The Jansenist Use: Liturgical Life in Port-Royal

In his monumental Institutions liturgiques, Dom Prosper Guéranger famously castigated the Neo-Gallican liturgies that proliferated in 17th and 18th century France for, inter alia, being products of Jansenist inspiration. Setting aside the question of whether these liturgies betray a heretical notion of predestination, it is true that many figures associated with the Jansenist movement did have a keen interest in the liturgy. Contrary to what one might expect given Dom Guéranger’s accusations, these “Jansenists” prized respect for ancient custom and repudiated needless novelty. 

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The Abbey of Port-Royal-des-Champs (© RMN-GP (musée de Port-Royal des Champs) / © Gérard Blot).

The intellectual centre of Jansenism was the Abbey of Port-Royal, a community of Cistercian nuns who, after a reform in the early 17th century led by the formidable Abbess Angélique Arnauld, became noted for their exemplary religious observance and cultivation of liturgical piety. Their piety attracted a number of intellectuals who chose to settle as solitaires on the abbey grounds, leading a retired life of study and simple manual labour, including Angélique’s brother Antoine, one of the most prominent Jansenist theologians. Both the nuns and solitaries set up schools to teach neighbouring children. 

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The nuns of Port-Royal holding a conference in the solitude on the abbey grounds (© RMN-GP / © Gérard Blot).

One of those children was Jean-Baptiste Le Brun des Marettes, whom our readers will remember as the author of the Voyages liturgiques. His father had been sent to the galleys for publishing Jansenist works, and Jean-Baptiste himself once did a stint at the Bastille for his involvement in the controversy. His main interest, however, was not moral theology but liturgy. His Voyages evince his veneration for liturgical antiquity and opposition to modern developments in matters of ritual, furnishing, and vestments. Yet he found a way to reconcile such views with his enthusiasm for the Neo-Gallican reforms of the Mass and Office, ultimately sharing the hubristic certainty of most men of his age that their own putative enlightenment was able to improve upon “Gothic barbarism”. Our Aelredus has described and critiqued the seemingly contradictory tastes that Jean-Baptiste Le Brun shared with other Jansenist figures

With these remarks in mind, let us see how the liturgy was celebrated in the Jansenist stronghold of Port-Royal, in a chapter of the Voyages that Le Brun des Marettes wrote before the abbey’s suppression in 1709 and the destruction of most of its buildings. (Although the Voyages was published in 1718, Le Brun des Marettes employs the present tense in this chapter.) 

We are obliged to the Amish Catholic for his help in this translation, which he has cross-posted on his ‘blog. He has penned the following preface:

The Voyages liturgiques offers several fascinating glimpses into the communal piety of Port-Royal des Champs. Marettes pays attention to the physical space of Port-Royal. He reports that the paintings in the church are by Philippe de Champaigne. The great French classicist had a daughter at the convent, Soeur Catherine de Saint-Suzanne, and seems to have provided the monastery with several portraits of both nuns and solitaires as well as several edifying works of art. The large altarpiece depicting the Last Supper is today in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, with a copy in the Louvre. Marretes devotes particular attention to the epitaphs in and around the church. The epitaphs for the solitaires Emmanuel le Cerf, an Oratorian, and Jean Hamon, a medical doctor and mystic, are especially moving.

Yet it is the liturgical and communal details he provides here that are most exciting for the historian of Jansenism and which, in fact, force us to take the nuns more seriously as daughters of St. Benedict and St. Bernard. Following the egalitarian reform of Mère Angélique, the Abbey did not require dowries of its postulants. Singing the office according to the use of Paris, they prayed the whole Psalter every week. The first chapter of the Constitutions of Port-Royal is dedicated to veneration of the Blessed Sacrament, a significant organizational choice. There were in fact both communal and individual devotions to the Blessed Sacrament at Port-Royal; for, “in addition to engaging in perpetual adoration … they also have the custom of prostrating themselves before the Sacrament before going up to receive holy communion.” Following an ancient usage, they only exposed the Blessed Sacrament during the Octave of Corpus Christi, and even then, only after the daily High Mass. Usually, the Sacrament was reserved in a hanging pyx, “attached to the end of a veiled wooden fixture shaped like a crosier.” The French Jansenists seem to have had a fixation with hanging pyxes; both M. Saint-Cyran and M. Singlin wrote about “suspension” of the Blessed Sacrament in this form.

The community would meet for chapter daily. The nuns engaged in an exacting and penitential adherence to the Rule, including silence, vegetarianism, abstinence from strong drink, and only a single meal per day in Lent. In their persons as in their ecclesiastical furniture, they followed the Cistercian spirit of holy simplicity; Marettes reports that “The nuns’ habits are coarse, and there is neither gold nor silver in their church vestments.” Yet they were not without the consolation of quiet reading in the garden during summertime.

Marettes reminds us that Port-Royal was not just a community of nuns, but also included male hermits and domestics. He writes, “After the Credo, the priest descends to the bottom of the altar steps and blesses the bread offered by one of the abbey’s domestics.” These servants and workers seem to have had a special participation in the liturgy through this rite, so reminiscent of the blessing of bread found even today in the Eastern Churches. The Necrology of Port-Royal includes these men as well in its roll-call of the Abbey’s luminaries, confirming the sometimes-overlooked egalitarianism of Port-Royaliste spirituality.

One of the more striking moments in the text comes when Marettes writes that “On Sundays and feasts of abstention from servile work there is a general communion; at every Mass said in this church at least one of the nuns receives communion.” The practice of lay communion at every Mass contradicts the usual picture of the Jansenists receiving infrequently or as discouraging lay communion. The nuns themselves, at least, seem to have received the Sacrament daily.

And I cannot help but see in one custom a potent metaphor for the troubled history of the monastery. Marettes writes, “On Holy Saturday, they extinguish the lights throughout the entire house, and during the Office they bring back the newly blessed fire.” The extraordinary and unjust persecution that the nuns endured under the authorities of the French Church and State – to the point of being deprived of communion during Easter, of being denied the last rites, of condemnation to a slow decline even after reconciliation with the Archbishop, and, at the very end, of having their bodies desecrated and even fed to the dogs – must have seemed like a very long Holy Saturday. Yet the blessed fire of the Holy Ghost does not abandon those who faithfully serve God in humble prayer and penitence. Where we find the Cross, Resurrection follows.

It is not for us to resurrect the nuns and solitaires of Port-Royal; historians can only do so much. But by taking the dead on their own terms, we can at least pay them the homage we owe any historical figure, and perhaps especially the defeated, the maligned, the powerless, and the forgotten. Only by doing so can we reckon with our implication in the longstanding myths that efface those voices. It is my hope that the publication of this important translation will help us in that process of revision.

Richard T. Yoder
The Amish Catholic


Port-Royal-des-Champs is an abbey of nuns of the Order of Cîteaux lying between Versailles and the former monastery of Chevreuse.

The church is quite large, and its simplicity and cleanliness inspires respect and devotion. 

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The interior of the church, with the main altar at the right (© RMN-GP / © Gérard Blot).

The main altar is not attached to the wall, since the ample and well-kept sacristy is located behind it. Above the altar hangs the holy pyx, attached to the end of a veiled wooden fixture shaped like a crosier. It is set under a large crucifix above a well-regarded painting of the Last Supper by Philippe de Champaigne.

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The main altar, bare aside from the Crucifix. Above it hangs the Blessed Sacrament inside a veiled pyx (engraving from Dom Antoine Rivet de La Grange’s Nécrologie de Port-Royal-des-Champs, 1723).

There is nothing on the altar but a crucifix. The four wooden candlesticks are set on the ground at its sides.

