostration of priest and ministers otherwise seen only on Good Friday in the West, testifies to the antique spirit of this Use:
Deus, qui non mortem, sed pœnitentiam desideras peccatorum, me miserum fragilemque peccatorem a tua non repellas pietate, neque aspicias ad peccata et scelera mea, et immundas turpesque cogitationes, quibus flebiliter a tua disjungor voluntate; sed ad misericordias tuas, et fidem devotionemque eorum, qui per me peccatorem tuam expetunt misericordiam.  Et quia me indignum medium inter te et populum tuum fieri voluisti, fac me talem, ut digne possim exorare misericordiam tuam pro me et pro eodem populo tuo.  Et adjunge voces nostras vocibus sanctorum et angelorum tuorum, ut sicut illi te laudant ineffabiliter in æterna beatitudine, ita nos quoque eorum interventu mereamur te laudare inculpabiliter in hac peregrinatione.  Amen.
(“O God, Who desirest not the death, but the repentance of sinners, repel Thou not me a miserable and fragile sinner from Thy piety, neither behold Thou my sins and crimes, and my unclean and shameful thoughts, by which tearfully I am sundered from Thy will; but look to Thy mercies, and the faith and devotion of them, who through me a sinner await Thy mercy.  And because Thou hast willed to set unworthy me in the midst between Thee and Thy people, make me such, that I may worthily be able to beseech Thy mercy for me and for the same Thy people.  And adjoin to our voices the voices of Thy saints and angels, that as they praise Thee ineffably in eternal beatitude, so we also at their intervention may deserve to praise Thee without fault in this [our life’s] pilgrimage.  Amen.”)
Students of the school of utilitarian liturgy would remark that this practice survives doubtless due to the unusual proximity of Mass to Compline in the Dormitionist Order.  They would contend that, as there is a Confiteor &c. at Compline, these Canons Regular rationally refuse to double up these prayers at the proximate Mass.  (Just so, the early Dominicans were directed to omit the Confiteor at Prime if they were to celebrate Mass immediately thereafter.)

True; but the O.Dorm.’s themselves prefer, in Carolingian style, to point to an Old Testament exemplar: for Josue lay prone on the earth before the Ark of the Lord usque ad vesperam, and with him all the elders of Israel (Jos. vii, 6).  Does not the Book of Leviticus constantly repeat immundus erit usque ad vesperum, “he shall be unclean until the evening”?  How right, then, to wait to purify oneself by confession till as late as humanly possible!

Similarly, this Scripture justifies the Dormitionist rule whereby those present remain prostrate during the whole sacred mutter of the Mass (although, in the case of the server, he must needs rise from time to time to serve the priest, or at least to speak clearly – unlike the rest still lying face down on the floor).  In this, these holy religious keep up the ancient practice of the Popes in seventh-century Rome: accedit ad altare et prostrato omni corpore in terra facit orationem.  As the Lord Himself taught us, “Sleep on, and take your rest” – advice we ought heed at many a Mass.

The sanctus candle normally lit from Canon to Communion in other rites, is in this Use kept burning continually, lit by the server, straight after the other candles, at the first approach to the altar.  This is done lest the celebrant fall asleep in the awesome yawning silence.

From Office (that is, the Introit) through to Offertory, Mass proceeds very much as in the Rite of the Friars Preachers, whose brethren, vocation and Order the Dormitionists in so many strange ways resemble; but then the Rite of the Canons Regular again diverges in its forms.  Several of these peculiarities are linked to the extraordinary hour of the celebration.

Thus the priest begins the Offertory, not with the Dominican Quid retribuam, but by lifting up his eyes and arms to heaven, and praying Dirigatur, Domine, oratio mea, sicut incensum in conspectu tuo: elevatio manuum mearum sicut sacrificium vespertinum — “May my prayer, Lord, be directed as incense in Thy sight: the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Ps 140:2).  Is not this silent Low Mass in the evening gloom, or even later at night, truly the foreshadowed “evening sacrifice”?

