Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Memory and thickness

I really do have a poor memory for texts and prayer. I was at a dinner party recently, a couple of my fellow guest were having a conversation exchanging Byronic couplets, quoting extensively from Child Harold, for my part I try to commit things to memory but in the words of one of my parishioners "Padre, non intrada". I have been trying to commit some of the prayers of Exraordinary Form to memory, some sticks some doesn't, I need a card for the Aufer a nobis. When I was younger I knew priests who would delight in reciting great chunks of the Roman Missal by heart, I knew many Anglicans who could recite the Book of Common Prayer collects by heart, and Catholics who could remember all the old catechism. I recently met a young Muslim who claimed his blind grandfather could recite the whole Koran. St Benedict expected his monks to know the psalter by heart. I am convinced that before printing many churches would not have owned a Missal and therefore most priests would have recited Mass from memory.

I was rather touched by this little extract from a rather provocative interview with Monsignor Bartolucci, Maestro Emeritus of the Sistine Chapel, the whole interview is characteristically mischievously provocative, and therefore well worth reading.

So that you won't think that I'm just saying anything, I know how participation in old times was like, both in Rome, in the (St. Peter's) Basilica and outside it, for instance down here in Mugello, in this parish, in this beautiful countryside, which was then populated by people strong in faith and full of piety. During Sunday Vespers the priest could just start singing “Deus in adiutorium meum intende” and thereafter fall asleep on his seat to wake up only at the “chapter”, the peasants would have continued alone and the heads of the family would have intoned the antiphon!

To be provocative myself, I think that the options we have in the modern rite tend to destroy participation. And to be even more provocative, the books necessary for the "old" rite is a Missal two and a half inches thick, whereas for the "new" rite there is the Missal, same thickness together with some nine inches of Lectionary.

Is the exclusion of memory one of the major changes in reformed liturgy? Discuss!


Jackie Parkes MJ said...

What was that you were saying fr Ray?

Thomas Windsor said...

We are told repeatedly that the new Rite, with its 3 year cycle, and options brings us a greater breadth of the Scriptures than in the Traditional Rite, but is this really the case;
It is to be noted that over that last 40 years we have seen the opposite, with a gradual decline in knowledge. Perhaps as you have said the increasing complexity and choice, what should be familiar has now become distant.

At least by sticking with the idea that small is beautiful, by having fewer readings and a yearly cycle all or us have the opportunity to learn the Scriptures used in the Traditional Mass.

Those who wanted more could also read the Scriptures listed in the St. Andrew daily Missal and no doubt other hand Missals, as being relevant to the Feast. That is without looking at the Daily Office, or even dragging down a dusty copy of the Bible!

Andrew, York said...

Fr Blake,

It is entirely possible, if not likely, that priests in an age before printing memorised a great deal of the Mass. There were, certainly, manuscript missals and medieval diocesan legislation from England indicates episcopal concern with ensuring adequate and proper provision of all sorts of books to parishes, including missals, lectionaries, psalters, and graduals. There are also indications, however, that these books were frequently not to be found or in a state of disrepair, often due to the today inconceivable expense of books.

Priests were not trained in seminary or even, sometimes, in cathedral schools but, rather, as apprentices in the parish. How natural it would have been for them, therefore, to learn by memory, particularly as many were probably learning to read at the same time? Many manuscript missals are quite light on rubrics, presumably on the assumption that priests simply knew and had memorised them. Most importantly, before printing and even for some time after it the world remained a predominantly oral rather than literate culture. In short, you're probably completely correct to privilege memory over the written word! This would also explain, I suspect, "organic development" through slow, incremental changes to customary practices. Not the rupture of recent history.

old believer said...

Just to add to Andrew, York's comment.

It was a common entrance requirement for a Canon entering a Chapter to have to recite from memory the Psalter starting at Beatus vir qui non abiit in consilio impiorum... all the way through to ...omnis spiritus laudet Dominum. I don't think anyone could do that these days.

The change from an oral to printed culture was highly significant. The ease of distribution of printed 'typical' editions after Trent coupled with growing centralisation and the appointment by Sixtus V of a professional body to minutely regulate the slightest detial of rubrics, the Sacred Congregation of Rites, meant that development of liturgy ceased to be organic and instead became a matter of following the latest decrees and most up to date versions of the books.

Crux Fidelis said...

In many third world societies literacy is looked upon with suspicion as it is commonly believed that being able to read destroys the faculty of memory. Our first inclination is to scoff but, perversely, it contains a certain element of truth - why bother to memorise something when you can look it up in a book?

Unknown said...

One of the (several) reasons why I say the modern Roman Liturgy of the Hours rather than any of the Anglican options is simply because it is all in one book.

On a practical level, although I have never been particularly adept at playing music from memory (I always need a copy open in front of me even if I don't necessarily look at it) I have had a lot of success learning text by heart. Sometimes it is possible to memorise text subconsciously, simply by repetition without necessarily trying to memorise it.

When I was at school in the 50s and 60s we had to memorise great chunks of the Bible and then, for A-level, great chunks of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton (Samson Agonistes) &c.,

Where I have had to memorise text for public recitation I have found the best way is to memorise the last sentence first and then work backwards towards the beginning. Our tendency is to lose concentration gradually and start worrying. This way you are always aware that you know the bit still to come better rather better than the bit you've already done. I'm not writing this in particularly good English grammar but I think you'll know what I'm saying!

Anyway,Father,continue to enjoy your exotic,highbrow dinner parties!!!

Adulio said...

Blessed Pius IX had a poor memory but granted his ability to get things done by making a novena to the Holy Souls.

Maybe it could work for you Padre?

Andrew, York said...

Crux Fidelis,

Your comment has a corollary also, namely, why bother to memorise something when you can write it down.