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There were two relic altars outside the entrance to the nuns’ choir (© RMN-GP / © Gérard Blot).

The woodwork of the sanctuary and parquet floor is very well maintained, as is that of the nuns’ choir. Indeed, the stalls are kept in such good condition that one would think they were carved not twenty years ago, when in fact they are over 150 years old.1

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The nuns’ choir.

The church contains some paintings by Champaigne, and a very well-kept holy water basin to the right of its entry.

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The cloister, where several abbesses and nuns were interred (© RMN-GP / © Gérard Blot).

Inside the cloister, there are several tombs of abbesses and other nuns. From these tombs one can garner

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Engraving of one of the tombs in the cloister, shewing a nun with a maniple (from the Voyages liturgiques).

1. that the first abbesses of the Order of Cîteaux, following the spirit of St Bernard, did not have croziers. Even today, the Abbess of Port-Royal does not use one.

2. that in this monastery the nuns used to be consecrated by the bishop. Two of them are represented on the same tomb wearing a sort of maniple.2 The inscription around the tomb reads:

Here lie two blood-sisters, consecrated nuns of this abbey, Adeline and Nicole aux Pieds d’Estampes. May their souls rest in everlasting peace. Amen. Adeline died in the year of our Lord 1288.3

There is an ancient necrology or obituary in this abbey that includes the ritual for the consecration or blessing of a nun. It describes how on these occasions the bishop celebrated Mass and gave communion to the nun he blessed. To this effect he consecrated a large host which he broke into eight particles, giving one as communion to the nun. He then placed the seven other particles of his host in her right hand, covered by a dominical or small white cloth. During the eight days after her consecration or blessing, she gave herself these particles as communion. Priests also used to give themselves communion during the forty days after their ordination or consecration.4

Under the lamp by the baluster lies a tomb dated 1327, if I remember correctly, which is worthy of description, especially given that its most interesting aspect is misreported in the Gallia Christiana of the brothers de Sainte-Marthe.

It used to be the custom for devout noble ladies to take up the nun’s habit during their last illness, or at least to be clothed in it after their death. See, for example, the tomb of Queen Blanche, mother of King St Louis, at Maubuisson Abbey near Pontoise. Here in Port-Royal we find the tomb of one Dame Marguerite de Levi—wife of Matthew V de Marly of the illustrious House of Montmorency, Grand-Chamberlain of France—buried in a nun’s habit, with this inscription:

Here rested, whose name thou shalt have there hereafter. Marguerite was the wife of Matthew de Marly, and daughter of the noble Guy de Levi. She bore six boys. After her husband died, she went to the nuns. Amongst the claustral sisters she chose to make her home. In her long rest, may she be buried in nun’s clothing. May eternal light shine upon her in peace everlasting. Year 1327.5

By the door of the church, in the vestibule, is the tomb of a priest vested in his vestments. His chasuble is rounded in all corners, not cut or clipped, gathered up over his arms, and hanging down below and behind him in points. His maniple is not wider below than it is on top, and he does not wear his stole crossed over his breast, but straight down like bishops, Carthusians, and the ancient monks of Cluny, who have rejected innovation on this point. His alb has apparels on the bottom matching the vestments: this is what the manuscripts call the alba parata. They are still used in cathedral churches and ancient abbeys.

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The Abbey viewed from the east. Note the domestics’ cemetery next to the entrance to the church (© RMN-GP / © Gérard Blot).

Next to the church door and the clock tower lies the small cemetery of domestics, where two epitaphs are worthy of note.

To God the Best and Greatest.

Here lies Emmanuel le Cerf, who, after dedicating most of his life to the education of the people, deemed the evangelical life superior to evangelical preaching and, in order that he who had lived only for others should die to himself, embraced a penitential life in his old age as eagerly as he did seriously. He embraced the weight of old age, more conducive to suffering than aught else, and various diseases of the body as remedy for his soul and advantageous provision for the journey to eternity. Humbly he awaited death in this port of rest, living no longer as a priest but as a layman, and attained it nearly ninety years old. He died on 8 December 1674, and wished to be buried in this cemetery near the Cross. May he rest in peace.6

And the other:

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Jean Hamon

Here rests Jean Hamon, doctor, who, having spent his youth in the study of letters, was eminently learned in the Greek and Latin tongues. Seeing that he flourished in the University of Paris by the renown of his eloquence, and that his fame grew daily for his skill of medicine, he feared the lure of flattery and fame and the haughtiness of life. Suddenly stirred by the prompting of the Holy Spirit, he quickly poured out the value of his inheritance into the bosom of the poor and, in the thirty-third year of his age, he dragged himself into this solitude, as he had long pondered doing. First he applied himself to the labour of the fields, then to serving the ministers of Christ, and soon returned to his original profession, healing the wounded members of the Redeemer in the person of the poor, among whom he honoured the handmaidens of Christ as the spouses of the Lord. He wore the coarsest garments, fasting nearly every day, slept on a board, spent day and night in nearly perpetual vigils, prayer, and meditation, nocturnal works everywhere breathing the love of God. For thirty-seven years he accumulated the toils of medicine, walking some twelve leagues every day, very often while fasting, to visit the sick in the villages, providing them what they might need, helping them by counsel, by hand, with medicines, with food whereof he deprived himself, living for twenty-two years on eating bran bread and water, which he ate secretly and alone, while standing up. As wisely as he had lived, considering every day his last, thus he departed this life in the Lord, amidst the prayers and tears of his brethren, in deep silence and sweet meditation of the Lord’s mercies, with his eyes, mind, and heart fixed on Jesus Christ, mediator between God and man, rejoicing that he obtained the tranquil death for which he had prayed, that he might gain eternal life, at the age of 69, on 22 February 1687.7

Heeding the spirit of St Bernard, the nuns are subject to the Lord Archbishop of Paris, who is their superior. They also sing the office according to the use of Paris, except that they sing the ferial psalms every day in order to fulfill the Rule of St Benedict which they follow, and which binds them to saying the entire psalter every week. This they do with the approbation of the late M. de Harlay, Archbishop of Paris.

At the blessing and aspersion of holy water on Sundays, the abbess and her nuns come forward to receive it at the grill from the priest’s hand.

After the Credo, the priest descends to the bottom of the altar steps and blesses the bread offered by one of the abbey’s domestics. He then announces any feasts or fasting days during the coming week, and gives a short exhortation or explanation of the day’s Gospel.

At every High Mass of the year, the sacristan or thurifer goes to the nuns’ grill at the end of the Credo to receive, through a hatch in the screen, a box from the sister sacristan containing the exact number of hosts needed for the sisters who are to receive communion. He brings them to the altar and gives them the celebrant.

At High Masses for the Dead, the sacristan goes to the grill to receive the bread, a large host, and the wine in a cruet, and brings them to the altar. He gives the host to the priest on the paten, kissing it on the inside edge, and the cruet of wine to the deacon, who pours the wine into the chalice.

At the Agnus Dei, the nuns embrace and give each other the kiss of peace.

On Sundays and feasts of abstention from servile work there is a general communion; at every Mass said in this church at least one of the nuns receives communion.

Devotion for the Most Blessed Sacrament is so great in this monastery that in addition to engaging in perpetual adoration as part of the Institute of the Blessed Sacrament (it is for this reason that they have exchanged their black scapular for a white one charged with a scarlet cross over the breast, about two fingers in width and a half-foot tall), they also have the custom of prostrating themselves before the Sacrament before going up to receive Holy Communion.8

Nevertheless, the Blessed Sacrament is only exposed during the Octave of Corpus Christi, and this every day after High Mass. For here Mass is never said at an altar where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. We will come back to this point.