Directly after this imploration of God, with hands at first brought back together, the Holy Ghost is invoked, the head lifted up and then bowed down, the arms extended, lifted, lowered and rejoined in a circular gesture before the holy Sign is made over the oblations: “prayer goeth up, pity cometh down”, says St Augustine somewhere.  The form of the Veni sanctificator proper to the Order, otherwise found in rare old Missals, is particularly fulsome and impressive:
Veni, sanctificator omnium, Sancte Spiritus, et sanct+ifica hoc præsens sacrificium ab indignis manibus præparatum et descende in hanc hostiam invisibiliter, sicut in patrum hostias visibiliter descendisti.
(“Come, Hallower of all, Holy Spirit, and sanct+ify this present sacrifice prepared by unworthy hands, and descend invisibly into this sacrifice, as Thou didst descend visibly upon the sacrifices of the Fathers.”)
This said, the priest-celebrant bows low for the In spiritu humilitatis, changing the usual hodie in the prayer to hac nocte, to speak with verisimilitude of the hour of Sacrifice.  There is, unexpectedly, no Lavabo following, only a simple Orate fratres, just those two words with no response, as in the oldest Ordines Romani.  (How could the prostrate brethren respond anyway? — it may be supposed they are praying inwardly, "Eternal rest grant unto us, O Lord".)

It may be mentioned en passant that the Dormitionists, ever suspicious of newfangled innovations, do not employ the pall, that strange stiffened fabric square, but retain the more appropriate and traditional usage, whereby the corporal is so large as to make it easy to lift up and fold the far side of it over the chalice, both to ward off insects (as Dom Claude de Vert would have opined) and to represent in lively fashion Our Lord's Holy Winding Sheet or Shroud, imaging His Burial.  It may be imagined how this evocative usage inspires holy and wholesome thoughts in these ever-retiring Canons as they long for death and rest in Christ more and more, in truth not merely in semblance.

But to return to the next event at the altar, next the Secret, that prayer of silent setting apart (as Bossuet considered it, deriving its name from the verb secernere) is read.  In the Order, the Secret, living up to its still more ancient title of Oratio super oblata, is said with hands stretched out and held together over the elements.  This evocative gesture represents in lively manner the sacrifice the brethren are making by remaining prone all through Mass: in utter quiet, indeed as if dead, they are uniting themselves thus to the One Oblation.

The most notable curiosity of the Dormitionist Mass appears next: for the Preface is silent!

This is for the greater convenience of the recumbent brethren, of course; and mystically fulfils the words of the Apocalypse, that there was silence in heaven for half an hour (or however long it takes to say the Preface silently).  The priest recites the Preface secretly until he raises his voice for the ecphonesis: sine fine / supplici confessione / una voce dicentes: Sanctus…

In all this, the influence of a Greek original may be discerned, for such is done in the Byzantine Rite.  This may have come West via the ancient practice in certain churches of France, most famously at the royal abbey of St Denis, of celebrating the Mass entirely in Greek on some feasts, such as that of the putative Areopagite; from this liturgical connexion to the East came a leakage of rubric into the Use of the Canons Regular of the Dormition.

Another ritual curiosity may be remarked upon: as was the custom in German Uses of old time, the priest washes his hands after the Benedictus, directly before entering upon the awful mystery of the Canon, using the prayer (identical with that of the Rite of Cologne) Dele, Domine, omnes iniquitates meas, ut tua mysteria digne possim tractare – that is, "Blot out, Lord, all my iniquities, that I may be able worthily to handle Thy Mysteries."  If only all priests would so recollect themselves before handling the Word Who is life (cf. I John i, 1).

At the Elevation (only visible to the celebrant), the Canons pray Pie Jesu Domine, dona nobis requiem — “Gentle Jesu Lord, grant us rest”.  For by this dread hour, Mass is half-over, and bed beckons.  How much better to say Mass late than early!  For in the morning, the faithful look to breakfast, and so "their god is their belly, their end is destruction" (Philippians iii, 19); whereas, in the quiet evening, the Dormitionists have even now a foretaste of that rest which shall be eternal, as they long for repose.

Shortly after this, at the Supra quæ, the celebrant extends his conjoined hands over the Consecrated Elements.  (Recall that Dormitionist priests otherwise do much as the Friars Preachers, and so bow at the Hanc igitur rather than do as the Romans do.)  This, a rubric also found in mediæval German missals, is said to recall the atttendant brethren at Mass, now truly prostrate before their Eucharistic Lord, already in this life entering into His rest, already as it were in Abraham’s bosom.

