Medieval Shame

For the last couple of weeks, I have been praying with The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary It is a liturgical prayer book which offers a simplified version of the Divine Office, which is the liturgical prayer based on the Psalms that has its roots in pre-Christian Jewish prayer. This book follows the form of the Divine Office which was used in the Catholic Church until Vatican II, but which Pope Benedict recently allowed to be used again.

This copy of The Little Office is dual-column, English on the left, and Latin on the right. The Latin text has changed very little since the Middle Ages, and the English Biblical texts come from the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible that dates back to the 16th century. It has a very traditional feel, and the language is very beautiful. It is not difficult to read, but it would not be mistaken for a modern translation.

Until I got this book, I had been praying with the Liturgy of the Hours, which is a modern reworking of the Divine Office created after Vatican II. While comparing the Liturgy of the Hours to my new Little Office book, I came to the following conclusion. It appears to me that the Liturgy of the Hours does the best it can to remove all traces of the Middle Ages from this ancient form of prayer, including all traces of Latin. Even the traditional Latin names of the prayers, such as Matins, Lauds, Terce, None, Sext, and Vespers, have been replaced with Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Midmorning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Midafternoon Prayer, and Evening Prayer.

I have the feeling that many Catholics in the 1960s and 70s were ashamed of how much the Catholic Church had held on to its Medieval roots, and they took the changes that came out of the Second Vatican Council as license to jettison everything that was the least bit Medieval.

At the root of this Medieval shame seems to be the belief that the Middle Ages were an unmitigated low-point of human history. I strongly challenge that belief. From what I’ve seen so far in my exposure to Medieval writings and history is that the Middle Ages, like every age of history, has its faults and blind-spots, but it also has much of great value.

There is a Cistercian monks at the Abbey which runs the school where I work who recently retired after many years of teaching history at University of Texas at Arlington. He has come to me a few times with some computer questions, and has talked to me about my graduate work at University of Dallas. One day he told me I should study the Middle Ages because that was the age in which faith and reason worked together. I think we need to discover how to bring that aspect of the Middle Ages to our world today.

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