Monday, July 25, 2016

The Cycle of the Martyrology and the Cycle of Nature

Over the last few months, I've begun praying from the Divine Office (in the form promulgated in 1911 by St. Pius X), trying to pray a few hours each day. There are many things to recommend this practice, but one little joy is the praying of the Martyrology at the hour of Prime. (I know one can pray the Martyrology in the context of the new Liturgy of the Hours, but it was wonderful to find it directly incorporated into the liturgy in the Office; I appreciate being made to do good things.) After the hymn, psalms, Scripture passage, responsory, and some prayers, one reads the Martyrology for the next day, thereby getting ready for those saints that one will honor on the morrow.

The Martyrology lists all of the saints honored by the Church for a given day--not only those on the universal calendar whose feasts are celebrated at Mass, but all of them, which is quite a few! To pray the Martyrology is to feel oneself surrounded by that "great cloud of witnesses", and to honor with the Church far more saints that one does purely through personal devotion or hearing Mass. Indeed, it is explicitly an open-ended number (open hopefully to our eventual inscription), for the reading always ends with "and elsewhere many other holy martyrs, confessors, and holy virgins." We do not know who all the holy ones have been, but we shall honor them all nonetheless!

It is also to experience Catholicism as a rooted religion--that is, rooted in particular times and places, for these too, inasmuch as they are places or times of the saints' lives, great acts, or deaths, are also mentioned in the Martyrology. Catholicism is not a purely philosophical or universal or cosmic religion, but has grown out of concrete acts by real people in particular places. To pray the Martyrology is to be inscribed into this sacred geography and history; it is to feel the world as mapped out as theologian Paul Griffiths has described it, not as a neutral coordinate grid, but as containing loci of sanctity and profanity, of great nobility and horrific desecration. The prayer of the Martyrology is a reorienting of one's sense of space and time.

This happens too through the reading of the date at the beginning of the Martyrology. Here one reads the year in the familiar anno Domini reckoning, but one reads the day in the Roman style--not "July 26" but "the Seventh of the Kalends of August", where one considers the day always counting down to the next Kalends, Nones, or Ides of a month. This is to reorient one again both to a particular way of counting time, rooted in the tradition of a certain city and its empire, and also a universal way of counting time, inasmuch as that city has been ordained by divine providence, made manifest through the particularities of history, to be the See of Christ's representative on earth. It is a small way of coming to see Catholicism's unique take on universality: what is most universal, most all-encompassing, is not the universality of the concept, nor the universality of the general cause, but the universality of a particular, incarnate history of events whereby the particularities of the Trinity and the divine operations are made manifest and bring about their most proper effects. (The universality of the highest cause is best seen in its particular effects in our lives and in human history, or as the Church prayed on this last Sunday: "O God, Who dost manifest Thine omnipotence maximally in sparing and showing mercy..."

Finally, in giving the date, one also expresses it according to the day within the lunar month. The Church by Her liturgy sanctifies all things, even nature and her cycles. We see this also in the many psalms prayed in the Office that enumerate the ways in which the things of nature praise God. But to sanctify is also to draw into the lives of persons, to elevate nature above the level of mere matter so that it participates in the glorious freedom of the children of God. So we do not speak of nature cast off and considered in its pure physicality--no, we speak of the lunar calendar, that is, the moon as it is seen from a particular point of view, from this planet Earth, where God has chosen to make His abode amid the vast spaces. What we shall pray when we have left this planet and no longer have this calendar inscribed in our heavens, I cannot say; I have at times longed for space travel, but whether this is a good thing ("fill all the [cosmos] and subdue it") or whether (like my sometime trans-humanist desires to live in the body forever, which I now abhor) it is a longing to escape rootedness and particularity, I cannot say. But for now, the cycles of nature, drawn into the liturgy is another way of surrounding ourselves with the great cloud of witnesses, for the saints in their myriads bear witness to the restoration of all things in Christ, and so does nature, especially when liturgically sanctified.

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