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sobota, 12 listopad 2005
Marcin Morawski

Culpat Caro, Purgat Caro:

THE BODY IN THE HYMNS OF THE DIVINE OFFICE


(paper delivered at the International Medieval Congress, Leeds 2005)

Let me start with an explanation of the title of my paper: culpat caro, purgat caro – the flesh sins, the flesh purifies [from the sins] – is a quotation from one of the hymns prescribed in the office for the feast of Ascension, namely the hymn sung at Lauds, found in most medieval hymnals. In this hymn the human body is shown exalted at the right hand of the Father, in the exaltation (the Ascension to heaven) of the Word incarnate, Christ.

Christianity is neither the religion of the spirit alone, nor of the soul alone, but also of the body. By his incarnation, Christ united to his divine nature both the human soul and body. During the course of the liturgical year, it is the feast of the Ascension that reminds us that he kept this body after his resurrection and introduced it, sanctified and gloried, into heaven.

Yet the body itself is, one might say, ambiguous: despite the redemption achieved by Christ’s death and resurrection, it remains weak and prone to sin. It is this ambiguous picture of the human body, expressed by the authors of the office hymns that I wish to explore in this paper. I will confine myself to the hymns of the Temporale of the New Hymnal. Since my interest is mainly in the liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England, I shall take hymns from the period of the Benedictine Reform, as preserved in several manuscripts, as the basis for my discussion.
Also, I have to make a linguistic explanation here: Polish language has only one word for what is represented by a pair of words in other languages. In English there is both body and flesh, in Latin, corpus and caro, and in Greek,  soma and sarx. In biblical writings – and I mean here mainly the New Testament – these words differ in their meaning: sarx and caro generally represent the rebellious human nature, though not always [cf. Prologue of the Gospel of St John: Verbum caro factum est]; but in hymns they are often used differently, sometimes ‘metri causa’, and can represent both human nature or body/flesh. I am trying to retain, however, the English distinction between body and flesh while translating Latin passages, even if there is no obvious distinction in the meaning in the Latin.
In his letters, St Paul says that it is the flesh, as opposed to the spirit, which is inclined to sin. Of course, by ‘flesh’ [the Greek word ‘sarx’] he does not simply mean the physical body in its carnal sense but the whole of human nature, as the result of the original sin, the rebellion against God. Therefore such ‘unfleshy’ things as envy, wrath or pride, which happen in the soul or mind, not in the flesh, can also be classed as actions of the flesh – ta erga tes sarkos  (Galatians 5:20sqq has a catalogue of the works of the flesh among which are adultery, fornication, uncleanness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, emulation, wrath, strife).
Influence of such biblical language can be detected in some hymns. In one prescribed for Prime – and this is an old hymn, known already to Cassiodorus in the sixth century – we read about ‘carnis superbia’, the pride of the flesh. It is to be confined by human abstinence and by  God’s grace during the course of the day that at the evening the praying can sing praises to the Lord ‘mundi per abstinentiam’, purified by their abstinence. The flesh is here clearly contrasted with the spirit, as it is in St Paul’s writings [e.g. Galatians 5:16 or Romans 8:4]. In another hymn, used ad nocturnam dominicis diebus, the body is described as a potential cause of the damnation: ‘compago nostri corporis’, (literally) the building of our body can become ‘foeda’, loathsome or mean, and ‘lubrica’, which can be translated as dangerous or immoral, and then can end in ‘averni ignibus’, the fires of Hell – hence the prayer to God that he repel lust and sin. [Notice here that, as I mentioned before,  both words – corpus and caro – are used as equivalents of prone-to-sin body which needs God’s protection and grace to avoid guilt.]