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The nuns of Port-Royal processing through the cloister on Corpus Christi. Note the sleeves of the clerics’ surplices are split, long, and trailing, as in Paris and the rest of the ecclesiastical province of Sens (© RMN-GP / © Gérard Blot).

The nuns of this monastery observe an exact and rigorous silence. Except in cases of illness, they never eat meat, and fish only rarely, about twelve or fifteen times a year. They solely drink water, and observe the great fast of Lent in its full rigour, as in the age of St Bernard, eating only at five in the evening after Vespers, which they usually say at 4 p.m., even though they wake up at night to sing Matins and perform manual labour during the day.

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The refectory of Port-Royal (© RMN-GP / © Gérard Blot).

A spiritual conference is held after lunch, during which they continue to work, and during which it is not permitted to speak aloud.

During the summer, the nuns are sometimes allowed to go into the garden after dinner, but many refrain from doing so, and those that go do so separately, taking a book to read or some work to do.

Matins are said here at 2 a.m. together with Lauds, but in winter Lauds are said separately at 6 a.m, and then a Low Mass is celebrated between Lauds and Prime. During the rest of the year, Prime is said at 6 a.m., followed by a Conventual Low Mass. Chapter follows with a reading from the Martyrology, the Necrology, and the Rule, some chapter of which the Abbess explicates once or twice a week. Then they hold the proclamation of faults, and appropriate penances are imposed.

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The nuns of Port-Royal in chapter (© RMN-GP / © Gérard Blot).

Terce is said at 8:30 a.m., followed by High Mass. Sext is at 11 a.m., and on ecclesiastical fast days at 11:45, after which they go to lunch, except in Lent when they do not dine, for in the Rule of St Benedict to lunch means not to fast. None is at 2 p.m. in winter and at 2:30 in summer.

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The nuns of Port-Royal singing the Office (© RMN-GP / © Gérard Blot).

The first bell for Vespers rings at 4 p.m., and the office begins some fifteen minutes later. It finishes at 5 or 5:15, for they sing very unhurriedly and distinctly. After Vespers in Lent, they sound the refectory bell, and the nuns go there to lunch and dine together. One sees nuns following this regime until they are 72 or 75 or even older. Not too long ago there was a priest who, in Lent, only ate in the evening, even though he was 87 years old, and lived till he was 92.

On Holy Saturday, they extinguish the lights throughout the entire house, and during the Office they bring back the newly blessed fire.

The nuns’ habits are coarse, and there is neither gold nor silver in their church vestments.

The Abbey receives girls without a dowry, and makes neither pacts or conventions for the reception of nuns, following the primitive spirit of their monastery, as is clear from the following acts:

Be it known to all men that I, Eudes de Thiverval, esquire, and Thècle my wife gave in pure and perpetual alms, for the salvation of our souls and those of our ancestors, two bushels of corn, that is, one of winter-crop and the other of oats from our tithe-district of Jouy, to the Church of Our Lady of Port-Royal and the nuns serving God therein, to be collected every day on the feast of St Remigius. Be it known that the Abbess and Convent of the said place freely received one of our daughters into their society of nuns. Not wishing to incur the vice of ingratitude, we have given the said two bushels of corn in alms to the said House of our will without any pact. Which, that it may remain ratified and fixed, we have made to be confirmed by the support of our seal. Done in the year of grace 1216.9

Another:

Renaud, by the grace of God bishop of Chartres, to all who would earlier or later inspect the present page, in the Lord greeting. We make it known to all future and present that by these presents that the Abbess and Convent of Nuns of Porrois [i.e. Port-Royal] freely received in charity Asceline, daughter of Hugues de Marchais, esquire, as a sister and nun of God. Thereafter the said esquire, lest he should give away his said daughter to be betrothed to Christ without a dowry from part of his patrimony, standing in our presence did give and grant to the Church of Porrois and the nuns serving God therein in perpetual alms for the portion of his said daughter the return of one annual bushel of corn in his grange of Marchais or Lonville to be collected every year in the Paris measure of Dourdan, and three firkins of wine in his vineyard of Marchais to be collected yearly, and ten shillings in his census-district of Marchais. That his gift may remain ratified and fixed, at the petition of the same Hugues we have made the present letters to be confirmed by our seal in testimony. Done at Chartres in the year of the Incarnation of Our Lord 1217, in the month of April.10

Another:

Be it known to all them that I, Odeline de Sèvre, gave in pure and perpetual alms to the house of Port-Royal for the soul of my late husband Enguerrand of happy memory, and for the salvation of my soul, and of all my children and ancestors, and especially for the salvation and love of my daughter Marguerite who received the religious habit in the same house, four arpents of vine in my clos of Sèvre to be possessed in perpetuity. My sons Gervais the eldest, Roger, and Simon praised, willed, and granted this donation, to whom it belonged by hereditary right. And further we offered the same donation with the book upon the altar of Port-Royal. In testimony and perpetual confirmation whereof, since by said sons Gervais, Roger, and Simon were not yet esquires and did not yet have seals, I the said Odeline confirmed the present charter by the support of my seal with their will and convent. Done on the year of our Lord 1228.11

Notes.

1. Author’s note: [After the Abbey’s suppression] the altar and choir stalls were purchased by the Cistercian nuns of Paris and placed in their church, where one can see them.

2. Translators’ note: As did Carthusian nuns.

3. Hic jacent duae sorores germanae, hujus praesentis Abbatiae Moniales Deo sacratae, Adelina et Nicholaa dictae ad Pedem, de Stampis quondam progenitae: quarum animae in pace perpetua requiescant. Amen. Obiit dicta Adelina anno Domini M. C. C. octog. octavo. 

4. Author’s note: See Fulbert. Epist. 2 ad Finard. Rituale Rotomag. ann. 1651.

5. Hic requievit, ibi post cujus nomen habebis.
Margareta fuit Matthæi Malliancensis
Uxor; & hanc genuit generosus Guido Levensis.
Sex parit ista mares. Vir obit. Petit hæc Moniales.
Intra claustrales elegit esse lares.
In requie multa sit Nonnæ veste sepulta;
Luceat æterna sibi lux in pace suprema.
Anno M. C. bis, LX. bis, V. semel, I. bis.

6. D. O. M. Hic jacet Emmanuel le Cerf, qui cum majorem vitæ partem erudiendis populis consumpsisset, vitam evangelicam evanglicæ prædicationi anteponendam ratus, ut sibi moreretur, qui aliis tantum vixerat, ad pœnitentiam accurrit senex eo festinantius, quo serius; pondusque ipsum senectutis, quo nihil ad patiendum aptius, et varios corporis morbos in remedium animæ conversos, tanquam opportunum æternitatis viaticum amplexus; mortem humilis, nec se jam sacerdotem, sed laicum gerens, in hoc quietis portu expectavit, quæ obtigit fere nonagenario. Obiit 8 Decembris 1674 et in Cœmeterio prope Crucem sepeliri voluit. Requiescat in pace.

