Singing clerics, medieval illum. MS, Bodleian lib., Oxford
RESPONSORIES and SEQUENCES
IN THE tenth chapter of his book L’Amour des letters et le desire de Dieu (The Love of Learning and the Desire for God) Dom Jean Leclercq, O.S.B. describes what he calls “the poem of the liturgy”.
HE emphasizes that one of the outstanding features of monastic spirituality was “a sense of the Lord’s majesty”, which can be most clearly appreciated in monastic liturgical compositions: antiphons, responsories, hymns, tropes, and sequences. “It was,” he states “in and through the liturgy that the monks came into contact with the Scripture and the Fathers; and [through the liturgy] they were permeated by the great traditional religious themes.” (Paris, Les Éditions du Cerf, 1957).
WHILE the liturgy was thus a principal source of monastic spiritual insight, it also came to reflect the results of monastic contemplative prayer. Monks and nuns who experienced God in the liturgy wrote prayers and poems describing their spiritual perceptions: these poems, in turn, became antiphons, responsories, and sequences in the monastic antiphonal (the book of music used at the Liturgy of the Hours) and gradual (containing the music used at mass). In this way, over many centuries experiences of contemplative prayer were set to music and incorporated into the liturgies that had originally inspired them.
LITURGICAL prayer therefore affords an encounter God at many different levels. Two of these are reflected in the literary genres that compose the liturgy:
 God is present both in the historical narrative and “beneath the letter” of the inspired biblical texts which make up the majority of the liturgy; and
 the non-biblical poetry (hymns, antiphons, responsories, sequences) and prayers of the liturgy invite us to make our own the interpretations and experiences of our Christian forebears.
CONCERNING the mystical significance of the sequences and responsories Leclercq writes:
The traditional bases were primarily the Bible and the Fathers. If all these compositions are essentially poetic in character, they owe it to minds which had been fashioned by Holy Scripture. Their modes of expression are concrete and rich in images. The value of their words lies more in what they mean than in what they actually say: their evocative power is greater than their precision; each of them is like a note which awakens harmonics.
All the delicacy of liturgical poetry comes from the free and harmonious use it makes of the sacred words: the groups of versicles, each of which, because of its origin and own particular meaning, has special significance and whose combination produces a more complex, and a newer whole; they are daring in juxtaposing two texts, one of which throws light upon the other, thereby forming, because it is so different, a contrast with it which makes each one’s individual light more intense; their way of lending a wide range of different colors to the same unchanging texts by, for example, incorporating verses of the Psalms within the antiphons; the continual passage from fact to allegory, from event to idea; the alternation of formulas, each of which evokes a different reality, which complete each other within a whole that is richer still, as the facets of a diamond permit us to see all its fires asparkle.
(The Love of Learning and the Desire
for God, A Study of Monastic Culture,
Jean Jeclercq, O.S.B. , tr, C. Misrahi, (Fordham Univ. Press, NY, 1961, 1974). p. 295.)
THE following prolix responsory illustrates many of these features. It represents the musical and poetic application of the practice of lectio divina to the liturgy. Meditation on the meaning of Corpus Christi, the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, has interwoven the Lord’s parable of the great feast (which does not have a happy ending) with the much more joyful cry of Wisdom in Proverbs to “come eat the bread and drink the wine” she has mixed. This responsory is also the focus of both readings in the Office of Readings for Wednesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time (v. 3, pp. 209-213: Prov. 9:1-18; Commentary of Proverbs by Procopius of Gaza).
THIS English antiphon for the Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time is based on the prolix responsory above:
COME, CREATOR SPIRIT
HYMN to the HOLY SPIRIT
Come Holy Spirit, creator,
from your bright heavenly throne,
come take possession of our souls
and make them all your own
Veni Creator Spiritus,
Mentes tuorum visita,
Imple superna gratia,
Quae Tu creasti pectora.
You Who are called Paraclete
blest gift of God above,
the living spring, the living fire,
sweet unction and true love.
Qui diceris Paraclitus,
Altissimi donum Dei,
Fons Vivus, Ignis, Caritas,
Et spiritalis unctio.
You Who are sevenfold in your grace,
finger of God's right hand;
his promise, teaching little ones
to speak and understand.
Tu septiformis munere,
Digitus paternae dexterae,
Tu rite promissum Patris
Sermone ditans guttura.
O guide our minds with your blest light,
inflame our hearts with love;
and with strength, which never decays,
confirm our mortal frame.
Accende lumen sensibus,
Infunde amorem cordibus;
Infirma nostri corporis,
Virtute firmans perpeti.
Drive far from us our deadly foe;
true peace unto us bring;
and through all perils, lead us safe
beneath your sacred wing.
Hostem repellas longius,
Pacemque dones protinus;
Ductore sic te previo,
Vitemus omne noxium.
Through You may we know the Father;
through You the eternal Son,
and You the Spirit of them both,
thrice-blessed Three in One.
Per te sciamus da Patrem,
Noscamus atque Filium
Teque utriusque Spiritum,
Credamus omni tempore.
All glory to the Father be,
with his co-equal Son:
the same to You great Paraclete,
While endless ages run.
Deo Patri sit gloria,
Et Filio, qui a mortuis
Surrexit, ac Paraclito,
In saeculorum saecula.
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