This image of the sinful body recurs in many hymns. I would call it the ‘corpus flebile’, the unhappy, miserable body which is the source of our sadness and pain – both as the whole human nature and human flesh ‘in hac lacrimarum valle’, in this valley of tears, as our world is often described by medieval liturgical authors. So, in the hymn for Sunday vigils which I mentioned earlier, the faithful call themselves  ‘carnis actu exules’, the exiled because of the actions of flesh. This is yet another image of human condition in this world, being an exile from paradise. They pray to Christ that he make them again the dwellers of heaven by his grace, washing away their sins and bringing them ‘vitae perennis commoda’, pleasures of eternal life. In the Compline hymn Christe qui lux es et dies the praying complain about the burden which the body puts on them: we are, they say [or we should say: they sing!], ‘in gravi isto corpore’, in this heavy body. Perhaps this is an allusion to Luke 21:34 where Jesus warns his disciples against the overcharging of their hearts with cares of this life – ‘ne graventur corda vestra’ – so that they could miss coming of the Son of Man. ‘Istud grave corpus’, especially during the night hours, when it is really tired with the cares of this life experienced during the day, can influence on the soul – so that the latter becomes coarsened and obtuse to the calling of the Lord. Also, one can  find adjectives like ‘fragilis’ [e.g. Christmas hymn for nocturns] or ‘infirmus’ [as in a phrase used in, at least, two hymns: ‘infirma nostri corporis’] often associated with the words for body/flesh, expressing here the idea of weak, vulnerable human nature.
Since we are at the Compline, let us look at hymns used in the evening offices, as they often contain a request for protection against devil and sin during night. The worshippers  confess the weakness of their bodies, which are liable to sin, especially in the darkness of night, which is a time traditionally connected with the intensified activity of evil powers. We know this from a morning hymn by St Ambrose – Aeterne rerum Conditor – where we find an image of the dawn bringing peace and safety to the world that was during night exposed to attacks of daemons. Their assaults caused storms, diseases and murders.
In the Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum God is beseeched to crush the enemy, the devil – ‘ne polluantur corpora’, so that bodies shall not be soiled. (We can guess what kind of pollution the author meant here.) In an alternative Compline hymn, sung daily in winter – the aforementioned Christe qui lux es et dies – there is again a request for protection against the enemy: ‘nec hostis nos subripiat’, that the enemy may not creep up on us. The flesh can consent to him, as the next lines explain: ‘nec caro illi consentiens / nos tibi reos statuat’, that the flesh may not consent to him [the enemy] and proclaim us guilty before the Lord.
In two Lauds hymns – ad matutinam – prayers commending body to the Lord at the beginning of new day can be found. The Monday hymn – Splendor paternae gloriae – written by St Ambrose, contains the following prayer: may faith glow with a fervour within a chaste and faithful body, ‘casto fideli corpore / fides calore ferveat’. One might say it is almost a positive image, as compared to those of the ‘corpus flebile’ presented above. Here the chaste, faithful body is a vessel for faith, maybe an allusion to Mathew 5:16 where we read: ‘your light must shine in people’s sight’. Such a positive image of the body, though, is still expressed as a wish (‘ferveat’ is subjunctive). It can point us somehow to the theme of the exaltation of the human nature of which I mentioned above and will return later.
The Lauds hymn for Thursday, this time by Prudentius, is not so optimistic. It has a catalogue of sins available to different parts of the body, expressed as a prayer  to avoid them: ‘ne lingua mendax nec manus / oculive peccent lubrici’: praying people ask God that neither their tongue prone to lies, nor hands, nor lascivious eyes commit a sin. Eventually they sing: ‘ne noxa corpus inquinet’, may no guilt defile our body. Similar image can be found in the hymnus ad primam: may God bridle our tongue, may he protect our sight from perceiving vain things: ‘linguam refrenans temperet, visum fovendo contegat, ne vanitates hauriat’. Here again recurs the image of the weak body, more inclined to sin than to holy life.