7. Hic quiescit Joannes Hamon Medicus, qui adolescentia in studiis litterarum transacta, latine græceque egregie doctus, cum in Academia Parisiensi eloquentiæ laude floreret, et medendi peritia in dies inclaresceret, famae blandientis insidias et superbiam vitæ metuens, Spiritus impetu subito percitus, patrimonii pretio in sinum pauperum festinanter effuso, anno ætatis xxxiij in solitudinem hanc, quam diu jam meditabatur, se proripuit. Ubi primum opere rustico exercitus, tum Christi ministris famulatus, mox professioni pristinæ redditus, membra Redemptoris infirma curans in pauperibus, inter quos ancillas Christi quasi sponsas Domini sui suspexit; veste vilissima, jejuniis prope quotidianis, cubatione in asseribus, pervigiliis, precatione, et meditatione diu noctuque fere perpetua, lucubrationibus amorem Dei undique spirantibus, cumulavit ærumnas medendi quas toleravit per annos xxxvj quotidiano pedestri xij plus minus milliarum itinere, quod sæpissime jejunus conficiebat, villarum obiens ægros, eorumque commodis serviens consilio, manu, medicamentis, alimentis, quibus se defraudabat, pane furfureo et aqua, idque clam et solus, et stando per annos xxij. sustentans vitam, quam ut sapienter duxerat, quasi quotidie moriturus, ita inter fratrum preces et lacrymas in alto silentio, misericordias Domini suavissime recolens; atque in Mediatorem Dei et hominum Jesum Christum, oculis, mente, et corde defixus, exitu ad votum suum tranquillo lætus, ut æternum victurus clausit in Domino, annos natus 69 dies 20 viij Kalend. Mart. anni 1687.

8. Translators’ note: The nuns of Port-Royal began to practice perpetual adoration in 1623 to beg for protection from the Abbot General of the Cistercian order, who opposed Mother Angélique Arnaud’s reform of the abbey. Shortly thereafter, she endeavoured to found an Institute “whose principal end should be honouring the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, and to ensure therefor that there be always someone adoring It day and night” (Mémoires d’Angélique, p. 57). In August 1627, the Most Holy Lord Pope Urban VIII signified his approbation of her designs by promulgating a brief putting Port-Royal under episcopal jurisdiction and setting up the Institute of the Blessed Sacrament.

9. Noverint universi quod ego Odo de Tiverval miles et Thecla uxor mea dedimus in puram et perpetuam eleemosynam, pro remedio animarum nostrarum et antecessorum nostrorum, Ecclesiae beatae Mariae de Portu-Regio et Monialibus ibidem Deo servientibus duos modios bladi, unum scilicet hibernagii, et alterum avenae in decima nostra de Joüy, singulis annis in festo S. Remigii percipiendos. Sciendum vero est quod Abbatissa et ejusdem loci Conventus unam de filiabus nostris in societatem Monialium benigne receperunt. Nos vero ingratudinis vitium incurrere nolentes, praedictos duos modios dictae jam domui de voluntate nostra sine aliquo pacto eleemosynavimus. Quod ut ratum et immobile perseveret, sigilli nostri munimine fecimus roborari. Actum anno gratiae M. CC. xvj.

10. Reginaldus Dei gratia Cartonensis Episcopus, universis primis et posteris praesentem paginam inspecturis salutem in Domino. Notum facimus omnibus tam futuris quam praesentibus quod, quoniam Abbatissa et Conventus Sanctimonialium de Porregio Acelinam filiam Hugonis de Marchesio militis in sororem et sanctimonialiem Dei et caritatis intuitu gratis receperant, postmodum dictus miles in nostra constitutus praesentia, ne dictam filiam suam nuptam Christi parte sui patrominii relinqueret indotatam, Ecclesiae de Porregio et Monialibus ibi Deo servientibus dedit et concessit in perpetuam eleemosynam, pro portione dictae filiae suae unum modium bladi annui redditus in granchia sua de Marchesio vel de Lonvilla singulis annis percipiendum ad mensuram Parisiensem de Dordano, et tres modios vini in vinea sua de Marchesio annuatim percipiendos, et decem solidos in censu suo de Marchesio. Ut autem donum ejus ratum et stabile permaneret, ad petitionem ipsius Hugonis praesentes Litteras in testimonium sigillo nostro fecimus roborari. Actum Carnoti anno Dominicae Incarnationis M. CC. septimo decimo, mense Aprili.

11. Noverint universi quod ego Odelina de Sèvre donavi in puram et perpetuam eleemosynam domui Portus-Regis pro anima bonae memoriae Ingeranni quondam mariti mei, et pro salute animae meae, et omnium liberorum et progenitorum meorum; et maxime pro salute et amore Margaretae filiae meae quae in eadem domo religionis habitum assumpserat, quatuor arpentos vineae in clauso meo de Sèvre jure perpetuo possidendos. Hanc autem donationem laudaverunt, voluerunt et concesserunt filii mei Gervasius primogenitus, Rogerus et Simon, ad quos eadem donatio jure hereditario pertinebat. Immo et ipsi eandem donationem obtulimus cum libro super altare Portus Regis. In cujus rei testimonium et conformationem perpetuam ego praedicta Odelina, quia praedicti filii mei G. R. et Simon necdum milites erant, et necdum sigilla habebant, de voluntate eorum et assensu praesentem Chartam sigilli mei munimine roboravi. Actum anno Domini M. CC. vigesimo octavo.

Ray Repp, Founder of Catholic Folk: A “Modest Proposal”

Crux has reported the death, this Sunday, of former seminarian and American musical revolutionary Ray Repp, and his obituary has appeared in the Saint Louis Post Dispatch.

RAY REPP - David Haas

Ray Repp was the most influential Catholic in Saint Louis’s history and the most influential alumnus of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary: he reshaped the worship of millions of people of the past generation and opened the gates to the folk Mass as the new normal. No one should minimize his importance.

This week, David Haas has paid tribute to Ray Repp as a true pioneer for his style of music. He deserves credit, especially with his Mass for Young Americans, for opening the way for David Haas and Marty Haugen and the St Louis Jesuits and Michael Joncas and the rest.

On the occasion of the passing of Ray Repp, that pioneer of the Catholic “Folk Mass”, we would like to present to our readers a revealing “modest proposal” (sic!) he penned in 1988. In it Repp explicitly states that good Church music is not about glorifying God, but rather about raising people’s consciousness, castigating even black spirituals for being too supernatural and otherworldly, and therefore legitimating social injustice and oppression.

For Repp, supernatural revealed religion is ultimately a sign of alienation and a tool of the powerful, whereas religion and worship ought to be engines of social liberation.

Here we are….all together as we legitimate oppression?

Ray Repp on TIDAL


SPIRITUALITY TODAY

Autumn 1988, Vol.40 No. 3, pp. 262-266.

Ray Repp

Current Trends:
A Modest Proposal to Composers of Liturgical Music

Since 1965, when he introduced guitar into worship with his Mass for Young Americans, Ray Repp has composed and recorded 11 albums of songs, now translated into 28 languages. Recently he helped found K & R Music, Inc., in Trumansburg, NY, where he makes his home.

There is an old story about a married couple who, while on vacation in the countryside of New England, were looking for a local church so that they could attend Sunday services. When they finally arrived at a small country church they found the door being locked by an elderly caretaker. The couple ran to the gentleman and said, “Are we too late? Is the service over?” The man smiled kindly at them and answered, “Yes, the celebration is over. But the service is only beginning.”

Unfortunately, this is just a story. How many people (ordained or not) do you think really have the wisdom of this elderly man in the story? How many people understand the implications of John’s Gospel account of the Last Supper?

What I’ve noticed in recent years is that a growing number of theologians, moral and biblical scholars, as well as religious educators have taken giant and courageous steps in closing the gap of dualism in religion. These people are teaching us that our responsible actions in everyday life are our faith responses. Of course, this is really nothing new, because it is the Gospel of the Lord. Michael Himes in a talk he gave to Renew leaders recently in Baton Rouge spoke clearly that “Social justice and loving one’s neighbor are not just part of the Gospel message — it is the Gospel message.” Loving God and loving one’s neighbor are not two laws — they are one.

But I have also noticed that usually only “professional” Christians have the leisure, or the income, or even the professed interest to attend conferences where these insightful leaders are speaking. The same is also true when it comes to reading books and articles written by these people.

