Saturday, 26 September 2009

Ember Days or Quarter Tense

Today is the Ember Saturday in September. Etymologically speaking, however, the word is another example of the theological superiority of the Irish Gaelic language over the Saxon. In Latin, the term is Quatuor Tempora, the Four Times. French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, as may be expected of Romance Languages, retain this form. However, even German retains this root in description of the four periods of fasting that equate roughly with the four seasons of the year.

In English, however, the term 'Ember' derives from the connection of the two roots ymb (meaning around), and ryne (meaning a circuit or course). From this, it might be thought that there is a confusion with Rogation Days. However, it seems to refer instead to the distribution of the days throughout the year. The potential for confusion with Rogations is the greater in Welsh, however, which speaks of Ember Weeks as Wythnos y cydgorian (the Week of the Processions). Quarter Tense, a more arcane English term, follows the general usage of Christendom.

Irish Gaelic, on the other hand, retains the general reference to the Four Times in referring to Laethanta na gCeithre Thráth or the days of the Four Times.

Guéranger assigns the practice of Quarter Tense to the Prophet Zacheriah, Chapter viii, Verse 19: "Thus saith the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Juda, joy, and gladness, and great solemnities: only love ye truth and peace."

The Douay-Rheims version notes for this verse that: "They fasted, on the ninth day of the fourth month, because on that day Nabuchodonosor took Jerusalem, Jer. 52. 6. On the tenth day of the fifth month, because on that day the temple was burnt, Jer. 52. 12. On the third day of the seventh month, for the murder of Godolias, Jer. 41. 2. And on the tenth day of the tenth month, because on that day the Chaldeans began to besiege Jerusalem, 4 Kings 25. 1. All these fasts, if they will be obedient for the future, shall be changed, as is here promised, into joyful solemnities."

The Irish understanding of the four quarters of the year needs no explanation for anyone familiar with the Gaelic calendar.

Some point to specific Celtic origins, linked to the Celtic custom of observing various festivals at three-month intervals: Imbolc, Baeltaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain. The quarterly or seasonal nature of Ember Time is typical of a society living in harmony with its environment and a society that recognises the inherant links between the spiritual and the natural.

Is it going too far to say that traditional Catholicism retained this sense of harmony but that it has been lost since Vatican II? Perhaps it is no coincidence that there has been a rise in interest in paganist practices and language relating the spiritual to the natural since the majority of Catholics have been deprived of traditional Catholic devotions.

A Latin rhyme gives the timing of the four Ember Weeks:

Dant Crux, Lucia, Cineres, Charismata Dia
Ut sit in angariâ quarta sequens feria.

An old English rhyme translates it as follows:

Fasting days and Emberings be
Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie.

There has been plenty of discussion on the blogosphere this week about the fact that the calendar rubrics of John XXIII place the September Ember Week after the third Sunday rather than after 14th September or "Holyrood".

Mention of the Irish links to Ember Days would not be complete without some mention of the Irish spirit of ascetisism and fasting. For example, in the Manuscript Materials of Irish History by Professor O'Curry there is reference to Laethanta na gCeithre Thráth in the Rule of St. Carthage, in that part where the Saint speaks of the order of refection and of the refectory, at line 114 he says:

A tredan [three days total fast] every quarter to those
Who fast not every month,
Is required in the great territories,
In which is the Faith of Christ.

Interestingly, it would appear that the Holy See dispensed from the abstinence from flesh meat on Ember Saturdays outside Lent in Ireland in 1912.


Quo Vadis said...

Dear Doc Hannon

May I congratulate you on the good work encouraging the Churches traditional liturgy. I would like to make a couple of remarks on your post.

The ‘rounds’ of the etymology of the Ember Days do in fact preserve the ritual practice of medieval Catholicism, which is well reflected in the Welsh language as well.

It was common that penitential processions, with the litanies being chanted to invoke Gods mercy, were held on the Ember and Rogation days in Rome as well as other parts of Europe. These processions followed specified courses – ‘rounds’.

