The Jubé (4): The Church Fathers on the Sacredness of Tradition

Sicut prævaricatores divinarum legum, ita contemptores Ecclesiarum consuetudinum coercendi sunt.


Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 26

Chapter XXVII
That it is Doubly Temerarious to Demolish Jubés in Churches

Screen (s'Hertogenbosch)
The destruction of a choir screen at Antwerp. Engraving by Gaspar Bouttats, 1640-95. © Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels. (Source)

And so, given that jubés in churches are an ancient institution, that they are the fruits of the piety of our forefathers, that they are the work of their hands, is it not temerarious to cast them onto the ground? In the end, what right, what authority, or what attribute do these Ambonoclasts have to attack the ancients on a matter of which the entire Church approves and which the entirety of Tradition supports? The Wise Man warns us in the book of Proverbs against transgressing the bounds our forefathers set down: Non transgrediaris terminos quos posuerunt Patres tui; yet the Ambonoclasts are certain to have transgressed them. Are they wiser, cleverer, more pious, or more zealous than our forefathers, that they dare thus criticize their ways?

St. Bernard reflected upon a similar principle in his letter to the canons of Lyons, who had decided to celebrate in their Church the feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin. This holy abbot, who disliked novel devotions, unless they were solidly established, told them that they were making a grave mistake in celebrating a feast that was not authorized by the customs of the Church, nor by right reason, nor by ancient tradition: Novum inducendo celebritatem quam ritus Ecclesiæ nescit, non probat ratio, non commendat antiqua traditio. And, in order to persuade them, he said to them, inter alia, that they were not wiser, nor more devout than their forefathers, and it was with dangerous presumption that they accepted a feast their forefathers had wisely rejected: Numquid Patribus doctiores aut devotiores sumus? Periculose præsumimus quidquid ipsorum in talibus prudentia præterivit.

This great saint might have formulated this line of reasoning based on what St Augustine wrote to Cafulanus[1], that when it comes to the things about which Holy Scripture has not decided anything, the customs of the people of God and the practices of the ancients must have force of law: In his rebus, de quibus nihil certi statuit Scriptura divina, mos populi Dei, et instituta majorum pro lege tenenda sunt.

In Cassian[2], Abba Theonas states the same thought when he says that one must have recourse to the authority of the ancients, and receive with respect the practices that they have handed down to us, without even examining the reasons they had in handing them down to us. Oportet nos (these are his own words) auctoritati Patrum, consuetudinique majorum, usque ad nostrum tempus per tantam annorum seriem protelatæ, etiam non percepta ratione cedere, eamque, ut antiquitus tradita est, jugi observantia ac reverentia custodire.

Image result for johannes bosboom + st john's s'hertogenbosch
St. John, ‘s Hertogenbosch, by Johannes Bosboom (1817-1891, Netherlands) (Source)

 This is also the sentiment expressed by Emperor Justinian, for he declares[3] that customs are like laws: Diuturni mores, consensu utentium approbati, legem imitantur. He adds that ancient customs must be preserved and one must not stray from the reasons whereupon they are based, and that the presidents or governors of the provinces must ensure that nothing is done contrary thereto: Consuetudo præcedens (he says[4]) et ratio quæ consuetudinem suasit, custodienda est; et ne quid contra longam consuetudinem fiat, ad solicitudinem suam revocabit Præses provinciæ.

The provincial council of Sens held in Paris in 1528[5] explains Abba Theonas’ maxim to show that one must always keep ancient customs and enter entirely into their spirit.

The monk Gratian repeats in his Decretals[6] what we have just learned from Justinian, that ancient customs are like laws. He also reports[7] what we have just cited from St Augustine, but he adds one thing which would not be unworthy of the utmost consideration by the Ambonoclasts, viz. that those that violate divine laws and those who despise the customs of the Churches must both be equally punished: Sicut prævaricatores divinarum legum, ita contemptores Ecclesiarum consuetudinum coercendi sunt.

But the temerity of the Ambonoclasts is again in evidence in that, by bringing down jubés to the ground, they significantly alter the shape of churches. Where have they found that individuals were ever allowed to do such a thing, or that such a thing was ever left to their discretion?

Related image
A view of the screen of Chartres Cathedral, Nicolas Larmessin

Indeed, when God ordered Moses to build the Tabernacle, which was as it were the portable temple of the Jews, He did not grant him the liberty of doing so as he pleased. He Himself prescribed its shape, with an express prohibition of building it otherwise than according to the model which He gave upon the mount. Holy Scripture marks this fact in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old with these words: “And they shall make me a sanctuary, according to all the likeness of the tabernacle which I will shew thee” &c.[8] “Look and make it according to the pattern, that was shewn thee in the mount.”[9] “And thou shalt make the tabernacle in this manner.”[10] In the New Testament, when it says, “The tabernacle of the testimony, as God ordained speaking to Moses, that he should make it according to the form which he had seen,” &c.[11] “See that thou make all things according to the pattern which was shewn thee on the mount”[12]. Josephus did not forget these circumstances in his Antiquities of the Jews[13], writing thus: Mensuram et formam Tabernaculi sibi præmonstratam dixit Moyses, nihilque superesse nisi ut ad ejus fabricam se quam primum accingerent Filii Israel, &c. Ita Structuram Tabernaculi agrediuntur Architecti Moyse et mensuram et magnitudinem designante, sicut in monte ex Dei colloquio didicerat, &c.

