Review: The Beauty of the Word
This new book by Anthony Esolen for Magnificat is subtitled “A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal,” and that’s exactly what it is. A one-of-a-kind sort of book, it’s hard to peg at first because it’s not a missal, but it’s not a collection of “day by day reflections on the Scriptures.” It’s not much like any common devotional book at all.
What may throw the reader off most is that it’s not at all like Magnificat, the lovely monthly missallette put out by the company of the same name. For those unfamiliar with Magnificat, it’s a pocket-sized, disposable (but beautiful) publication that gives every day’s Mass readings, prayers, and songs as well as morning prayer, evening prayer, and a wide selection of short devotional reading from centuries of Catholic clergy and writers, including many contemporary writers. It also includes historical woodcut illustrations and color reproductions of two pieces of devotional art.
This book, on the other hand, is all Anthony Esolen. Bigger than Magnificat, and printed on a better quality paper (this one is not meant to be disposable), it has no artwork at all and is printed in black with red accents. Divided into three sections, “Proper of Time,” “Ordinary of the Mass,” and “Proper of Saints,” it has a little bit of the feel of a priest’s breviary or a reference book — it seems as if it would very much like to have a leather-bound cover and several ribbons glued to the spine to let the reader mark his place in each section.
But unlike a breviary or a reference book, this one is not comprehensive. Esolen chose particular prayers and passages to expound upon, and then often writes about only one line from them, or even one phrase or one word. In his comment on Preface II of the Holy Martyrs (one of many special prefaces for Mass), he explains why the word “ardor” was chosen for the line now translated as “in your mercy you give ardor to their faith”:
The Latin prayer builds to a mighty summation, each of the last three lines ending with one of the gifts of God: ardorem, firmitatem, victoriam. First God, in his mercy, gives us that flame of zeal, the ardor of a living faith: for God “maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire” (Heb 1:7, KJV). Then he literally bears them up from below, granting them the firm resolve of perseverance and endurance: “Affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint” (Rom 5:3-5). Then comes the greatest gift of all, showered down upon them: victory! The Greek word agon, borrowed into Latin and here translated as struggle, means, literally, the arena, the place where one’s courage is tried….
The book requires (or will create) a familiarity with the liturgy that many Catholics don’t have. Even though we hear it every week or every day, many of us aren’t familiar with the structure of the Mass — what parts change every day, and what parts are for particular seasons or saints days, or even for certain times of day. It also (naturally, for a book about a translation) expects the reader to be interested in language. As in the passage above, it will discuss etymology of words, and draw from more than one Bible translation.
The result is truly one person’s commentary on the entire year of the liturgy, and a very particular sort of commentary as well. If the excerpt above does not appeal to you, you will not like this book. If it does, you will be in heaven. I am in heaven.
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