The supposed ‘celtic’ or ‘pagan’ origin of these things is just that, supposed. There is often no evidence for these statements apart from divisions of time which overlap, as you indicate. Many of the notions of ‘celtic custom’ are really the product of romanticized Victorian antiquarians. Much ink has been spilled on this topic. We have an awful confusion of a linguistic term mixed with modern nationalistic movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.

We have far more in common with medieval ritual practice than we realize. It is often preserved in language. There has over the years been an attempt by the academy to see the origins of ritual in anything but our common Catholic heritage.

Doc Hannon said...

Dear Quo Vadis,

I deeply appreciate your thoughtful and informed remarks. The point I would make in return would nuance the approach of the academy.

There is an element of truth in most things, or else they would be obviously nonsensical. There is an element of truth in the obsessive need of moderns to trace the practices sanctified by the Church and by immemorial practice of the saints to pagan roots.

Their mistake is to see pagan as secular. My own view, borne out, I think, by the ease with which the Church has adopted and adapted so many pagan forms, is that the pagan world practiced partial truths. Natural religion is not (necessarily) anti-Christian but, rather seeks after God without the benefit of Revelation. Perhaps humanity, through a kind of chinese whispers, preserved the knowlege that our first parents had of God in the Garden, but preserved it imperfectly.

The worship of Mithras, the incarnation of Hindu deities of virgins, and such things as this, the neo-pagan and pseudo-intellectual will claim, were raided to provide the foundations of the Christian Faith. Instead, I propose that they were grains of the wheat sown in the hearts of Man at the time of the Fall that were to bear fruit in the ideas of the Greeks, with their 'unknown god', or in the child forseen by Virgil, but was but the preparation of the whole of Mankind for the coming of the Messiah. Certainly, I think, that explains His 'delay' in coming, until we were 'readied' for His coming.

Certainly, it is an anciently held understanding that the Irish stood on the fringe of Revelation throughout the early period of the World and had glimpses into It that you will find reflected in my other recent posts.

God did not abandon pagan mankind. He was still their God, although He did not bless them as He blessed the Jews, with direct Supernatural Revelation.

The pagan festivals of Rome that became the festivals of the Church were as properly the Church's festivals as the thought of the Greeks was the fabric of the Gospels, especially St. John's, which is inconceivable without the philosophy of the Greeks, brought to the Holy Land through the conquests of Alexander - another instrument of Providence.

Whatever the strict accuracy of these propositions (and I find it hard to see how they can be convincingly dismissed), I think my point about the inherant link between the natural and the spiritual is well-found.

I would go further and say that, where the Traditional Latin Liturgy is both natural and spiritual, being the culmination of this millenial growth and organic development, the Modern Roman Liturgy breaks these ties with its three year cycles, its lack of seasonal cycles, its neglect of the customary and popular.

In doing so, it has forced the faithful to supply the want in neo-paganism and has caused them to create a construct of dichotomy between the spiritual (Religion) and the natural (Environment) which Pope Benedict has often been at pains to deny.

Quo Vadis, let me know what you think. Would you like to submit a post of your own on some of this?

Quo Vadis said...

I would certainly agree with much of what you say in principle, above all that pagan does not equate to secular.

There is certainly a connection between the natural and the spiritual. We are lost without it. One of my biggest arguments at the moment is trying to demonstrate an understanding of the world, fundamental to the 'medieval mind', that there is no separation between the two - it is of course still relevant!

I do sometimes find it hard to see specific links between some Catholic ritual practices and supposed pagan ritual, which often does not have actual archaeological or historical evidence or a clear connection. Perhaps this is a failure of my methodology.

An example is the 'litania major' which some have argued may have developed from the pagan procession held in Rome every year, the 'ambarvalia'.