What about the other 99% of the people who make up our family which we call the Church? Where do they get their “update” on current religious thought? Where do they get their insight, encouragement, or religious enthusiasm? Without even addressing the fact that encounter with God can take place as readily in the “marketplace” as in church, let’s assume that for most people the Sunday liturgy is the opportunity for this “update.” If this is true then I believe that the two sources which are most likely to either encourage a change of thought, or to reinforce an existing bias, are the pulpit, and the music.

WORD AND MUSIC

The strengths and weaknesses of the pulpit speak for themselves. The person proclaiming the Word — and the extended “Word” of the homily/sermon — may or may not be one of those “professional Christians” who has the time for, or interest in being updated on matters which affect faith development. But music is far too often underrated as a source of influence, and it is this issue which I would like to address.

In the foreword to the New Episcopal Hymnal, the bishops gave as one of the clear purposes for liturgical music that it be a source for educating the community about current theological and biblical teachings of the church. Whether or not other denominations agree with this purpose, and whether or not the Episcopalian Church herself follows her own recommendations, the fact remains: people take home with them the theology contained in the music they sing in church.

Let’s assume that music can really educate, and that not only the composers but the people choosing the music can affect the faith development of the church. So what kind of theology do we want people to take home? We might begin by asking the questions “Why should people come to church in the first place?”, and Why do people come to church?”.

Most people would probably agree that the answer to the second question is to worship God. People might also add that we go to church to meet God in the Word and the sacraments, to pray for our needs and the needs of the world, and to recognize God as our creator and savior. Many people are quick to point out that they go to church to get away from the cares and problems of the world for a while and spend time in peaceful prayer and thought on more eternal subjects.

All of these reasons sound noble in themselves — but is this in keeping with the Gospel? Is going to church to worship God and get away form it all even remotely contained in the Gospel message? William Sloan Coffin, in his book The Courage to Love, says that greed for personal salvation may be the most obnoxious greed there is. We are called as Christians — as humans — to work for the salvation (liberation) of everyone. This does not mean just our close family and friends, but the poor, the outcast, the “others,” the Samaritans.

MUSIC AND SOCIAL CONTROL

There is an interesting theme which kept recurring in the music of the nineteenth-century American Negro spirituals: the reward for all the abomination endured in this life would come in the next life. Psychologically it was important for black slaves of that time to have hope in something. Their music gave it to them. But it is also true that the white plantation owners encouraged their black slaves to believe in the black religion and sing their spirituals. After all, as long as these people had hope in a time to come they could endure the hardships now. It was just good business to encourage this kind of faith.

But what would have happened if the nineteenth-century Negro spirituals had been filled with concepts like self-esteem, giftedness from God, dignity, equality and justice (to mention just a few of the key principles of the Gospel)? I suspect that if these themes had been part of their music, the Civil War would not have been fought between North and South, but between black and white. And the civil rights movement in this country would have begun long before 1957 when Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

So, why should we go to church in the first place? It is my belief, and the belief of many, that we should go to church together — to hear once again the Word of God, a Word which calls us to bring liberty to those who lack it; to bring love (God’s presence) where there is darkness; to be able to think of others more than of ourselves; and to be willing to risk everything because it is the right thing to do so. We should also go to church to be nourished and encouraged by the sacrament of the Eucharist — and by the greatest sacrament of God’s presence in the world, each other -so that we can go out and do something to make the Gospel vision a reality.

There are many liturgists and liturgical musicians who define “liturgical music” as music with accompanies the action of the liturgy. This makes sense to me, but it also presumes that all the actions of the liturgy make sense. Are we not caught up today more in “acclamation-jargon” than in Gospel vision? To hear some liturgical musicians speak one would think the high point of the liturgy is the responsorial psalm. Yes, it is true that today we speak of the “gathering rite” — a major step forward in my opinion. But what is the official action of this rite? There is almost none. So for those who hold that liturgical music accompanies the action of the liturgy, the music for the “gathering rite” is still what it used to be — an entrance song. But whose entrance?

I suggest that music which accompanies poor or unclear action only adds to the confusion. “Makers of rites” would do well to fashion an action for the “gathering rite” in the spirit of Marty Haugen’s song Gather Us In. People are naturally sacramental perceivers. They know when they are welcome — they know when they are taken seriously and appreciated. They also know when they are being treated as second-class/lay members of the parish family. If we want to keep people feeling subservient we can do so with our liturgical action — but we can also do it with the language of our music (as did the white plantation owners of the nineteenth-century).

MUSICAL SPIRITUALITY

There is great potential for liberation and evangelization (in the best sense of the word) in our musical texts. To deny this potential is not only naive but irresponsible. We can help call each other forth — as God has been doing since the beginning to be the loving, responsible, and just people we are capable of being. If the actions of the liturgy are at times vague, or the sermons sometimes meandering, people can still leave church with melodies and words of encouragement and challenge echoing in their hearts. It is not enough to leave people with pious platitudes and self-serving scripture quotes taken out of context. What does “Praise of the name of the Lord” have to do with the challenge of the Gospel? Does the Lord really like to be praised and entertained and sung to? Doesn’t it make more sense that we sing together with the Lord (always present) about our willingness to live out our baptismal promise?

The definition of “liturgy” that I appreciate most is one given by Thomas Merton many years ago. “Liturgy is an action in which people express who they are, and who they wish to become.” If we are to take Merton’s definition of liturgy seriously, then all liturgical music would have to speak about the people we “wish to become” — the commitments and promises we intend to live out.

My modest proposal for composers of liturgical music is that we first of all recognize how influential our music can be for the faith-development of people. Recognize that we are called to help call others to a life which sees God’s presence everywhere incarnate. God is no longer “up there” (worshup), and our music can bring this message home clearly. In recognizing our influence I propose that we consciously use our gift to write music which is really liturgical – that is, to quote Merton, music “to express who we are and who we wish to become.”

Cuasimodistas: The Catholic Cowboys of Low Sunday in Chile

Low Sunday traditionally marked the close of the fortnight wherein the faithful must fulfill their obligation to receive Holy Communion at least once a year.According to the ancient discipline, believers were obliged to receive this Easter Communion in their parish of residence, and from the hands of their parish priest (or another priest expressly delegated by him), that the sheep might know their shepherd. 

In the 18th century, the Central Valley of Chile was sparsely populated and, apart from the small colonial capital of Santiago, entirely rural. Indian raids, moreover, were not uncommon, rendering the roads dangerous for travelers and pilgrims. As a result, the custom arose that on Low Sunday, the parish priest himself would take the Blessed Sacrament to the sick unable to brave themselves to church that day, accompanied by an escort of huasos, as Chilean cowboys are known. 

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The priest of the parish of St Louis Bertrand in Pudahuel carries the Blessed Sacrament to his parishioners, flanked by cuasimodistas, 1954.

Soon, such a multitude of the faithful took up the practice of accompanying the priest in his round of the parish each year that these trips became true Eucharistic processions, celebrated with all due pomp. Today, it is one of the biggest religious festivals of the year in central Chile, with about 100,000 taking an active part. It has come to be known as the fiesta de Cuasimodo, from the Introit of the day’s Mass, Quasi modo geniti infantes, from the first epistle of St Peter, “As newborn babes desire the rational milk without guile.”

To bring the rational milk that is the blessed Sacrament to all those who desire it, the cuasimodistas gather early in the morning at their parish church. Out of respect for the Sacrament, they exchange their usual cowboys’ hats for a kerchief, and their ponchos for a shoulder cape, probably designed in imitation of the humeral veil worn by the priest. This kerchief and cape form the special uniform for the day, and they are especially made by the womenfolk. After Mass, they set out to visit the bed-ridden of the parish, whose names have been duly taken down beforehand. 

