Liturgy as the school of Marian Life

I. Introduction

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The Community of the Annunciade Sisters in Thiais during the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours.

1. Why reciting Hail, Mary at the beginning of the Office at St. Joan’s specific request?

I would like to share with you my reflections on the significance of the liturgical prayer in the life of both contemplative and apostolic Annunciades. As my departing point I chose St. Joan’ specific request, which we find in Chapter I, paragraph 8 of her Statuta Mariæ: “At the beginning of the Divine Office, the Sisters shall recite a Hail, Mary, so that the Blessed Virgin gains for them the joy in praising God and the Lord Himself finds joy in their praises.”

This sentence may be interpreted in several ways. I believe that St. Joan wished to emphasize the close union between Mary’s life and the breviary prayer in the liturgy of the Church. Let’s then consider in what manner the liturgy becomes a school of the Marian life.

2. The life of the Virgin Mary and the liturgy – same Spirit, same life.

It is very impressive to realize that the Spirit animating the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the very same one invoked in the liturgy. You would say to me: it’s obvious! Let us consider more closely the manner in which the meditation on Mary’s life allows us to understand and live out the liturgy with precision and serenity, in a right and fruitful attitude.

3. The Virgin Mary as an example of living out the liturgy of the Church

We are going to discover also the manner, in which Blessed Virgin is a model for all those who wish to fruitfully deepen this life of praise that was so dear to Saint Joan.

II. Liturgical prayer as a daily Annunciation

1. Christ’s work, which unites itself to the Church His Bride.

“Sancrosanctum concilum” – the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy promulgated by Vatican II, says in No. 7: “Christ indeed always associates the Church with Himself in this great work wherein God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified. The Church is His beloved Bride who calls to her Lord, and through Him offers worship to the Eternal Father.” This gives us the essential clue. The Incarnation is the work of God from the very first; in the Annunciation God Himself takes the initiative of coming one more time to meet His people. Thus the liturgy is the work of Christ, it is not our property, the place or the arena available to us to express our emotions or ideas. It is above all the praise of Christ for His Father, with which we are associated.

2. And the Word became flesh.

One sentence from the story of the Annunciation always amazed me: “And the Word became flesh.” It does not say that Mary gave birth or gave flesh to the Son of God! No, it is Christ who takes on flesh in Mary. In the liturgy celebrated in the Church, particularly but not exclusively in the Eucharist, we are invited to let the Word of God enter our life, our flesh, our entire being to conform and shape it, to transmit this Divine life, which He possesses in abundance, and to make us into disciples, just like it happened to Mary on the day of the Annunciation. We ought to note however, that undergoing the incarnation, the Son of God took His mother’s features. When He makes His dwelling in us, He does not turn us into some uniform mold. Instead He allows our life, our entire being to turn towards His abundance, to finally realize our vocation as God’s children, and to make grow in us the very life of God received in baptism.

3. The answer of Mary.

The last episode of the story of the Annunciation is not the least important one. It tells us: “Mary said…” Now, paragraph 33 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy tells us: “For in the liturgy God speaks to His people and Christ is still proclaiming His gospel. And the people reply to God both by song and prayer.” The answer, which Mary gave to the Angel, is the condition of the fulfillment of the God’s plan. The answer that we give God in the divine praise is the condition of growth of God’s life in us and in the entire humanity. Thus, through our consent, God enters humanity and takes it back to its original vocation: praising God the Creator. Through its order and pedagogy, the liturgy forms and nourishes us and it introduces us into the mystery.

III. Magnificat

1. Singing praises to God

Let us now see what the mystery of the Visitation teaches us. Mary accomplished for her cousin a deed of mercy that every woman normally shows to an expectant relative; and it is in the very midst of everyday domestic life that the praise of the Lord bursts out from Mary’s mouth. Mary sings the praises of God, not of Elizabeth. And this is another precious hint for our liturgies; it is fitting that they be divine: the praise is due to God, He is the One we celebrate along with His actions in our lives. It is fitting to ask ourselves about the place that the work of grace has in our lives and our offices. Do we know how to celebrate and give thanks in community when a happy event occurs?

