Letters from the week of 19 - 25 February 2017
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Always be cautioned: no horses
In appreciation of The Great Litany you wrote: "In their steady cadence, the words washed over us this morning with a clarity we haven't known before." You properly commend the beauty of Cranmer’s stately English—which holds up very well even under modernization.
But when he composed it, Cranmer actually repudiated the historical essence of a litany which was its relentless 'petition-response, petition-response' originally like beats of a drum—with a very brief petition and a very brief response, like this:
Sancte Petre, Ora pro nobis.
Sancte Paule, Ora pro nobis.
Sancte Andrea, Ora pro nobis.
Sancte Iacobe, Ora pro nobis..
When chanted in the traditional litany the petitions and responses almost overlap (called 'shingling' in plainchant) and sound like a series of drumbeats. It had an almost hypnotic or mesmerizing effect:
Cranmer, being a literateur, could hardly be satisfied with “da-da-da—bom-bom-bom” so he very beautifully grouped quite a few petitions over each response, providing a splendid literary and spiritual experience….but not a true litany in the traditional sense. The Great Litany is not only a fine collection of prayers, but a celebration of language at almost the peak of Cranmerian elegance, but it doesn’t mesmerize.
But when there is talk of The Great Litany, I am always reminded of John Aubrey’s description of the awkward state of the Dean of Herford:
"…Dr. Price the Anniversarist, was made Deane of Hereford. Dr. Watts, Canon of that church, told me, 1656, that this Deane was a mighty Pontificall proud man, and that one time when they went in Procession about the Cathedral church, he would not doe it the usually way in his surplice, hood, etc., on foot, but rode on a mare thus habited, with the Common-Prayer booke in his hand, reading. A stone horse [i.e., ungelded stallion] happened to break loose, and smelt the mare, and ran and leapt her, and held the Reverend Deane all the time so hard in his Embraces, that he could not gett off till the horse had done his bussinesse. But he would never ride in procession afterwards."
Always be cautioned: no horses in the litany procession!
Fr. John-Julin, OJN
Hartland, Wisconsin, USA
19 February 2018
Good wishes from Canada
Thank you for highlighting the powerful prose of Cranmer's Litany. As a Canadian who has always been aware of our close connection with our Brothers and Sisters to the south it is with great concern that I read of the terror that America has had at the end of the barrel of a gun. As a mental-health practitioner I am saddened that mental health and violent events are constantly being paired together.
Since "normal" is a myth and we all deal with various emotional highs and lows, it is sad to laden those who struggle with mental illness with yet another stigma. Canada has had its tragic shoots such as Tabor, Alberta which followed very soon after Columbine. I am reminded as I am mindful of all that is askew in this world of the words from M. Babcocks 1901 Hymn:
"This is God's Wondrous Word; This is God’s world: Oh, let me ne'er forget. That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet."
There is much to be thankful for. Scientists marvel at the great mystery of creation and how unfathomable it is. Human hearts around the globe are being inspired to work for peace. The Ashes that began Lent contain one of the most common elements in the Universe, Carbon. From Carbon we come and to Carbon we will erode. Lent is about sameness, it is about anticipation, it is about God recreating Carbon creatures into the likeness of Christ. While we lament all that is wrong with us as a human species, guns, racism, wars,economic disparity - Lent also reminds us that into such solemnity - the spark of creation is in motion.
Rev Donald Shields
St Thomas - Brooklin
Whitby, Ontario, Canada
20 February 2018
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