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Cuasimodistas in Renca.

The priest rides in a ceremonial carriage sumptuously decorated with flowers, and the homes of the sick are also bedecked with ornaments to honour the divine guest who is to visit them. The clangor of bells, songs, and cries of ¡Viva Cristo Rey! herald His approach, and all kneel in adoration as the priest enters the house. The sick then receive Holy Communion; many of the moribund expend their last efforts to see this holy day, that they might receive their Lord one last time before drawing their final breath. 

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A carriage prepared to carry the priest bearing the Blessed Sacrament on Quasi modo Sunday.

Despite the dramatic fall in church attendance in Chile in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, and the extension of the time to fulfill the Easter Communion to encompass all of Eastertide, the feast of Quasi modo continues to draw large crowds to this day of people who otherwise rarely attend Mass. Local authorities lend their support as well, and the Sacrament receives the adoration of local police and firefighters who line the way of procession. A large luncheon interrupts the procession after midday; thereafter it often continues late into the evening, as the priest ensures he visits the homes of all who need him. 

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Procession in Colina.

Unhappily, on account of the pestilence, the Archdiocese of Santiago has cancelled the procession this year for the first time since its inception. 

A short documentary in Spanish on the feast of Quasi modo is available on YouTube, with automatically-generated English subtitles:

Notes

1 Cf. the bull Fide digna, promulgated by the Most Holy Lord Eugene PP. IV on 18 July 1440. Through the new Code of Canon Law, the Lord John Paul PP. II extended to the universal Church the permission to fulfill the Easter obligation as late as Whitsunday.

Holy Week Recitation Tones from Monte Cassino

The art of cantillation—the chanting of liturgical texts—, which is the root of all liturgical chant, has been largely lost in the West. Even a cursory comparison of modern Latin practice with the chanting traditions still cultivated by Eastern Christians, Jews, and Muslims would suffice to make manifest how impoverished the Latin Church is in this respect.

But this contrast is a recent phenomenon, and a closer study of the Western musical heritage reveals that cantillation was once cultivated among Latin Christians with great devotion and skill. Unfortunately, the compilers of the Solesmes books chose to preserve only a modicum of the ancient recitation melodies once heard in our churches, a fact that continues to obscure the riches of the Western musical tradition.

Here we would like to present some of the recitation tones once sung during the Holy Triduum in the monasteries of the Cassinese Congregation, as collected in a booklet entitled Cantus monastici formula, published in 1889.

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The Lamentations of Jeremiah, which form the readings of the first nocturn of Matins during the Triduum, have always been sung to a special tone of lamentation distinct from the usual prophecy tone. The Cassinese version is similar to the tune provided by the Solesmes edition:

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The Solesmes book assign the usual prophecy tone for the lesson from St Augustine read in the second nocturn, but the Cassinese tradition has preserved a proper melody:

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The Passion tones provided in the Cantus monastici formula are generally simpler than those in Vatican Edition, but the most poignant passages are graced with special melismatic melodies:

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The Lenten Veil, by Henri de Villiers

 

The Lenten Veil—Velum quadragesimale

By Henri de Villiers

We are grateful to the author for his permission to translate and publish his article Le voile de Carême – Velum quadragesimale.” 

Lent is a time of fasting. In former times, in order to prepare themselves to live the great mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ, Christians not only fasted from food but also practiced an auditory and visual fast.

Auditory privation took the form of suppressing of the use of the organ and musical instruments, but also in many diocesan uses, suppressing the ringing of bells.

Visual privation with the veils that were placed over the Cross and the statues or even the prohibition of placing flowers upon the altar. Visual privation also included closing off the sanctuary with a great veil, the velum quadrigesimale.

And so in Paris, until around the year 1870, such a veil was hung from the first Sunday of Lent until Spy Wednesday. This great veil, made of violet or ash-coloured linen, completely closed off the sanctuary and masked the view of the High Altar. It was dropped on the pavement of the sanctuary during the course of Spy Wednesday Mass during the chanting of the Passion according to St. Luke, precisely when the chronista reached the chanting of this verse: “et obscuratus est sol: et velum templi scissum est medium.” (Luke 23:45).

This dramatic visual action gave life to the words of the Gospel of the Passion that the faithful heard and reinforced its meaning in their hearts.

This great veil—called the velum quadrigesimale or velum templi—was not, however, particular to Paris, since it is found in all the lands of the ancient Carolingian world. Its usage is attested by many councils and medieval statutes and actually goes all the way back to Christian antiquity. Growing more and more ornate toward the end of the Middle Ages, especially in Germany, the Lenten veil, which had survived the Lutheran reform, is currently witnessing a renewed interest.

1. The Lenten Veil in the Ancient Use of Paris

Below are several paragraphs concerning the decoration of churches during Lent, taken from the Caeremoniale Parisiense published in 1662 by Cardinal de Retz, and edited by Martin Sonnet, priest and beneficiary of the Church of Paris, a reference work for understanding the old Parisian rite. This passage describes the set-up of the decoration of churches proper to the time Lent, carried out before First Vespers of the First Sunday of Lent. Regarding the great Lenten veil, the parisian Ceremonial stipulates not only when it must be placed in the sanctuary, but also at what precise moments it must be opened or closed.

*****

From the Sundays and ferias of Lent until Palm Sunday.

And when Jesus had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards he was hungry (Matthew 4:2).

1. The first Sunday of Lent is a semi-double of the first class. Semi-double with respect to the office; first class, with respect to its privilege.

2. The Saturday before Vespers, the Master of Ceremonies ensures that the churchwarden or the sacristan and his assistants entirely cover up all crosses, reliquaries or relics of the saints, and images of the church, even the Processional Cross, in a dignified manner with a violet or ash-coloured veils made from camlet or damask silk, or from a silky fabric. He likewise ensures that the high altar and the other altars of the church be covered with frontals of the same colour.

3. And before the high altar, between the choir and the sanctuary, from one side to the other, a great oblong and wide veil is hung, or a large curtain made of violet or ash-coloured camlet, which can be drawn back or folded or let down when needful, or even spread out or closed or drawn, until Wednesday of Holy Week.

4. Now, this great veil is spread out for all ferial hours only, and for the entire day and night, and it is never spread out during mass, nor during the Sunday office from First Vespers until Second Vespers and for the entire day and night, nor indeed on the offices of double and semi-double feasts, nor by day nor by night.

5. Additionally, all draperies and all the carpets of the steps or the predella of the high altar and the other altars, are taken down throughout the Church: in sum, until Easter, the entire church is without ornament.

*****

Observe how the same Ceremonial describes the lifting of the great Lenten veil a little later, when it speaks about Spy Wednesday:

*****

11. The deacon sings the Passion according to St Luke, which the celebrant meanwhile reads on the Gospel side, as is noted in the preceding Tuesday. Now, after he arrives at the eagle which is in the middle of the choir, the Master of Ceremonies extends the great veil between the sanctuary and the altar, in the usual manner. It is elevated in each part of the choir, and held by two clerics, until these words of the Passion: “And the veil of the temple was rent in the midst”. And when the deacon pronounced those words, at the command of the Master of Ceremonies, the two aforementioned clerics immediately let go, so the veil may suddenly fall entirely on the floor of the choir, and it is afterwards taken away by the sacristan.

******

It is very interesting to note that the great Lenten veil remains opened all Sunday, from First Vespers to Second: the Day of the Lord, Dies Domini, has always been the feast of the Resurrection, even in Lent. Fasting is forbidden on this day.