2. Drawing from the heart of tradition

From where does Mary draw the words in her hymn of praise? She reaches into scriptural tradition, to texts, which she heard and chanted from her very early years. We know that the Magnificat has its roots is in the canticle of Ann, the mother of Samuel. Thus, Mary draws words for her prayer from the treasury of Sacred Scripture. It should be the same for us. The liturgy of the hours consists in great measure of scriptural texts. It seems important to me that we should not omit these texts, not hastily replace them with paraphrases or more modern poems, because they have been for centuries the voice and the chant of the Bride, the cry of men in distress who placed their hopes in the Lord.

3. When Scripture becomes our native tongue!

Mary prays in her native language, the tongue of her mother, the tongue of her people, the People of God. We are invited to discover it for ourselves. Scripture ought to become for us, our native tongue, because it actually is the tongue of Mother Church. We must perseveringly utter and repeat these same texts, not somehow putting them aside for long, until we know them by heart. I remember a day when, wanting to pray in silence in my own words, all I could come up with were the verses of the psalms; I began to know how to pray in the language of my fathers in faith. It was an immense joy for me.

IV. Nativity

1. Adoration of the hidden God

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The Annunciades’ chapel in Thiais.

In the mystery of the Nativity I would like to underscore the attitude of Mary in the adoration of her Lord, God hidden in a baby identical to all human infants, at the same time being the Son of God. The liturgy often invites us to adore the Lord hidden under various Eucharistic species, but also – and we think about it less frequently – hidden and present in the mystical body, in this gathering, this community, amidst which we pray and sing. Do our liturgical gatherings summon in us this same reverence and the same attitude of adoration of the Lord present in the midst of His people? It is of prime importance to seek in the praying assembly not only a harmony of voices but also of a harmony of hearts, in accord with what St. Joan encourages, because this harmony is a true sign of God, who by His very nature is One. We cannot worship commonly, if unity is lacking between us, if we do not quickly dismiss conflicts.

2. Multitude of Angels…

Next Scriptures states, that a multitude of the heavenly host was glorifying God in word singing (cf. Luke 2: 13-14). In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy we read: “… In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city Jerusalem […]. In the earthly we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints,” (cf. S.C. #8) At the heart of our liturgies we find this openness towards the invisible, an eternity which we await. It is important that our liturgies make present this vertical dimension of our faith.

3. There where God speaks in silence…

The scene of the Nativity is an opportunity to emphasize, how vital an element, though often neglected, is silence, in our Liturgies. The fact that our Lord does not speak on the day of His birth seems quite natural to us; however, it is more impressive to realize that He chooses silence once again at the summit of His life, in other words, at the our of His Passion. That, which will happen, is beyond any human words: Jesus no longer clarifies anything, he proclaims nothing, He wholly accomplishes. Silence in our assembly must be a sacred silence, given to God, so that we might hear, as it resounds in us, what cannot be uttered by our human tongue. We could also speak of the Blessed Virgin who ponders and holds everything in her heart. We know that St. Joan assigned fundamental importance to personal prayer and to the divine office. She also made this a condition for the perseverance of our Order. A tree cannot live without air and roots.

V. Miracle in Cana of Galilee

1. The prayer of Mary is a model for the Church

The miracle in Cana is the one that inspires me most to think about prayer and praise. It seems to me that we can regard Mary’s prayer in Cana as an example of the Church’s prayer, in which are combined human needs, sufferings, trials and joys, their efforts and sins. The praise of the Lord is born of our intimacy with Him, as the Virgin Mary teaches us.

2. Poverty and faith

Mary raises her prayer to her Son in an attitude of extraordinary poverty and faith. She does not discuss if it was reasonable to ask for more wine when people have already drunk enough. She offers to her Son neither a solution nor a manner of acting, she does not try to be charming or use her authority as the Mother of Christ. She does not try to be persuasive. Instead, she establishes the lack, sees the embarrassment and simply tells Jesus about it. Immediately after, nonetheless, she risks much, telling the servants, that they should do everything, whatever Jesus tells them. She makes an act of pure faith. In the light of this it is worth, that we would review the forms of our prayers of supplication, particularly the intercessory or the general intercessions. “They have no wine,” what neediness and what faith!

