Esolen starts from an interesting jumping off point: Odysseus slaying the suitors, but sparing the singer who kneels. In this way, Esolen underscores the importance of reverence and the consequences of irreverence. Thus, Esolen with my emphases and comments:
We cannot say, “We will emphasize the holiness of the Eucharist we are about to receive, by milling about the aisles to pass small talk with friends.” [Not just during the ‘Sign of Peace’, but also before Mass begins. And then there’s the noisy, disrespectful chaos afterwards.] Our bodies will contradict our purported intention. The “emphasis” will be at best notional. We will not feel it in our pulses. [Bodily posture matters. It both reflects and induces attitudes.]
In the diocese where we spend our summers, the faithful at Mass have been instructed to kneel only during the first part of the consecration. When they return from Communion, they’re to remain standing until every communicant is back in his seat. Then they invariably sit down. So there’s no kneeling in silent prayer. That standing is supposed to stress the “community” of believers. [B as in B. S as in S. It might reflect, in fact, the anxiety of some liturgist who thinks that uniformity must be enforced… as in row by row Communion, etc.]
I’ve been struggling to put into words an insight I’ve derived from Father Aidan Nichols’ Looking at the Liturgy. [NB…] What kind of priest or prelate thought it was good to cover paintings of the saints with whitewash? To remove great altars? To throw statues into the dump? To reduce communion rails to rubble? To swear off the cassock? To expunge hieratic language? To send ancient prayers written by Ambrose and Aquinas down the memory hole? To rip out pews decorated with flowers and birds, carved by the men who built the church? [I ask myself this all the time. My answers do not console.]
It is all of a piece. Let’s give the wreckers the benefit of the doubt. [welllll….] Grant that they actually believed that blank walls do not a warehouse make. Grant that the bishops of Canada believe that people, many of them aged, standing around and watching other people standing around, will think of community, and not the blessed moment when they finally get to sit down. What can I conclude, other than they have been like color-blind people before a Monet, or tone-deaf people at a Bach chorale, or boors wearing sneakers to a wedding, or klutzes in a china shop?
These are natural defects. It’s no sin to be color-blind. But is that all? [No. They made choices. They chose whom to listen to, whom to believe about liturgy, architecture, etc. But watch what happens now…] Over-schooled people, long sheltered from the physical necessities of life, from plowing, sowing, digging, sawing, stitching, bleaching, ironing, mowing – they are most prone to lifeless abstractions, and most dismissive of the bodily gestures that people who work with hands and shoulders and backs understand. That whole scene in Homer’s poem, [Odysseus, returned home, slaying the suitors, sparing the singer] each action in just the right place, would be for them one arbitrary thing after another.
One take away from Esolen’s piece is also conveyed by Advent, a penitential season, though a joyfully penitential season.
What saved Phemius, the blind singer, was that he adopted the posture of a supplicant. He lowered himself, humbly, debased himself before Odysseus. He became supplex, which is a common word in our liturgical prayer, often found in our collects.
Supplex is an adjective, used also as a substantive, meaning “humbly begging or entreating; humble, submissive, beseeching, suppliant, supplicant.” This and other derivative forms are commonly used in our Latin prayers; for example, we see the adverbial form suppliciter. I never tire of this word. The Lewis & Short Dictionary says supplex is from sup-plico, “bending the knees, kneeling down”. However, the article on supplex in the French etymological dictionary of Latin by Alfred Ernout and Antoine Meillet offers that supplex comes not from plico but from plecto, “to plait, braid, interweave”. E&M offers also the possibility that it is from placo, “to reconcile; to quiet, soothe, calm, assuage, appease, pacify”. The former describes the physical attitude of the suppliant. The latter describes his moral attitude. The more probable plecto gives us much the same impact as plico. L&S also says plico and plecto are synonyms. Thus, the imagery I have invoked in the past of the supplicant being bent over or folded in respect to his knees (i.e., kneeling or bent low toward the floor) works well. Also, in the ancient world it was usual for the supplicant to wrap his arms around (plecto) the knees of the one from whom he was begging his petition.
Let’s stay with supplex for a moment. In many churches these days, during Holy Mass – often called “liturgy”, thus stripping it of its sacrificial and propitiatory character, instead of abasing themselves humbly before the Real Presence of Almighty God, they instead celebrate themselves in remembrance of Jesus our non-judgmental buddy. One reason for this is because we come to believe what we pray. For years, we English speaker had a lousy translation that systematically expunged the concept of humility, inherent in supplex, from prayers, from contemporary music in parishes, and (in churches now lacking kneelers) architecture.
One of the most “Catholic” of prayers, nearly eliminated after Vatican II, underscores an important dimension of healthy spirituality. In the once familiar Dies irae, the haunting sequence of the Requiem Mass by the Franciscan friar Thomas of Celano (+ c.1270). Sung amidst the inky vestments symbolizing our death to sin and the things of this world, in the Dies irae we contemplate our inevitable judgment by the Rex tremendae maiestatis… the King of fearful majesty, who is iustus Iudex, our just Judge. In two of the verses we pray:
“Once the accursed have been confounded,
once they have been delivered to the stinging flames,
call me with the blessed.
(Knees) bent and leaning over (supplex et acclinis),
My heart worn down like ash, I pray:
Have a care for my end.”
The use of supplex in our Catholic prayers conveys an attitude of contrition for our sins which then shapes other more joyful and confident prayers. This lowly attitude keeps in close view the reality of our sins, God’s promises of forgiveness, the ordinary means of their cleansing (confession) and thus the joyful comfort we have when we surrender to this merciful plan.
God takes our sins away, but only when we beg Him to.
But… that’s the key. We have to beg for mercy, as beggars who beg, begging.
God’s justice we are going to get, whether we want it or not. His mercy we can always, confidently, ask.
During Advent, we are admonished by the voice of John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Lord, who is coming. We are to make straight and smooth the path between us and Him. Let’s look at it this way. When the Lord comes again (and let’s include our going to Him in our own death), He will come by the straight path, whether or not we did anything to straighten it for Him. He will, in the twinkling of an eye, straighten every path. His way of straightening things out won’t be gentle, but it will be complete.
Advent, in the Church’s year, is a time to prepare the way of the Lord. Life itself is a time to prepare for what must inevitably come.