In the Sext hymn – Rector potens, verax Deus –  God is asked to grant health of the body: ‘confer salutem corporum’. It may be understood here as a prayer during the work so that fragile body get strength for labour.
Since the predominant image of the body in the hymns is ‘corpus flebile’ or even, one might say, ‘corpus peccabile’, the prone-to-sin body, special attention should be paid to Lenten hymns. Lent was a special season of mortification of the sinful body by sparing use of food, drink, sleep, as is reflected in the Matins hymn: ‘utamur ergo parcius / verbis, cibis et potibus, / somno, iocis’ – let us be more careful in words, food and drink, in sleep and amusement. Words frequently used in Lenten hymns, like ieiunium – fast, abstinentia – abstinence and parsimonia – frugality, refer generally to the body and its needs. Such mortification exercised outside had to bring fruits inside. In the hymn for Vespers – Audi, benigne Conditor – still used in the Roman liturgy for Lenten Sundays, the faithful beseech God: ‘sic corpus extra conteri / dona per abstinentiam / ieiunet ut mens sobria / a labe prorsus criminum’, [God,] let us wear out the body by outside abstinence so that the sober mind restrain itself from the future transgressions. What is important here – even the mortification is God’s gift, it is he who can grant, bestow it [Latin donare] to his faithful. A body cleaned by abstinence makes the soul purer and not so eager to sin.
In an interesting Lenten hymn preserved only in Durham hymnal – Summe Salvator omnium – we can see a twofold request, both for the soul and the body: ‘da pectoris munditiam, / corporis castimoniam’, grant us purity of the heart and chastity of the body. Such twofold protection will make the devil unable to invade us, as the next lines explain. In the fifth stanza we read: sana languentum vulnera, / dum restringuntur corpora, / dele virus malitiae / medela parsimoniae – heal the wounds of those who are ill at the same time as their bodies are controlled, destroy the poison of malice by means of the medicine of frugality. Again, human fast and abstinence are to be helped by God’s grace. Yet we can see here the real unity of the soul and the body, so well known from the Psalms and other biblical writings, which is central for the theology of the Incarnation and Resurrection.
This very unity of the body and soul is reflected also in prayer itself. Almost forgotten in the liturgy, as they seem now, prayer gestures, which were so popular amongst the Desert Fathers, and are mentioned in St Benedict’s Rule, find their expression in the office hymns as well. The body may be sinful and miserable, but it has its part in the praise of the Lord, as an expression, or even visualisation, of the soul. The Rerum Creator optime hymn, prescribed for Wednesday Matins in tempus per annum shows this clearly: ‘ad confitendum surgimus (...) mentes manusque tollimus, / propheta sicut noctibus  / nobis gerendum praecipit’, we arise to praise the Lord, we lift up our hearts and hands, as the prophet commands us to do in the night. The Latin verb surgere can refer to waking up, as it is a night office, but it can also mean the standing before God as a prayer gesture, known already to the Church Fathers. Reference to the Psalms here is quite natural, as some Psalms contain an image of rising hands as a gesture of evening or night prayer: lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the Lord through the night, to quote just one example [Psalm 134].
In the Lenten hymn for Lauds the faithful pray: ‘dicamus omnes cernui, / clamemus atque singuli’, let us all bow down and pray, let each of us cry out. Bowing down, still practised during the office in some communities, is mentioned also in St Benedict’s Rule. It has to express both awe and humiliation before the Lord. In this Lenten hymn it is connected with oral prayer – the tongue can be prone to lies (lingua mendax mention above) but it can also sing to the Lord, as many a hymn describes: ‘te vox canora concrepet’, may our voice sound your praise melodiously (that’s the Vesper hymn for Saturday), or ‘os, lingua, mens, sensus, vigor / confessionem personet’, may our mouth, tongue and mind, thought and vital energy resound confessing you. St Ambrose in the hymn for Sunday Lauds writes: ‘te nostra vox primum sonet / et vota solvamus tibi’, let our voice name you first and let us pay our devotions to you. As in some Lenten hymns, we can trace here the influence of the body on the soul: voice, one might say, being outside, addresses the Lord and is followed by the soul.
So far, we have seen the ambiguous image of the body: simul sanctus et peccator, one might say, both sinful and holy – at least holy in spe. This sometimes contradictory image can be reconciled  in the Body of Christ. By his incarnation Christ assumed the fragile human flesh and made it his own. By his resurrection, he finally healed it and introduced to heavenly glory of which the office is just a pre-taste. The body of Christ appears mainly in two groups of the hymns: those connected with Christmastide – and that is due to the incarnation – and those for Passiontide and Easter – and that is due to the resurrection.
