Jul 20, 2006

Praying In Latin

My first real contact with the Latin language coincided with the death of my grandfather in 2003. My grandmother gave me a veritable library of books which included several on the liturgy most of which have been quoted on this site. A little over a year later I attended the first Classical Roman Rite Mass in my diocese that had been offered in communion with the Bishop in 35 years. Between the time of my grandfathers death and my first experience of the Classical Rite I had learned to pray the Rosary in Latin. I learned from a variety of sources beginning with the Our Father which I learned to chant from Pope John Paul II's album Abba Pater. This was also my first experience of Gregorian Chant. I will have to admit to mispronouncing several words of the Our Father and Hail Mary for some months before finding audio files to practice with. Even then I found that some pronounced words differently than I had heard them. Eventually I was instructed in Latin by a parishoner of the Mater Misericordiae Latin Mass community. Over time I acquired a Lewis and Short Latin Dictionary, a Wheelock's Latin course book, and several other teach-yourself courses. Attending the Latin Mass and listening to Gregorian Chant CD's really helped me along. While I am certainly not fluent in Latin, it has become my preferred language for prayer. I find that praying in Latin has had several benefits. First and foremost, it helps me to collect myself and become orientated towards God. Secondly when I first began praying in Latin it helped me to learn the prayers again and to become more familiar with the meaning of the words that I had so often rattled off in English. Thirdly, the natural rythmn of the Latin once become familiar is an anchor that leads me to contemplation and recalls me to my task when my focus shifts. The same but twice over for Gregorian Chant which effortlessly places me in the presence of God even when the schola is chanting an Offertory with which I am by no means familiar. Last night, I was reading Directorium Asceticum; or Guide to the Spiritual Life by Fr. John Baptist Scaramelli, S.J. and I came across this passage:

Volume I, Chapter VI: Three Sorts of Attention Suitable in Prayer.

"260. St. Thomas says that the attention which we have in our vocal prayers is threefold.1 The first kind is that which we pay to the words, as in the recitation of the Divine Office, during which we are bound to read the words carefully, and to pronounce them distinctly, so as to avoid making mistakes in the exact pronunciation of the prescribed words. But that this attention may be of real advantage, the person must have begun by placing himself in God's presence with the purpose to pray by the recital of this particular form of prayer. The second kind of attention is that paid to the meaning of the words uttered, as when those reciting the Psalms, the Our Father, Hail Mary, or other like prayers, all of which abound with devout affections, reflect meanwhile on the sense of what they say, and unite to the verbal recitation the devout feelings of their hearts. If the person making use of such prayer, instead of going always forward - as is done when reciting the Canonical Hours - prefer to stop at every verse and make devout reflections, nourishing his mind with the various meanings which occur; then the prayer will be something more than merely vocal; it will be mingled with Mental Prayer, and may be styled (to use the expression of St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises) the "Second Method" of prayer. The third kind of attention is that given not to the words merely, nor to their import only, but to God Himself, to Whom all prayer is addressed directly or indirectly, as when, in prayer, we keep ourselves recollected in the presence of God, and adore, love, and thank Him, or entreat Him in our hearts to grant us the graces of which He sees us to stand in need. The first sort of attention [to the words] suffices; the second [to the import] is good, and may be very profitable; the third is best, and may become most advantageous to such as earnestly apply it. And we may here observe, that St. Thomas calls this last-mentioned application of the mind most necessary, especially to such as by their ignorance of the Latin language are unable to enter into the sense of the Psalms, the Pater Noster, or other prayers approved by Holy Church;2 for thus, while with their tongues they recite words which they understand not, instead of allowing their thoughts to wander in every direction, they can and should fix their minds on God, and occupy themselves with devout and profitable affections.

261. There is a well-known instance of this in the Chronicles of the Cistercian Choir. St. Bernard, while at choir one night with his monks, had the following vision: He beheld, by the side of each of the religious, an Angel with pen and paper in hand,taking down every psalm, verse, and word that was recited. There was this difference, nevertheless, that some Angels wrote in letters of gold, others of silver; others again used ink, others dipped their pens in water; while some stood holding their pens in their hands, without taking down anything. While the Saint was beholding this spectacle with the eyes of his body, God Almighty opened those of his mind, and, by a ray of heavenly light, caused him to seize the true meaning of this vision. He now understood that the letters of gold signified fervour of spirit, the inward charity that animated the prayers of some; those of silver denoted devotion, sincere in itself, but joined with a less degree of fervour. The letters in ink indicated the scrupulous exactness wherewith some recited the words of the psalms, but with very little devotional feeling. The prayers written with water indicated the negligence of such as, overcome with drowsiness, indolence, or idle thoughts, did not give careful attention to what they were reciting with their tongue. The Angels who wrote nothing represented the indolence and malice of those who were asleep or voluntarily distracted. We may gather from this legend that our Guardian Angels will write down our vocal prayers in divers characters, according to the measure of the attention, fervour, and devotion with which we pronounce the words.