The Cæremoniale Parisiense of Cardinal de Noailles, published in 1703, moreover, quite reasonably postpones the installation of the veil until after Compline of the First Sunday of Lent and before the Night Office of Monday: since the veil remained open on all Sundays, its installation before First Vespers of the First Sunday of Lent—however it perfectly logically fit with the entry into Lent—was not absolutely necessary. According to this Ceremonial, the other veils on the images and crosses are nevertheless always installed before First Vespers of the First Sunday of Lent. As we shall see, the practice of placing the Lenten veil after Compline of the First Sunday is already found in most medieval monastic customaries from the 10th century, and perhaps this is a souvenir from ancient times—before St. Gregory the Great!—when the fast did not commence until Monday.

2. The Lenten Veil in the Rest of Europe

Before the Renaissance and the printing of the first diocesan ceremonials, it is not always easy to discover the development of various liturgical rites in exact detail: the rubrics in the old Medieval Missals are fragmentary or even non-existent. We may still glean several useful details in the acts of provincial councils, and especially in the Customaries of the Abbeys, which regulated the details of conventual life in each of the great monastic centers with great precision.

And so we find the great Lenten veil mentioned by a series of medieval Anglo-Norman councils as being part of the supplies that every church was obliged to possess: these are the councils of Exeter (1217), Canterbury (1220), Winchester (1240), Evreux (1240), and Oxford (1287).

Prior to these councils, a number of customaries, constitutions, and statutes of medieval abbeys witness to the custom of closing off the sanctuary with a veil during Lent.

The most ancient mention is found in the Consuetudines Farfenses, the Constitutions of the Abbey of Farfa, near Rome, produced around the year 1010 (ch. XLII), which notes for the evening of the First Sunday of Lent:

Nam denique secraetarius cortinam exacta vespera in fune ordinet et completorio consummato in circulos extendant.

And finally, after Vespers have finished, the sacristan shall set up a curtain over a cord and, at the end of Compline, they shall spread it out.

St. Lanfranc († 1089), abbot of Saint-Étienne in Caen and then archbishop of Canterbury in 1070, speaks in his statutes about the Lenten veil, which must be installed after Compline of the First Sunday of Lent, and about other veils for the crosses and images, which are placed the next day before Terce:

Dominica prima Quadragesimae post Completorium suspendatur cortina inter Chorum et altare. Feria secunda ante Tertiam debent esse coopertae Crux, Coronae, Capsae, textus qui imagines deforis habent.

On the First Sunday of Lent, after Compline, let a curtain be hung up between the choir and the altar. On Monday before Terce, the Cross, crowns, reliquaries, and the fabrics which have images [painted] on them must be covered up (Statutes ch. 1, § 3).

Here are several more references, which admittedly show some variation in detail amongst the medieval monastic uses, but which allow us to appreciate the wide extent of the use of the Lenten veil:

  • Post Completorium appenditur velum inter altare et chorum quod nullus praeter Sanctuarii Custodes, atque Ministros, absque rationabili causa audet transire.After Compline, a veil is hung between the altar and the choir, which no one besides the custodians of the sanctuary and the ministers [of the mass] should dare to cross without reasonable cause. (Liber Consuetudinum S. Benigni Divionensis, Customary of St-Bénigne in Dijon)
  • Dominica post completam debet Secretarius tendere cortinam inter chorum et altare et Crucifixum cooperire.On Sunday after Compline the Sacristan must stretch out a curtain between the choir and the altar and cover the Crucifix. (Liber Usuum Beccesnsium, Book of the Usages of Bec-Hellouin)
  • Hac die post Completorium cruces cooperiantur, et cortina ante Presbyterium tendatur, quae ita omnibus diebus privatis per XL usque ad quartam feriam ante Pascha post Completorium remanebit. (…) In Sabbatis vero et in vigiliis SS. duodecim Lectionum ante Vesperas a conspectu Presbyterii est cortina retrahenda, et in crastino post Completorium est remittenda. Similiter retrahentur ad Missam pro praesenti defuncto, et ad exequias: Non intres in iudicium, donec septem psalmi finiantur post sepulturam. S et ad benedictionem novitii. (…) Ad missam vero privatis diebus, ut Sacerdos libere ab Abbate, si assuerit, ad Evangelium legendum benedictionem petat, Subdiaconus cornu cortinae in parte Abbatis modice retrahat, et data benedictione, ut prius erat, remittat. Diaconus vero accedat ad cortinam, ubi sublevata est, quaerens benedictionem.On this day, after Compline, let the crosses be covered up, and a curtain be extended before the sanctuary, which must remain so on all ferial days throughout Lent until after Compline of the Wednesday before Easter. […] On Saturdays, however, and the vigils of saints of twelve lessons, the curtain must be drawn back before Vespers that the sanctuary might be visible, and it is put back the next day after Compline. It is likewise to be drawn back on a funeral mass where the body is present, and on obsequies from Non intres in judicium until the seven penitential psalms finish after the burial, and on the blessing of a novice. […] But on weekday masses, in order that the priest, if he wishes, can freely ask the blessing of the abbot for reading the Gospel, let the Subdeacon slightly draw back the end of the curtain at the abbot’s side, and after the blessing has been given, let him put it back as it was before. But let the deacon walk up to the curtain, at the point where it is lifted up, to ask for the blessing. (Liber Usuum Cisterciensium, Book of the Usages of Cîteaux, ch. 15: De Dominica prima XL).
  • Hac die post IX ante Sanctuarium cortina a Sacrista tendatur, et cruces in ecclesia cooperiantur. (…) In festis vero SS. XII. Lectionum, et Dominicis, die praecedente ad Vesperas a conspectu Sanctuarii cortina abstrahenda est, et in die festi post Completorium rehrahenda: similiter singulis diebus ante elvationem Domin Corporis abstrahantur, et ea facta retrahetur.On this day after None, let a curtain be spread out before the sanctuary by the sacristan, and let the crosses in the church be covered up, […] But on saints feasts of twelve lessons, and on Sundays, at Vespers on the preceding day the curtain is to be opened up that the sanctuary might be visible, and after Compline on the feast it is to be put back. Similarly, on each day let it be opened up before the elevation of the Body of the Lord, and closed again thereafter. (Tullense S. Apri Ordinarium, Ordinary of St-Evre-lès-Toul)
  • Vesperae autem diei praecedentis diem cinerum, cruces, et imagines cooperiantur, et cortina ante Presbyterium tendatur, quae ita omnibus diebus privatis usque ad quartam feriam hebdomadae palmarum dum canitur: Et velum Templi scissum est, remanebit. (…) Et omnibus etiam privatis diebus ad elevationem Dominici Corporis et Sanguinis Missae conventualis, quae cantantur in summo altari.Now, at Vespers of the day preceding the Day of Ashes, let the crosses and images be covered up, and a curtain be stretched out before the sanctuary, which shall remain thus on all ferial days until Wednesday of the Week of Palms, when Et velum templi scissum est is sung. […] but not on ferial days at the elevation of the Body and Blood of the Lord during conventual Mass, which is sung at the high altar. (Caeremoniae Bursfeldenses, Ceremonial of the German Benedictine Congregation of Bursfelde, ch. 31, 1474-1475)

3. The German Fastentuch

The Lenten veil has remained in use here and there in Sicily and in Spain, but it is especially in Germany and Austria that it has been preserved to our day. The fact that the Lenten veils (or Fastentuch in German) had there become genuine works of art by their decoration surely has something to do with their preservation, and the continuance of their use.

