A canticle a day
One of the most valuable experiences from my boarding school days—and one that has remained with me—is the habit of formal prayer. I remember praying the Nunc Dimittis at night prayer in the quiet of my high school chapel: “Now you may dismiss your servant, Lord, according to your word, in peace.” Just saying the words instilled a sense of peace.
Yes, I’ve done Zen meditation, Ignatian retreats, and Benedictine lectio divina, but my time in the high school chapel also taught me to value formal prayer. When my 92-year-old mother fell down her basement stairs and, following brain surgery, went into physical and mental decline, I found myself praying morning and night for help to sustain both her and me. It was then that the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis became sources of consolation and strength.
I have now been praying all three canticles for many years. They make a perfect end for each of the “hours” they grace: the Benedictus in the morning at lauds; the Magnificat in the evening at vespers; the Nunc Dimittus or Canticle of Simeon as the last hour of prayer at night, or compline. Their repetition each day is like meeting an old friend; each recitation is a confirmation of that friendship.
A canticle is, etymologically, a small song. Canticles have a long tradition in Jewish worship. The Benedictus, also known as the Canticle of Zechariah, is a father’s thanks for the gift of his son, John the Baptist. Some scholars say this canticle was added to the liturgy of the hours by St. Benedict of Nursia, who made the divine office a central part of Benedictine spirituality. I had memorized the Benedictus even before I realized it. There is something sonorous about the opening: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has visited and wrought redemption for his people.” I like to imagine the joy with which Zechariah utters those words, after weeks when he could not speak.
The Magnificat is the Blessed Virgin’s grateful acceptance, expressed on a visit to her cousin Elizabeth, for the gift of Jesus. It, too, has a rhythm that can calm me at the close of day. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.” For me it is easy to imagine the young Jewish woman’s joyful but profound response to her cousin’s greeting. And when Mary says, “He has exalted the lowly, and the hungry he has filled with good things, while the rich he has sent empty away,” I try to see this message as an anticipation of the Beatitudes. The Canticle of Simeon is a wise old man’s expression of gratitude for having seen the coming of the Savior.
Only recently has the relationship of these three New Testament canticles to each other and to the early church become clear to me. I had known that they were from the infancy narrative in Luke’s gospel. But what struck me, with the help of the late scripture scholar Father Raymond E. Brown, was the continuity that Luke suggests between the Old Testament and the New; between the Judaic tradition and the developing prayer life of the early, mostly Jewish-born, Christians.
If we pay close attention, we see that Luke has each of the New Testament characters meet a character who resembles a figure in the Old Testament. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are an aged couple yearning for a child, like Abraham and Sarah in Genesis. The angel Gabriel’s revelation to Zechariah that Elizabeth will give birth to John, “the prophet of the most high,” is like the angel’s promise to Abraham. The Magnificat uses much the same language as does the Song of Hannah in the book of Samuel (1 Sam. 2:1-10).
Jesus being presented to Simeon in the temple recalls the young Samuel being presented to Eli in the temple. Simeon’s words herald the coming of the kingdom. He and Anna represent the anawim, the poor and pious ones of God. For Luke, Anna represents the holy women of the early church. Denise Levertov’s lovely poem “Candlemas” helps me understand Simeon’s joy. These lines are the poem’s climax: “before the cross, the tomb / and the new life, / he [Simeon] knew / new life.”
According to Brown, Luke’s canticles are likely early Christian hymns, woven from phrases and passages found in the Old Testament. In the mouths of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon, these hymns express the gospel attitudes that early Christians sought to live out: gratitude, acceptance, joy—the same dispositions that we today should have when we pray. For Luke, these episodes, with their echoes of the Old Testament, provide a bridge for the young Christian community raised in Judaism.
In Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton speaks of gratitude as the ability to recognize God in everything. In a world that often seems to be coming unglued, it is reassuring, and even helps create a kind of inner order, to repeat a group of prayers that have been part of the Catholic tradition for almost 2,000 years.
Unlike other forms of coping that are more passive, reciting these prayers is neither passive nor unrealistic. The canticles face the fact of misery, poverty, inequality, injustice, and yet still express gratitude. They have been for me, in the words of the Nunc Dimittis, a “light of revelation” in a sometimes crazy world.
This essay appeared in the April 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 4, pages 47-48).
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