Books become depositories of knowledge so that we do, indeed, lose our ability to memorise things. In the Middle Ages, it is thought that books were looked at askance (perhaps not outright suspicion) and the majority of people had to be convinced of their utility - they were not automatically accepted. How different from today when, because something is in print, we believe it. Before, the word, and consequently one's good fame, was much more important.

I certainly think that, in today's vernacular Masses, we should, within reason, do away with the pew missals. They made sense in previous days but why not actively listen (participatio actuosa ) rather than disassociate ourselves from liturgical action by reading along.

JARay said...

There is no doubt that the present generation cannot compete with the past as regards memory training.
I state this as a sine qua non.
My grandfather was known (I am told) to have been able to recite ballads from beginning to end without falter and never have to repeat himself.
I was told that Muslim children were required to recite the Koran without fault from beginning to end in their Madrassahs.
How on earth do you think that the Old Testament was composed? People did not have a computer then to record Scripture. It was learned verbatim and any errors were immediately jumped upon by the hearers because they knew the texts as well as those who were reciting them.
Memory is one of those talents that the present day does not understand and cannot conceive.
One of the things that I try to do in my old age is to keep my memory alive. I used to play Bridge on my computer but I have had to buy a new one and it no longer works. Bridge requires one to remember what has gone and to keep count of what tricks have been played in a particular suit. My computer is an idiot as far as playing Bridge is concerned but I miss the challenge that it gave me. I think that crosswords have the same benefit to old fogies like myself.

Seminarian X said...

This reminds of a story about Padre Pio: apprently. when he was a young priest, having only been ordained a few years, his eyesight was so poor that he could not read from the missal. His Bishop gave him permission to say Mass using a few memorable propers so that he could say Mass every day without a missal. Evening after only saying Mass a few years, he seemed to have known the whole ordinary and several sets of propers by heart.

We have several older priests here at the seminary that seem to know not only the 62 MR by heart, but a good chunk of the liber usualis as well.

gemoftheocean said...

I think the variety of readings in the NO is good for Sunday, OVERALL (though it can do with some improvement....i.e. John 6 ONLY in year B? Give me a break!)

The readings are fairly diverse from Advent through Pentacost, but then, frankly, the EF is getting repetitive as far as the daily Mass goes, even with all the saints (I love the commems.) but there's only so many times Os justi or whatever doesn't start to wear on one.

What I DON'T LIKE AT ALL about the OF is too many choices in the Ordinary of the Mass. I particularly hate it when some parishes never seem to do the confiteor or kyrie and Lord only knows you have to hold a gun or throw a bribe at 95% of the priests to do EP I. FAR too many choices (and "they" always seem to make a poor choice) there. I overall prefer the OF lectionary after Pentecost.

As far as memorizing...I'm just delighted you weren't in St. John's seminary in NY in the late 50s and early 60s. A good friend of mine who was in the seminary there said that back then the bishop wouldn't ordain anyone who didn't know the ordinary of the Mass by heart. :-D

Probably if you said that "Aufer" etc. often enough you'd have it off by heart too. It will come eventually. Perhaps you just need to grab a server, and after they lock all the doors at night do an extra EF Mass. :-D

Tip: i picked this one up in acting class -- when you *think* you have your lines down, try to say them as quickly as you possibly can, where you stop is where you are likely to break. Then just isolate the part where you break doing the phrase leading up to it and the phrase behind it so you can integrate it to the part you probably do know. Take the prayers in sections. Work on perfecting one part at a time. Are you comfortable saying the Aufer in English first? In final rehearsals (and often if the show was on hiatus) the actors will just sit and run their lines as fast as possible as a drill to keep everyone sharp.

Once we were doing "School for wives" and the actors (who'd had their lines perfectly) had a few days off, and did NOT run their lines before the next show. Result? 30 seconds in to act one someone had delivered his second act opening line and the other actor didn't catch it and they ended up dropping 6 minutes of exposition!!! The stage manager had a cow.

Anagnostis said...

Doesn't one of the canons of Nicaea require a bishop to know the psalter by heart?

It gets very much harder the older one gets. Recently my parish priest invited me to say the Small Compline with him. At one point, hearing silence from me, he whispered "Psalm 50". I began to fumble with my book.
- "Don't you know it?"

Patricius said...

Optional-ism: the great enemy of memory.

Anagnostis said...

There's another one, Patricius (or perhaps it's the same one):

Douay, Knox, RSV, Jerusalem, Grail etc etc etc..?

Unknown said...

Whilst Common Worship is undoubtedly the finest liturgical compilation the C-of-E has created since Henry VIII was a petulant child, its great weakness, also, is that there are so many irritating options and variables for everything. Far worse than anything in the modern Roman Rites which, to me, are a comparitive haven without lots of options.

GOR said...

Yes, we don’t ‘do’ memorizing well any more. Perhaps it is ‘mental laziness’ as we have the written text in front of us and who needs to memorize it? In the days before television in Ireland families used to gather and provide their own entertainment – sing songs, tell stories, recite poetry, etc. If you sang a song or ballad, you sang ALL the verses – from memory. And if memory faltered, there was always someone to prompt you.

In school too, memorizing poetry, famous speeches, Shakesperean soliloquies etc. was emphasized. And of course, in Religion, the Catechism – which led to some amusement. To the question “What is the right time?” a wag would answer: “The right time is uncertain, but we know it was after the Resurrection” – the response to the Catechism question: “When did Christ ascend into Heaven”…:)

GOR said...

Er...that should have read: "Do you have the EXACT time...?" with the response: "The exact time is uncertain, but we know..."

So much for my memory! Well it has been over half a century...

nickbris said...

The only thing I know that destroys the faculty of Memory is SATNAV

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