In the early middle ages the term 'litania major' was originally given to a number of solemn processions in Rome, such as those on the Rogation Days and Ember Fridays (H. Grisar, Das Römische Sacramentar, ZKTh, 9 (1885), 585 ff). The problem here is the evidence of connection between the pagan and the Christian.

We do not actually know when these processions, from a Christian perspective, began. The earliest record is only in 604AD and it is only even later that the Greater Litany (Rogation) was linked with the Feast St. Mark on the 25th of April. The Feast of St. Mark was only introduced in the 9th century and this was the date of the pagan Roman procession.

I know there are many examples either way - wisdom like you say is a nuanced approach!

Doc Hannon said...

Quo Vadis,

I think my ground is stronger on Rogations than on Quartertense. The idea that the consecration of the Quarters or Seasons wasn't invented by the Church is obvious.

While the origin is more likely to be that referred to in Scripture than the pagan Irish or even the pagan Romans, it hardly matters as it was probably the universal custom of humanity in any case.

The same is true of the sacrifice of animals, which was directly revealed to the Jews on several occasions but was also a fairly universal practice.

I think that we fail to realise the sheer volume of Jewish custom that we continue to use in the Church, especially the Traditional Liturgy.

Surely the Rogations are one of those direct links to pagan practices by means of the dates used. I don't know enough to say that the Jews didn't celebrate 25 March but we can say with certainty from Pliny and even Ovid that 'Robigalia' was a day of processions. The dates of Christmas, Easter, Hallowe'en, etc., etc., are surely not random but adaptations of pre-existing festivals.

My point is that this is not the adoption of paganism but the fulfilment of it in a way that made great sense to the people of the time, just as the Jewish rituals made true sense when incorporated into the Christian tradition that they pre-figured.

Christians seem to have loved processions. May Processions and Corpus Christi Processions were universal until very recently.

The 'Romana' or Greater Litany seems to follow, in conscious imitation, the earlier procession. Even the word Litany, being Greek, seems to establish a link with the earliest Christian community of Rome.

That the Minor Litany or 'Gallica' and later processions like the Corpus Christi could be in imitation of the 'Romana' is not really important to the sense of continuity of spirit between one human/spiritual exercise and another.

A more interesting point is that the Romans had festivals for virtually every day of the year. Just how many can be mapped to dates in the Church's calendar?

What have 'Veneralia' or 'Megalesia' or 'Fortuna Publica' or 'Fordicalia' or 'Cerealia' or 'Parilia' not got that 'Robigalia' did that had it inserted into the Christian calendar in this way?

I've often wondered why the Church doesn't use the Kalends, Nones or Ides, except as a date.

I don't know that it matters except that by using the festivals that it does, the Church had the wisdom to link natural and spiritual in a way that the committees composing the Novus Ordo Liturgy did not.

When we get on to the subject of the Gaels as a quasi-chosen race, we are, of course, on less sure ground. At the same time, if any people have a better claim to have glimpsed eternity without the benefits of revelation, I don't know it.

Even sweeping aside the inventions of medieval writers who brought the Grail to England or St. Mary Magdalene to Paris or St. James to Spain (and why not, if St. Thomas got to India?), the Catholic heritage of the Irish does not come upon them suddenly with the arrival of Palladius or Patrick, nor is it something alien to them.

The other tendancy that we are witnessing, other than the neo-pagan reaction to the de-naturalisation of Catholic spirituality, is this deconstruction of the links between natural tradition and Catholicism.

Too often we hear nonsense spoken about the cultural imperialism of missionaries. Too often we hear about the Romanisation of Ireland by Cardinal Cullen. These stark conflicts would have no currency with contemporaries.

At the same time, I agree with you, Quo Vadis, that we shouldn't accept uncritically the medieval inventions or the victorian simplifications. However, where there is an underlying unity or a thread of continuity we should meditate upon it.

Libertas said...

All a bit above my head this but I agree with Quo Vadis on the congratulations. More of this please!