(This is Neil.) Todd’s post about the Litany of the Saints perhaps led some of our readers to wonder more generally about the litany form of prayer, in which a deacon or priest offers supplications and the people then respond, “Lord, have mercy” (or something similar). As the Anglican Bishop Geoffrey Rowell reminds us in this week’s “Credo” column in the Times, we participate in a sort of “gathering” whenever we enter into the rhythm of the litany, whether it is an assembling of the prayers of the visible congregation, the entire company of heaven, or merely the longings and concerns of our own fragmented self.
Incidentally, for a bit more on the Bishop’s claim that the world’s beauty offers “the litany of a landscape of praise,” you can see my post here (but please forgive its somewhat overwrought prose).
Here, then, is Bishop Rowell:
Around about the year 381, a nun called Egeria made the difficult journey from the Atlantic coast of Spain or France to the Middle East. She wrote of her pilgrimage in a vivid book of travels, describing how she was welcomed to the great Syrian Christian centre of Edessa by the bishop who marvelled how her faith had brought her “right from the other end of the earth”. The high point of her journey was the places made holy by the life of Christ, and particularly the holy places of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. She carefully noted how Christians worshipped there and especially the pattern of services for Holy Week and Easter. From that ancient description is derived the pattern of the great traditional services of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter that are still at the centre of Christian celebration of the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord.
Egeria was a keen observer, with an eye for detail, and she describes the litany, one of the most ancient patterns of prayer, where the deacon offers a petition to God, and a boys choir responds, Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy. The word litany simply means a supplication, and this pattern of prayer is woven into the Orthodox liturgy, where the deacon, holding his stole as a plenipotentiary would before the Byzantine emperor, gathers up and leads the prayers of the people. In the West litanies were often sung in procession, as at Rogationtide when the crops were blessed, or penitentially in Lent. The rhythm of the prayer and the simple responses in times when few could read, made a litany into a powerful congregational prayer. Because it was a long prayer the word litany survives in secular usage when we read or hear of a litany of complaints. In Catholic contexts the litany of the saints gathers the prayers of the whole company of heaven, for the living and the departed are one in the church, the body of Christ, and the saints whose lives are transfigured by the grace of Christ can only long for God’s will to be done.
There are litanies of longing, litanies of lamentation and litanies of loving concern. The litany form has inspired many individual Christians. Bishop Jeremy Taylor prays “for all that roar and groan with intolerable pain and noisome diseases…all troubled with despairing consciences – with the stone and with the gout – with violent colic and grievous ulcers”. The Victorian Congregationalist John Hunter has a powerful penitential petition asking for forgiveness “for our fretful sufferance of wrong; for the vindictive passions we have cherished; for our intolerance, injustice and uncharitableness; for our readiness to blame and our want of thoughtfulness, patience, kindness and sympathy in our social relations”.
Others have seen the beauty of the world itself as the litany of a landscape of praise: “the whirling wings of birds in flight,/ Beat living litanies of light.”