It was also God Himself Who have David the plan of the Temple of Jerusalem, and which this Prophet-King gave in turn to his son Solomon, enjoining him to follow it point by point. “All these things,” said David to Solomon, “came to me written by the hand of the Lord, that I might understand all the works of the pattern.”[14]

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Rood Screen from Bois-le-Duc Cathedral (Source)

Now, if God did not leave the structure both of the Tabernacle of the Law and of the Temple of Jerusalem to the discretion of Moses, David, and Solomon, who could persuade himself that two or three individuals, enlightened apparently above Moses, David, and Solomon, can dispose according to their whim the shape of our churches, which are much more excellent and perfect than the Tabernacle of the Law and the Temple of Jerusalem, so that they might even be allowed to destroy the jubés, which are not the least ornaments or parts of the church?

All the Ambonoclasts’ tact comes down to saying that jubés make the churches’ choirs difficult to see, and prevent those in the nave from seeing what is being done at the altar and choir. But, again, are they wiser and more devout than our forefathers who built the jubés and left them in the state we see them in today? Do the Ambonoclasts have greater competence than a multitude of bishops, parish priests, canons, abbots, priors, religious, and churchwardens, who, far from destroying them, considered them illustrious monuments of sacred antiquity?

It is true that those jubés that cross the entire front of the choir choir make the choir difficult to see, and prevent those in the nave from seeing what is being done at the altar and choir. But is it therefore such a great inconvenience that church choirs be obscured? On the contrary, does this obscurity not foster more respect for the sacred mysteries and the divine offices that are celebrated in the church choirs? And, finally, what need is there for the faithful in the nave to see what is done at the altar and church choir? Does it not suffice that they see them with the eyes of faith? And, if they are truly faithful, do they not see them in that way, across even the largest jubés, without needing to see them with the eyes of the body?

Almost all the jubés of the Eastern churches are placed in the nave, facing the only or the main gate of the sanctuary, so that it is clear from what we have said before about St Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople; Paul the Silentiary; Simeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica; Arcudius; Fr Goar; M. du Cange; and M. de Schelstrate, that they obstruct the view of the sanctuary and altar of nearly all the faithful who are in the church’s nave. And yet, who has ever found this worthwhile to write about, or to have them demolished on account of that?

The jubé of the church of St Jean in Lyons was destroyed by the Huguenots in 1562. It was rebuilt in 1585 by the Canons-Count of Lyons, as is attested by the inscription we wrote about in Chapter 25. Less than thirty years have passed since the jubé of the Cathedral of Soissons was rebuilt, and that of the Cathedral of Beauvais is even more recent. Yet these three jubés are built exactly like those against which all fury has been unleashed in our days, to the point where they are brought down to the ground, leaving no trace. These three jubés all cross the front of the choir, making it a bit difficult to see, and prevent what is done in the altar or choir from being seen from the nave. These three reasons, however, have made no impression on the spirits of those who have erected these three jubés or on those who erected all the other jubés of the same structure which we have preserved even today in most of our great and our ancient churches.

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Lithographie de François Bonhommé représentant le transept de la cathédrale de Soissons et le troisième jubé, vers 1840 (Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l’ancienne France, Picardie, 2e volume). (Source)


[1] Epist. 86.

[2] Coll. 21, ch. 12

[3] Instit. Tit. bk. 1, ch. 2

[4] Cod., bk. 8, tit. 53, Quæ sit longe conset. bk. 1, Præses provinciæ

[5] In Decret. fid. decret. 5

[6] 1. P. distr. 12 c. diuturni mores

[7] Ibid. dist. 11 c. In his rebus.

[8] Facient mihi Sanctuarium juxta omnem similitudinem tabernaculi quod ostendam tibi. Exod. 25, 9.

[9] Inspice et fac secundum exemplar quod tibi in monte monstratum est. Ibid, v. 40

[10] Tabernaculum vero ita facies. Ibid. 26, 1.

[11] Tabernaculum testimonii disposuit Deus loquens ad Moysen, ut faceret illud secundum formam quam viderat. Acts 7, 44.

[12] Vide omnia facito secundum exemplar, quod tibi ostensum est in monte. Hebr. 8, 5.

[13] Bk. 3, ch. 4.

[14] Omnia, inquit, venerunt scripta manu Domini ad me, ut intelligerem universa opera exemplaris. 1. Paralipomenon 28, 19.

6 thoughts on “The Jubé (4): The Church Fathers on the Sacredness of Tradition

  1. “The provincial council of Sens held in Paris in 1528[5] explains Abba Theonas’ maxim to show that one must always keep ancient customs and enter entirely into their spirit.”

    Yet just above Abba Theonas is cited stating “the same thought when he says that one must have recourse to the authority of the ancients, and receive with respect the practices that they have handed down to us, without even examining the reasons they had in handing them down to us.”

    Perhaps I am interpreting this wrong, but how can one enter into the spirit of a custom if one does not examine the reasons they were handed down to us? Was that not one of the problems that led us into our current predicament, that the reasons for/explanations of our traditions were not passed on along with the traditions themselves, and thus led, in part, to their discarding?


    1. Perhaps one way to reconcile the two statements is to interpret the second in this way: that Christian piety accepts tradition as the “default” position. What is handed down per se deserves reverence and respect, even apart from our explicit knowledge of the reasons and causes for its institution. Of course, this is only the first step, the pre-requisite for “entering entirely into their spirit,” a life-long process of acquaintance and living into the traditions.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. St. Basil’s words in On the Holy Spirit come to mind:

      Of the beliefs and practices, whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined, which are preserved in the Church, some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay — no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we would unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, would make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ?

      What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For, as is well known, we are not content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and we also bless the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? In fact, by what written word is the anointing with oil itself taught? And from where comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels?

      Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? Well had they learnt the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents. What was the meaning of the mighty Moses in not making all the parts of the tabernacle open to every one?

      Liked by 1 person

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