The Lenten veil of Paris would usually have been a rather ordinary woolen sheet (made of ‘camlet’ to employ the technical term used by Martin Sonnet in the Ceremonial of 1662), and must have remained without any special decoration for a long time, as it was in its primitive state. None of these have been conserved and we have not been able to find any ancient iconographic representations.

On the other hand, it is at the end of the 13th century that we observe, in Flanders and Germany, that Lenten veils became ornamented, first with embroidery and then with painting, becoming more and more rich and sumptuous.

Especially in southern Germany and Austria one sees that Lenten veils became very richly painted canvases representing scenes of the Passion, often true masterpieces of their time.

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Lenten Veil of the Cathedral of Fribourg (1612)

In Germany, the cathedral of Our Lady of Fribourg preserves the largest Lenten veil known in Europe. Dating to 1612, it measures more than 10 by 12 metres and weighs almost one ton. The central scene of the crucifixion is surrounded by 25 squares containing various episodes of the Passion.

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Lenten Veil of the Abbey of Millstatt in Austria (1593)

The Lenten veil of the Abbey of Millstatt, in Carinthia (Austria) originating in 1593 had fallen into disuse. Restored, it has been reinstalled and used once more every Lent since 1984.

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Lenten Veil of the Cathedral of Gurk in Austria (1458)

These Lenten veils were a veritable instrument of catechesis through image, educating the people on the history of salvation.

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The Lenten Veil of the Cathedral of Gurk in Austria, composed of 99 (tableaux) from Scripture (1458)

In Northern Germany, the Lenten veil remained of a much more simple design: made of white linen decorated with embroidery, consisting usually of references from Scripture or the liturgy. These features are found also in the ancient Lenten veils of Flanders that are conserved in the museums of Belgium, the more ancient belonging to the 14th century. The Museum of the cathedral of Brandenburg near Berlin possesses one dating from the year 1290.

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Martin Luther, who detested the idea of Lent and of penance, tried to make the Fastentuch disappear in all of Germany. Little by little they fell into disuse, and from the end of the 19th century the use had practically disappeared. Curiously, this ancient tradition reappeared vigorously beginning in 1974, when the charitable association Misereor had the idea of producing a Fastentuch to give concrete expression to Christians’ Lenten efforts. This initiative has a certain impact all over Germany, leading to the rediscovery of this tradition, the restoration of numerous historic veils that slept in the vaults of cathedrals or museums, and their suspension in sanctuaries once more. There was so much interest that even the Lutherans were moved to put them up! Currently, it is estimated that one third of German Catholic churches as well as many hundreds of Lutheran parishes hang up a veil during Lent. From Germany the practice is expanding currently into Switzerland, Belgium, Ireland and even France.

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4. A Tradition with Roots in Christian Antiquity

The practice of veiling images, crosses, and relics during Lent is certainly ancient in the West. Thus, we see in the life of St. Eligius, written by St. Audoin († 686), that the precious casket of the saint was covered by a veil during the entire duration of Lent. But this is not exactly the purpose of this article.

The practice of hanging a veil before the sanctuary of churches hearkens to the most ancient period.

The Old Testament, a type of the New, speaks of a veil that covered the Holy of Holies, first in the itinerant Tabernacle of the desert, then in the Temple of Jerusalem (according to St. Paul, the veil that was rent at the death of Christ was the second veil, and a first veil closed off the Holy Place. Cf. Hebrews 9:3).

The first Christian churches used the sanctuary veil as much in the West as in the East.

The ancient altar was usually covered by a ciborium or baldacchino, between whose columns veils were hung.

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Besides these veils over the ciborium, the sanctuary itself was separated from the choir and the nave by a cloister called the chancel or templon, a barrier that might include columns, between which veils were hung. Twelve columns closed off the sanctuary of the basilica of the Anastasis (today the Holy Sepulchre) constructed by Constantine at the beginning of the 4th century. These columns served to support curtains, as various patristic texts tell us. The curtain of the sanctuary of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, donated by the munificence of the emperor Justinian, was made of cloth of gold and silver of an estimated cost of 2,000 minae.

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This double rung of veils, the veil of the templum and the veil of the ciborium, constituted the limits of the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies in the temples of the new covenant.

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The curtains were kept closed or open depending on the moments of the liturgical action. Their opening always signified the full transmission of grace and symbolized the opening of the heavens.

“When,” said St John Chrysostom, “the heavenly host is upon the altar, when Jesus Christ, the royal lamb, is immolated, when you hear these words: ‘Let us all pray to the Lord together’, when you see that the veils and curtains of the altar are pulled back, consider that you contemplate the heavens that are opened up and the angels that come down to earth.”

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The West was not to be outdone: one finds in the Liber Pontificalis several references to popes (e.g. Sergius I, Gregory III, Zachary, Hadrian I) who donated veils to ornament the arcades of the ciboria and the sanctuaries of Roman churches.

Many ancient Eastern and Western liturgies contain a prayer—the prayer of the veil—that the celebrant says when, during the offertory, he leaves the choir and enters the sanctuary, going beyond the veil that closed it off.

The prayer of the veil in the Liturgy of St James, which represents the ancient use of the Church of Jerusalem, is justly renowned:

“We thank Thee, O Lord our God, that Thou hast given us boldness for the entrance of Thy holy places, which Thou hast renewed to us as a new and living way through the veil of the flesh of Thy Christ. We therefore, being counted worthy to enter into the place of the tabernacle of Thy glory, and to be within the veil, and to behold the Holy of Holies, cast ourselves down before Thy goodness: Lord, have mercy on us: since we are full of fear and trembling, when about to stand at Thy holy altar, and to offer this dread and bloodless sacrifice for our own sins and for the errors of the people: send forth, O God, Thy good grace, and sanctify our souls, and bodies, and spirits; and turn our thoughts to holiness, that with a pure conscience we may bring to Thee a peace-offering, the sacrifice of praise:

(Aloud.) By the mercy and loving-kindness of Thy only-begotten Son, with whom Thou art blessed, together with Thy all-holy, and good, and quickening Spirit, now and always:

R/. Amen.”

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The Assyro-Chaldean, Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian Churches have kept the use of a curtain that closes off the sanctuary. In the Armenian Church, a church is considered to be in disuse if its sanctuary is bereft of a curtain. In the Byzantine church, the columns that once propped up the curtain grew coated with icons in the course of the ages and became the iconostasis: the curtain is still present, although its extension is most often limited to the breadth of the sanctuary doors.

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Even if a curtain closes off the sanctuary yearlong in the East, there are nevertheless special customs during Lent. Thus, in the Armenian Church, the usual curtain is replaced during Lent by a black curtain. This black curtain always remains closed during mass and the Lenten offices, symbolizing the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. It is not opened until Palm Sunday.

The Russians likewise change their usual brightly coloured curtain for a sombre-coloured one during the weekdays of Great Lent. All the other veils and coverings of the church are similarly changed. Brightly coloured curtains return on Holy Saturday during the Paschal Vigil, right before the singing of the Gospel of the Resurrection, while the choir sings “Rise up, O Lord, and judge the earth.”

Conclusion

Is it foreseeable that this custom will be restored in France, like it has in Germany?

Juridically, there is nothing blocking it, since the Congregation of Rites has affirmed that the use of the great veil of Lent closing off the sanctuary is indeed permissible (decr. auth. 3448, 11 May 1878).

Nevertheless, we still have something of the “visual Lent” of our forefathers since we have kept the Roman usage of veiling the crosses and statues before First Vespers of Passion Sunday (fifteen days before Easter). Even if this article is not directly about that beautiful custom, it might perhaps help us to better understand the origins of that use and to grasp its historical and symbolic depths.

*For more on veils, also posts at NLM here and here.