The Dormitionists conceiving themselves to be, even in this life, sleepers in Christ, the priest remembers the brethren at the Memento etiam, alongside the already dead.  What a pity secular priests, as they look out ad populum, cannot freely do the same, so fittingly it may seem, for their congregations…

In like fashion, the Agnus Dei is proper to the Order: 

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi: dona nobis requiem.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi: dona nobis requiem.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi: dona nobis requiem sempiternam.

See the insistent repetition of the hope-filled prayer, “grant us rest, grant us rest everlasting”!  How the O.Dorm.’s do faithfully pray on behalf of all the faithful throughout the world who long for rest, whether at Mass or elsewhere, or at the least a comfy bed and a little longer to abide therein.  They bring to learnèd perfection the inchoate desires of the simple, desires planted in the heart from on high that we may be drawn all unawares to heaven.

At Communion, too, this peculiar emphasis is made: there is no pre-communion oration except for the long commixture prayer Hæc sacrosancta that includes petitions for a fruitful communion; straightway follow the communion formulæ, for the priest, and for the rest — in all three, the usual words ad vitam æternam or custodia(n)t me / te in vitam æternam (as in the Dominican forms) read instead ad requiem æternam and proficia(n)t me /te in requiem æternam.  “The Body (and Blood) of Our Lord Jesus Christ profit me / thee unto eternal rest.”  

For is not life eternal to be a state of endless rest and repose in the Lord?  And is not the Eucharist the foretaste of such?  And to those who aspire ever to sleep in Christ, who repose in the Lord even in this life, Communion ought help settle us down to an even deeper state of restful contemplation.

The Ecce Agnus Dei and Domine non sum dignus are not used in the Mass of the O.Dorm.'s, as the brethren are of course still prostrate, and could hardly roll on one side to strike their breasts, as would be ridiculous and unseemly, more like the behaviour of scratching seals or walruses than holy religious men!  (For utterly the same reason the Pax is not given.)

After Communion, as in mediæval Uses particularly in Scandinavia (though even among isolated Dominicans), the Nunc dimittis is prayed in thanksgiving, but silently, since at Compline it will by all be sung.  Given the one devotional focus of the Order, on preparing as good and faithful servants for everlasting rest having seen the Lord, this is most fitting.  (Confirming how common a sentiment this is, many Protestants even, Lutherans and Calvinists alike, use this canticle in their pretended services.  Of old time the vicar of Holy Trinity, East Kew, recited this prayer antiphonally with his servers as he returned to the vestry after the Second Service.)

Mass concludes rapidly, for there is no blessing nor Last Gospel.  Directly before the last, quiet prayer, the Placeat (itself ending, not Per Christum Dominum nostrum, but in requiem æternam, before the Amen), if Mass is said directly before Compline it ends with Benedicamus Domino; if after Compline, and thus directly before bed, with – of course – Requiescamus in pace.


Ttony said...

O si sic omnes! In their calendar is 6 August the Feast of the Holy Innocents?

Mark said...

Good one, Josh!

Are you sure you ought not be a visiting Professor on liturgy...?

On a more serious note: I marvel at how you find the cognates in other uses. I look forward to some more good discussions some day!

Joshua said...

Jungmann's The Mass of the Roman Rite, in two volumes, is an inestimable help in researching these matters; as is a Dominican Rite missal, and, of course, A.A. King's Liturgies of the Religious Orders.

Joshua said...

T. sent me the following comments by email:


I often have difficulty posting to blogs hosted by Blogger, and although I was able to do it once before (discussing the pronunciation of Wangaratta/Wagga Wagga---possibly with a pseudonym), I'm afraid I can't do it right now.

I'm not sure if you've noticed, Joshua, but the internet's knowledge of this order (under either the name "Dormitionist" or "Canons Regular of the Dormition") comes solely from your blog! Not even a stub on Wikipedia.

Congratulations for bringing something old to the Internet for the first time---something that is surely hard to do these days---but how can I find out anything else about them? This is a most unusual situation to be in, for someone who's lived on the Internet practically his whole life!


Having read your other post now (and being perhaps rather sleep deprived myself, at [then] 5 o'clock in the morning), I very much get the impression my leg was being pulled. Well done :)