262. But the reader may wish to know who takes note of the prayers which the Angels do not register, and whether they are wholly forgotten, and left both unrewarded and unpunished. I may direct them for an answer to another vision, from which it appears that such prayers are written by the demons in dark characters, indicative of the severe punishement in store.3 A holy Priest, after having celebrated Mass for the people, beheld standing by the altar, a demon, who, with pen and large skin of parchment in hand, was busily writing. The servant of God, without feeling any fear, commanded him, in the name of Jesus Christ, to show what he was so carefully noting down. The fiend replied, 'I am taking note of all the sins committed by the people while assisting at Mass.' Upon this the Priest, with a courage befitting his calling, snatched the long scroll from the enemy's hands, and read out before all the people the list of the faults each one had committed that morning at Mass. On hearing themselves publicly convicted of all the acts of immodesty and irreverence of which they had been guilty in Church, in time of prayer and during the Holy Sacrifice, they conceived a great sorrow, and hastened to confess with sincere contrition. When the Confessions were concluded, all trace of the infernal handwriting had vanished from the parchment; a sure token of the pardon God had granted. We shall then do well, when we begin to say our beads, the Office, or other pious prayers, to figure to ourselves our Guardian Angel standing on one side ready to note down our prayer in the Book of Life, if it be worthy of reward; and on the other side, the devil ready to mark it in the Book of Death, if it deserve punishment. And that we may gain merit and not incur chastisements from our prayers, I will say with St. Cyprian: 'When we are at prayer, dearly beloved, let us be watchful and apply ourselves with all the earnestness of our hearts. Far from us, at that time, be every worldly and carnal thought. The mind should then be intent upon nothing save upon the matter of our prayer alone.'4 The same holy martyr proceeds to inculcate such attention by the words of the Priest, who, at the Preface of the Mass, says to the people, 'Lift up your hearts:' to which all used to reply, 'We have them lifted up to the Lord.' Whereby we are reminded that in time of prayer, our thoughts must be wholly fixed on God alone.5

263. It must be borne in mind, however, that what has hitherto been said applies only to wilful distractions either purposely sought for the sake of amusement, or admitted with advertence; whether these proceed from the inconstancy of our fancy, or from the suggestions of the enemy of all good. Distractions such as these are alone sinful, St. Thomas teaches, and alone deprive our prayer of all fruit.6 But in no sense do I allude to those involuntary wanderings which may happen to any pious person qutie against his will, when, in placing himself transported elsewhere by importunate imaginings; provided these be driven away directly, and the sense of God's presence be renewed. Such distractions, as we learn from the same holy Doctor, though they return a hundred times, are by no means incompatible with true prayer.7 Nay, he further adds, for the encouragement of certain timorous consciences, that even persons raised to the highest pitch of contemplation, are, at times, borne down by human frailty to thoughts of earth, by the involuntary wanderings of the mind.8 Those, then, who are in earnest about their spiritual progress, must in time of vocal prayer keep strict guard over their minds and hearts, and they must take heed not deliberately to admit any thought foreign to prayer. When they do this, they need be under no alarm that their petitions will be advantageous to themselves and very pleasing to God."

1 Dicendum, quod triplex est attentio, quae orationi vocali potest adhiberi: una quidem, qua attenditur ad verba, ne aliquis in eist erret. Secunda, qua attenditur ad sensum verborum. Tertia qua attenditur ad finem orationis, scilicet ad Deum, et ad rem pro qua oratur. 2,2 quaest. 83, art. 3. in corp.

2 Quae quidem est maxime necessaria:et hanc etiam possunt habere idiotae. Ibid.

3 Joan.Junior. In lib. Scala Coeli.

4 Quando stamus ad orationem, fratres dilectissimi, vigilare, et incumbere ad preces toto corde debemus. Cogitatio omnis saecularis, et carnalis abscedat, nec quidquam tunc animus quam id solum cogitet, quod precatur. De. Oration. Dom., Serm. 6.

5 Ideo et sacerdos ante orationem, praefatione praemissa, parat fratrum mentes, dicendo: Surusm corda; ut dum respondet plebs: Habemus ad Dominum, admoneantur, nihil aliud se, quam Dominum cogitare debere. Ibid.

6 Si quis ex proposito in oratione mente vagatur, hoc peccatum est, et impedit orationis fructum. Art. Suprac. ad. 3.

7 Dicendum, quod in spiritu, et in veritate orat, qui ex instinctu spiritus ad orandum accedit; etiamsi ex aliqua infirmitate mens postmodum evagetur, Eod. art., ad I.

8 Mens humana, propter infirmatem naturae, diu stare in alto no potest. Pondere enim infirmitatis humanae deprimitur anima ad inferiora. Ed ideo contingit, quod cum mens orantis ascendit in Deum per contemplationem, subito evagatur ex quadam infirmitate. Eod. art., ad. 2.

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