I just put together an article for The Wanderer, my usual weekly column which was the origin of this blog.
In the course of the column I offered this. It is something I have written on before, since I have written on the Roman Canon before. Still… it may be of interest to new readers.
The ancient Roman orator, philosopher, and statesman M. Tullius Cicero (+ 43 BC), and other authors as well, use the verb refrigero for “to cool off, make cool” and “to relieve, refresh”. It also has a moral overtone, in the sense of “cooling passions”. Think of “taking a cold shower”. In ecclesiastical use refrigerium means “a cooling; a mitigation, consolation”. We find a use of refrigerium also in the magnificent Pentecost sequence Veni, Sancte Spiritus.
So, just what is our refrigerium in the Canon? Our context is a moment in which we explicitly pray for the repose of souls of the dead.
Refrigerium concerns refreshment and coolness, the resting of passions, associated with happiness with the Lord at His heavenly banquet. Think of the parable Jesus recounted about the rich man, in tradition called Dives (“dee-vays”) and the beggar Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Lazarus dies and goes to “Abraham’s bosom” to be refreshed. When Dives dies, he goes to rather hotter place. Dives longs for a single cooling drop of water from Lazarus’s fingertip.
In the ancient Church a custom developed from the pagan practice of banquets at the tombs of loved ones, ancestors. The banquet was called a refrigerium. It was a kind of “family reunion”. The Christian refrigerium continued this, even as it also prefigured the banquet prepared for us by God in heaven. The Roman catacombs of St. Callistus and St. Sebastian have spaces intended for these refrigeria meals. At Tipasa (modern Tefassad, Algeria) tables for these banquets are still visible near the churches of martyrs. Refrigeria were tolerated because of the deep cultural roots and the sensibilities of the faithful. Sometimes, however, they turned riotous. St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) restricted and refocused them on the increasingly important cults of martyrs and on how the Eucharist can impact state of the dead. Refrigeria would eventually be entirely suppressed in North Africa. Earlier, by St. Ambrose’s time (+397), they had already been suppressed at Milan in Northern Italy.
Augustine recounts an episode about his mother, St. Monnica, when she was with him in Milan. Monnica carried on with her North African custom of refrigeria (called laetitia in Confessions 6.2.2) which raised many Milanese eyebrows, including those of bishop Ambrose. Augustine says that Ambrose instructed Monnica not to do this in Milan, it was not their local custom. Ambrose said that when he was in Rome, he followed the Roman laws concerning fasting, which were different from those of Milan: “When I am here I do not fast on Saturday, but when I am at Rome I do; whatever Church you may come to, conform to its custom” (cf. Augustine ep 36.14.32 and ep 54.2.3).
This is where we get the phrase, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
In sum, the Roman Canon’s petition for a place of refreshment, refrigerium, bears witness to the belief of an interchange of help between the living and the departed.