On Prayer Books
Homenaje a Claudio Ptolomeo
Soy hombre: duro poco
y es enorme la noche.
Pero miro hacia arriba:
las estrellas escriben.
Sin entender comprendo:
también soy escritura
y en este mismo instante
alguien me deletrea.
Homage to Claudius Ptolemy
I am a man, I last very shortly,
And the night is enormous.
But I look up:
The stars are writing.
Without understanding I grasp it:
I too am written
And in this same instant
Someone spells me out.
I don’t tend to use prayer books anymore. The one I do use is the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. With all of my time praying the Psalter, the Little Office is the most viably recited and least changed of all of the options a good apostolic Christian has out there. The Roman offices, from the time of St. Pius X to the modern Liturgy of Hours, have too many innovations and changing parts. And the Byzantine offices are much too loooooooooooong to recite. And it can’t hurt to pray more to the Virgin, so why not just recite parts of her office everyday? Seems like a good plan.
I can go back, however, to my rather halcyon days as a young teenager fresh with the zeal of traditional Catholic piety. Then I was really into prayer books. Thank God for the old ladies in my liberal parish who put novenas and various other books in the back of the church so that impressionable youngsters like me could snag them and start praying them. The first one that really entranced me is the one pictured above: the famous (or infamous, depends on who you ask) Pieta prayer book, with over a jillion copies sold and distributed.
Growing up in the first wave of postmodern education, the refreshingly colorful prayers of this book hit me like a bucket of cold water. It was like a game of two steps forward and three glorious steps back in terms of my consciousness. So much entranced me about these prayers; so much enticed the imagination that had been persecuted from an early age by so much rationalism. What can one say to this prayer, the Hail Mary of Gold:
Hail Mary, White Lily of the Glorious and always-serene Trinity.
Hail brilliant Rose of the Garden of heavenly delights: O you, by whom God wanted to be born and by whose milk the King of Heaven wanted to be nourished! Nourish our souls with effusions of divine grace. Amen!
At the hour when the soul which has thus greeted me quits the body I will appear to them in such splendid beauty that they'll taste, to their great consolation, something of the joys of Paradise.
Yes, my first real exposure to poetry was through prayer, just as had been the case with my own mother. There was so much in this prayer book that merely nurtured that which was already in my heart: the world of religious pictures that changed when you looked at them from another angle, the world of holy water, scapulars, and visits to the cemetery. (As I told AG, the saddest thing in the world is a cemetery that is not Catholic. What a depressing sight!)
If I could go back in time to six months ago and make myself read what I am writing here, perhaps I would accuse myself of praising “Devotio Moderna”: an individualistic and pietistic approach to God and the Church. There may be something to the accusation, but it also assumes that there is one specific way that is better than the others to approach Christ. (In the end, is this not the approach of Protestantism, many shades of Roman Catholicism, and the new school of Eastern Orthodoxy affiliated with the more chique theologians?) I suppose by now you are all tired of me saying it, but I will say it again: I am not sure such an approach exists. So what do we do then? Go back to what you know. And what I know is the Catholicism of the Pieta prayer book. It has taken me almost fifteen years, but that is how it goes.
I am also beginning to realize something very strange as well. As I get on in life, I notice how ingrained all of these prayers have become, how much they have formed me just as a human being. There is something quite comforting and visceral about a prayer such as this one that I can never get over:
Night is falling dear Mother, the long day is o'er!
And before thy loved image I am kneeling once more
To thank thee for keeping me safe through the day
To ask thee this night to keep evil away….
And perhaps in this case, at least partially for this sinful soul, I am not praying the prayer. The prayer, rather, is praying me….