3. A prayer heard, that opens to us the eternal plan of God.

And thus the Lord hears the prayers of His mother. Because her plea is not constrained by human standards, but is offered with Godly aspiration, He fulfills it so much more generously than He prescribed for its immediate need. We see on the horizon the sign of the foretold Hour of the Redemption, of the wine of the new covenant, of the marriage feast of the Lamb where His bride has made herself so beautiful. And this is a totally different thing than a village wedding!

4. Receiving the prayer of the Church

Thus we are invited to accept, with faith, the prayer which the Church puts on our lips. When I pray the psalms of the office, my soul is not necessarily in the disposition expressed by the psalmist. Why should I sing a penitential psalm when I feel joy, or why am I obliged to sing psalm 150 when my heart is afflicted? Because, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy says: “Therefore, when this wonderful song of praise is rightly performed by priests and others who are deputed for this purpose by the Church’s ordinance, or by the faithful praying together with the priest in the approved form, then it is truly the voice of the bride addressed to her bridegroom; lt is the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father.”(S.C. # 84). This is the expression of that marvelous union between Mary’s prayer in submission to God’s will with Christ, who picking up the prayer of His Mother, carries it before the eternal desire of God: the plan of Redemption, which the human heart would never be able to imagine.

5. “Do whatever He tells you”

This urging of Mary can be applied to many situations in our lives, but in regards to our topic of interest, I see another teaching. The Blessed Virgin says: “Do whatever He tells you.” Now, in the liturgy, and specifically in the Eucharistic liturgy, it concerns doing everything that Christ asks us to do: “Do this in memory of me.” However, it means doing more. One principle of the liturgy is to do what we say, and not to adjust the words to what we are doing. I will explain: the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,Sacrosanctum Consilium, precisely states: “The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation” (S.C.# 34). It is necessary to be attentive, not to burden our celebrations with explanations and monitions. It is also important to always determine the harmony between what we say and chant with what we do. Thus, the Kyrie cannot be sung in the same way as the Alleluia or a meditation hymn should not have the same form as the concluding hymn. We do not sing the Exultet in a church filled with light and a procession is not made if we do not move from our place.

6. The Church as Bride associated with the work of the Word

Thus, the Church who submits herself joyfully to the work of the Word sees the miracles happen before her eyes. Saint Joan had a keen sense of this dimension when she advised her sisters to follow in every way the Roman Catholic Church, be it their books or their practices.

VI. Stabat Mater

1. Where the Church celebrates and sings standing.

The Mother stood beside the cross of Jesus… Why are we giving attention to this detail? Tradition sees in this scene several inferences. I like to believe that the Virgin Mary by living out the Passion of her Son, stood, ready to announce His Resurrection and a humanity risen from sin, this people of her Son that stands to celebrate the death and resurrection of their Lord; this people who stand to proclaim their dignity as sons, of a people redeemed and holy. For this reason the liturgy tells us to stand for a greater part of the celebration. This also distinguishes Christians from different religions that prostrate themselves on the ground and do not dare to lift their eyes toward God. We stand upright because God raised us and made us not His servants but His sons.

VII. Pentecost

1. In the Church with Mary.

“Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the ‘sacrament of unity’ namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops.” So teaches the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (S.C. # 26). This image is shown us in the Gospels on the day of Pentecost. The disciples devoted themselves to prayer together with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Mary the model disciple united with the Church. My attention was drawn by the word “assidu” [assiduous – in French, this passage says that the disciples were assiduous in prayer]. Maybe, this word echoes in St. Joan’s recommendation for her daughters to obtain “the wisdom of all wisdom: the knowledge to praise the Lord.” (S.M. 92). The first disciples continuously pondered, deepened their knowledge of the word of the Lord and celebrated it worthily, it’s enough to read the letters of St. Paul to become convinced of this. In the spirit of fidelity to this teaching, St. Joan requests that the greatest effort be made to prepare for celebrations, to learn the art of chant and she does not allow for any negligence in this matter. Do not be afraid to invest time, energy or competence in these matters. But, you may ask me, how can we do this since we are so few in numbers and lack the means? I will reply, quality is not the same as complexity; quality music is not music difficult to perform, but it is neither easy nor mediocre. In liturgy the music and chant are always at the service of the text or rite that they accompany; if this is not the case they would better be avoided. Thus, if we have little means, it is best to be able to adapt to the assembly without sacrificing the legitimacy of the rite, its harmony – in a word, its beauty. Everything concerning the divine cult must be authentic, true, and beautiful. Everything is perfect in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that is to say balanced in all things, nothing excessive or nothing lacking, simple but turned inwardly toward the invisible.

