Saturday, April 15, 2017

National Poetry Month: Stabat Mater

Tomorrow is Easter, which brings to an end the observation of Lent, the season of reflection and sacrifice leading up to the celebration of the Resurrection. As a child going to Catholic School in the 1970's, a big part of Lent was the weekly participation in Stations of the Cross. 

This would take place in the final hour of the day each Friday in Lent. We would line up by classes and process up the hill or through the side passage to the church. The ceremony wasn't an ordinary Mass, but instead a series of ritual prayers said at each of the twelve dioramas mounted on the walls of the church. The priest and two of the older altar boys (eventually including me) would make their way through the church, moving from station to station*, with the priest making the ritual call "We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee," and the congregation giving the response.  As this was a children's version of the rite, we would say the special, simplified prayers on each page of our booklets.

A little too simple for my tastes. My mind and eye wandered. I picked out the background details in the pictures - pictures I would later learn were black-and-white reproductions of color paintings, and not carefully rendered pencil sketches. But I would also focus on the three lines at the bottom of each page, three lines that seemed to come from a poem. The first three lines bore a title: STABAT MATER.

The poem was something different, something odd, something I could focus my mind on instead of the childish chants or the half-sung, half-mumbled prayers from the priest or the incessant rounds of kneeling and standing.

It wasn't until years later that I would learn that the Stabat Mater is a thirteenth-century prayer poem, a hymn, and I was reading Edward Caswall's nineteenth-century translation of it, woven into the pages of the Stations of the Cross. The Stabat Mater wasn't part of the ceremony; it appeared in our booklets but was skipped over. Like much of the rest of grade school, I found the stuff we didn't cover to be much more interesting that the stuff we did.

*If you ever wondered where David Bowie got the title for Station to Station, now you know.

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