26 May 2022

Word Play on Ascension Day

The chairman of the coetus charged in the 1960s with revising the Breviary Hymns, Dom Anselmo Lentini, was convinced that 'word-play' ["nimius lusus verborum", as he put it] was out of place in texts for modern use. So he disliked two superb lines in an Ascension Day fifth century Office Hymn

culpat caro, purgat Caro,
regnat Deus Dei Caro. 

First he deleted them; then he re-admitted them but bowdlerised them.

[literal crib: flesh sins, Flesh cleanses, God rules, the Flesh of God. The Anglican Fr John Mason Neale produced a fine rendering into English verse: that flesh hath purged what flesh had stained / and God, the Flesh of God, hath reigned.]

Unbowdlerised, these seem to me two of the most sublime lines in Latin poetry, whether sacred or profane, during the last two and a half thousand years.

Visitors to the Cathedral at Cefalu in Sicily will have seen the same sort of word-play pressed into the service of the same shattering, profound truth. In this Norman church, built by King Roger II and adorned with a purely Hellenic mosaic Pantocrator of about 1141, a Latin elegiac couplet [hexameter + pentameter] goes round the arch of the apse and reads:

Factus Homo Factor hominis factique Redemptor
     iudico Corporeus corpora corda Deus.

[Made Man, I, the Maker of man and the Redeemer of what I have made, judge, as God Embodied,  bodies and hearts.]

Lentini was a learned and able and civilised man. It is telling, in my view, that even the very best of those who hacked away at the Liturgy during that most terrible decade could have been so blinded and limited by the fashions of their age. Proof, indeed, that Liturgy should only ever evolve organically and without ineluctable ideologies.

Praise to that redeeming and triumphant Flesh!


PM said...

Thanks be to God, the apse in Cefalu was not vandalised in the 1960s and 1907s. But the high altar was ripped out to be replaced by - guess what - the celebrant's chair.

Ansgerus said...

Can the breviary reform of Pius X be called 'organic'. If not, why don't follow the tradition of centuries and apply the elder arrangement of the psalter, without the multiple devisions desturbing the unity of the psalms, and with Ps 148-150 at the end of each Laud, one of the eldest liturgical traditions we had, wished away by a new 'committee liturgy" invented in the early 20th century.