Christmas hymns offer an image of the virgin birth, and they stress on the purity of Mary and, consequently, of her Son. In one of the most beautiful hymns, prescribed for Christmas vespers, we read: ‘memento, salutis auctor, / quod nostri quondam corporis / ex inlibata virgine / nascendo formam sumpseris’, remember, author of our salvation, that you once took upon yourself the form of our body by being born of the unsullied Virgin. The Audi, Redemptor gentium hymn, for Christmas Lauds, says that Christ is ‘mundus contactu carneo’, clear of all infection of the flesh, as he is ‘casto nascens corpore’, born from a chaste body of his virgin mother. Several hymns tell explicitly about the purity of the Holy Virgin: ‘claustra pudoris permanent’, the barrier of chastity remains, as St Ambrose writes in his Christmas hymn, or ‘casta parentis viscera / caelestis intrat gratia’, heavenly grace enters the chaste womb of the mother, this time it is Sedulius’ abecedarian hymn.
St Ambrose, generally, seems to have quite positive image of the body, at least in his hymns. I mentioned earlier his hymn used for Monday Lauds. In his Christmas hymn – Veni, Redemptor gentium – he, one might say, encourages Christ using biblical imagery: ‘aequalis aeterno Patri, / carnis tropheo accingere’, you who are equal to the eternal Father, gird yourself with the trophy of the flesh. The girding image goes back to the Psalm 45, describing the wedding of a king. Ambrose describes here human flesh as a trophy Christ acquires by his incarnation which should be understood only in the light of the resurrection. An anonymous Ascension hymn presents a similar image: Christ is offering to the Father the glory of the victorious flesh, ‘Patris praesentans vultibus / victricis carnis gloriam’.
Sedulius, on the other hand, is much more in the tradition of ‘corpus flebile’. He writes: ‘beatus auctor saeculi / servile corpus induit, / ut caro carnem liberans / ne perderet, quod condidit’, the blessed creator of the world clothed himself in the body of a slave to free the flesh by his own flesh and not lose what he had created. The body of a slave is not a trophy to be desired, and it needs liberation – hence the incarnation. Similar view is expressed in one of the oldest hymns, Rex aeterne Domine, used for Sundays: ‘cuius [i.e. hominis] tu formam corporis / assumere dignatus es, / ut hominem redimeres’, you deigned to assume bodily form of man to redeem him.
Redemption can be obtained only by means of Christ’s body: ‘ut nos Deo coniungeres / per carnis contubernium’. He can unite us with God only by sharing our flesh, and by his suffering and death. This leads us to the Passion and Eastertide hymns. It is only in the flesh that the Creator of the flesh can be hung on the cross, as the famous hymn by Venantius Fortunatus proclaims: ‘carne carnis conditor suspensus est patibulo’. In those hymns, ambiguity comes to its climax: holy innocent body of Christ is disfigured by his suffering and humiliated because of our sins. Yet his passion is glorious and leads to his even more glorious resurrection. Venantius writes in his hymn that the tree of the cross was adorned with the purple of the king, meaning Christ’s blood. The cross was also chosen to come into contact with so holy limbs, ‘tam sancta membra tangere’. The humiliated body of Christ, sharing the humiliation and misery of our bodies, still deserves the greatest awe and honour.
The Easter hymn for vespers, still sung in the Roman liturgy, points us to the Eucharist as the paschal sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood: ‘cuius sacrum corpusculum / in ara crucis torridum / cruore eius roseo / gustando vivimus Deo’, his holy body was roasted on the altar of the cross, and consuming it together with his rose-red blood we live for God. The sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood brings us back to God, and this was the aim of redemption – ‘ut nos Deo coniungeres’, so that you unite us to God, in aforementioned Sunday hymn.
Eastertide hymns do not express the misery of our weak nature. I would say they offer an eschatological glimpse of what awaits the faithful, redeemed by the Body of the resurrected Lord. Those who pray are called to give thanks to Christ as he carried up our body up to the lofty glory of heaven, ‘nostrum corpus vexerit sublimem ad caeli gloriam’, as the Matins hymn for Ascension says. (Notice that body is not called here miserable or weak, though it still remains ours.) The eschatological hope is also expressed in another stanza of the same hymn: ‘o grande cunctis gaudium, / quod partus nostrae virginis / post sputa, flagra, post crucem / paternae sedi iungitur’, o what great joy it is to everyone that the Son of our Virgin after the spiting, the beating and the crucifixion, shares the seat of the Father. Again, the author of the hymn stresses here – in fact, you could say that he reminds Christ here – that his human nature is ours, that he is the Son of our virgin. Such reminding is a pledge of human hope: Christ shares our nature in his body, and we can hope for sharing his divine nature at the right hand of the Father.
Let me turn back now to the title of my paper: culpat caro, purgat caro. As I said, it is a quotation from the hymn for Lauds of Ascension. We have seen how the body/flesh can sin and how it can be freed from sin: through prayer and abstinence, eventually founded on the incarnation and Christ’s sharing the body with men. The next line of this hymn is: ‘regnat Deus, Dei caro’, God reigns, God is the king, as God made flesh. This is the vocation of the body, to enter the glory of God, as the office hymns remind us.
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