VIII. The Assumption

1. Liturgical prayer: an opening to the eschatological, the invisible and the eternal.

The Blessed Virgin in fullness of her being joined her Son on the day of her Assumption. In this she precedes us and also makes known to us our destiny; she maintains us in hope. I again refer to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Savior, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory” (S.C.# 8). The liturgy maintains us in this vision of hope, which is our vocation: contemplating God eternally and giving Him praise. I believe that we should not be afraid to express and celebrate it, maintaining in our celebrations this vertical dimension, this overture to the invisible, the invisible and yet the real.

2. The promises fulfilled.

Thus, by the liturgy we affirm that the promises of the Lord are already fulfilled. Christ is present in all of the liturgical actions of His Church. “From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree,” says the Constitution (S.C.# 7). Humanity is reconstituted in its original condition, and, even better, it is saved, redeemed and united with Christ as His beloved Bride.

IX. Recapitulation

1. Is that, which St. Joan counsels us in the area of liturgical prayer, a prophetic utterance?

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The Community of the Annunciade Sisters in Brucourt during the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours.

It is amazing to realize how much St. Joan’s thought is in agreement with Vatican II concerning questions of the Divine Liturgy. Can we venture to say then, that St. Joan had a prophetic intuition? Definitely prophetic in that she foretold the liturgical renewal of the Church, which the Council made concrete. And yet St. Joan did not disassociate herself from great religious reformers of her time; on the contrary, she is totally in agreement, but she knew all the time how to avoid the excesses and exaggerations always possible in these types of actions. Thus, in the 15th and 16th centuries we note a growing concern for celebrating the divine office with punctuality, the reformers demanded of the religious a greater understanding of the liturgical rite. Some reformers did not hesitate to alleviate the office by avoiding excesses hindering devotion, so that the monks could draw a greater benefit from it. The populace rediscovered the taste of attending the celebrations, which re-ignited devotion. We shall rediscover there the instructions of St. Joan forbidding her daughters to sing more than one Holy Mass daily and telling them to sing the office with such fervor and application so that the people be enraptured by devotion.

2. The role of Father Gabriel Marie.

Assuredly, St. Joan was greatly supported in her work by Fr. Gabriel Maria, especially in regards to liturgical practices and the formation of her order. In addition, we must realize that during these times Rome was so greatly influenced by the Order of St. Francis and even accepted its Missal and breviary. The same came to pass in regard to Eucharistic devotion and the devotion to the Passion of Christ or the Holy Name of Jesus. The majority of the offices (ceremonies, rites, etc.) granted to the Seraphic Order soon became widespread in the Universal Church.

3. The modernity of St. Joan.

In conclusion. The modern intuition of St. Joan is striking in regards to liturgy and the divine office. She introduces us into the heart and mind of this sacred mission. You can say to me: St. Joan addresses the nuns, how does it apply to the apostolic Sisters then? Basically, I don’t think there is a difference, except in the form, of course. Saint Joan described the divine office as the first apostolate of her sisters. And your apostolate is above all the divine office. Again, I will quote a fragment from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: “Nevertheless the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s supper. The liturgy in its turn moves the faithful, filled with «the paschal sacraments,» to be «one in holiness»; it prays that «they may hold fast in their lives to what they have grasped by their faith»; the renewal in the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and man draws the faithful into the compelling love of Christ and sets them on fire. From the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their end, is achieved in the most efficacious possible way” (S.C #10).

Why then did St. Joan attach such a great importance to the liturgical life of the Annunciate Sisters? The above reflections may be able to help us. Maybe, it was also because the life of the Blessed Virgin was nothing but one great liturgy, the time totally devoted to celebrating the gifts of God, His love, His grandeur, His tenderness. Mary never used a second of her existence for her own interest. Her life, so simple and ordinary, is an intense Liturgy filled totally with God’s presence. And Mary herself, … she is the Praise.