Singing and confession – Just Too Cool!

When I was very young, I used to curl up with the dictionary.  One word would lead to another and to another.  I wound up building my vocabulary as if by capillarity.

I sometimes do this with tweets, specially with the feeds of some of the classicists and medievalists I follow.  One thing leads to another and I often find amazing things.

Here is an amazing thing, in a tweet.  This is great for today, Shrove Tuesday, an appropriate day to be shriven.

Back in 2015 at the blog For the Wynn there was a post about “How to confess like an Anglo-Saxon.”  In that post there is an image of a manuscript, the Vespasian Psalter – 8th c. with 11th c. additions – written in Latin, with the prayer Deus inaestimabilis misericordiae (perhaps a prayer of Alcuin – PL 101, 524c).  More on that HERE.  This stuff really makes my socks roll up and down, since I had a really good paleography course back in the day and I groove on illuminated manuscripts.   The manuscript is in the British Library.

As For the Wynn writes regarding Deus inaestimabilis misericordiae:

The speaker starts by calling on God, who will forgive everyone who confesses to him. He has sinned in all sorts of ways: in the traditional categories of thought, word and deed, and in seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching – in short, in every way possible. God gave the speaker a human body for appropriate purposes, but they have misused it: this body of his has sinned by failing to observe the rule of moderation in all things: he has exceeded the limits of nature in each of his members (‘In membris singulis naturae modum excessi’). The prayer goes on to list every part of the body, from the feet to the head and ending with the heart, according to the sins which have been committed with it. Some of them are quite inventive/smack of desperation: he has bent his back in order to do evil works, and lifted his neck in pride.

The idea here is that penitent should be complete in the confession of sins.

Some of you may have made a connection with the traditional Roman manner of administering the Sacrament of Anointing.  In the traditional way, the priest anoints the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands and feet… by which we sin by sight, hearing, smell, taste and speech, touch and walking (deeds).  The newer method doesn’t do that.

In the same manuscript, there follows a prayer and a warning.

Man mot hine gebiddan, swa swa he mæg 7 cán, mid ælcum gereorde 7 on ælcere stowe. Nu is her on englisc andetnyss 7 gebed. Ac se ðe þis singan wylle, ne secge he na mare on þære andetnysse, þonne he wyrcende wæs: for þon ðe ure Hælend nele, þæt man on hine sylfne leoge, ne eac ealle menn on áne wisan ne syngiað.

(Quoted from ‘Zur Liturgik der angelsächsischen Kirche’, Max Förster, pp. 8-10.)

One must pray as he can and knows how to, with any language in any place. Now here is a confession and prayer in English. But whoever wants to sing this, may he say no more in that confession than he had been doing, because our Lord does not want a man to lie about himself, nor do all men sin in one and the same manner.

First, this is good advice.  However, what really caught my eye is…

whoever wants to sing this

There is a phrase falsely attributed to St. Augustine: Qui cantat, bis orat… He who sings, prays twice.

Augustine didn’t write that phrase, but did he write anything similar: cantare amantis est… Singing belongs to one who loves” (s. 336, 1 – PL 38, 1472). This is the citation for qui bene cantat bis orat in the primitive edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1156.

In the edition of the CCC we are sent to footnote n. 26 (oddly, this is note 21 in the newer English edition, which adds a confer reference to Col. 3:16 – which is not in the Latin CCC). Latin CCC 1156, note 26 reads: Cf. Sanctus Augustinus, Enarratio in Psalmum 72, 1: CCL 39, 986 (PL 36, 914).

The Corpus Christianorum Latinorum (CCL – a vast series of volumes of Latin authors) vol. 39 shows us what Augustine really said:

Qui enim cantat laudem, non solum laudat, sed etiam hilariter laudat; qui cantat laudem, non solum cantat, sed et amat eum quem cantat. In laude confitentis est praedicatio, in cantico amantis affectioFor he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyously; he who sings praise, is not only singing, but also loving Him whom he is singing about/to/for. There is a praise-filled public proclamation (praedicatio) in the praise of someone who is confessing/acknowledging (God), in the song of the lover (there is) there is deep love.

Augustine is saying that when the praise is of God, then something happens to the song of the praiser/love that makes it more than just any kind of song.

The object of the song/love in a way becomes the subject.

Something happens so that the song itself becomes Love in its manifestation of love of the one who truly is Love itself.

Tracking back to singing the confession prayer in the ancient manuscript, making a confession should come from the depths of the mind and heart, the soul.  It is transformative.  If when we eat we make food into what we are, but the Eucharist makes us what He is, so too there is something of the same transformation when we are in the mysterious encounter with the High Priest and Just Judge in the Sacrament of Penance.  Our scarlet sins are washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb and, in that moment, we have a profound unity with the Savior, who suffered in His Passion and rose in His Resurrection.

For more on Alcuin, btw, try this great book.  I wrote about it HERE.

Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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One Comment

  1. Giuseppe says:

    There are a few people at my church who annoyingly belt out hymns in big Broadway voices. I sure hope they don’t learn about ‘singing’ confession and turn it into a big show-stopping aria, e.g. “Mama’s Turn,” “Defying Gravity,” “Bring Him Home,” etc.

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