Simcha Fisher: In praise of litanies

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The saints are personally interested in our welfare and welcome being called upon by us, says Simcha Fisher

When my spiritual life needs a shot in the arm, I sometimes turn to litanies. Many Catholics only encounter litanies on All Saint’s Day, perhaps leaving Mass with the impression that a litany is a prayer for when you have a short amount of time and a giant crowd to propitiate, sort of like a spiritual credits page that scrolls past in tiny print to fulfill your contractual obligation. St Key Grip, pray for us! All rights reserved, Amen.

But there are so many more litanies, and more kinds of litanies, than the litany of saints — which, by the way, is itself so much more than a list, and which has been prayed in one form or another for over 1500 years. The Litany of Saints was first recorded in the time of Gregory the Great around the year 600. According to one source,

“In 590 Pope Gregory was moved by the occurrence of a great pestilence that followed an inundation, and ordered a Litania Septiformis (‘sevenfold procession’): clergy; laity; monks; virgins; matrons; widows; and the poor and children. It was in one of these Litania Septiformis, in celebration of the end of the plague, that the Litany of the Saints was introduced.”

I’d like to see that! Imagine processing down the streets invoking the names of all the blessed — many of whom would have been martyrs — proclaiming to the world that you’re grateful to them and to God that you’re still breathing. That really brings home how personal the communion of saints truly is.

Of course the form of a litany is older than the Catholic Church. Every year at our Passover seder, we recite the sort of wellspring of all litanies, Psalm 136, and it is very good indeed to say the words that the children of Abraham have been saying faithfully for thousands and thousands of years: His mercy endures forever. I love how it slides so casually from the cosmic to the specific. We say:

“To him who alone doeth great wonders: for his mercy endureth for ever.
To him that by wisdom made the heavens: for his mercy endureth for ever.
To him that stretched out the earth above the waters: for his mercy endureth for ever.
To him that made great lights: for his mercy endureth for ever:
The sun to rule by day: for his mercy endureth for ever:
The moon and stars to rule by night: for his mercy endureth for ever.”

and then later in the same prayer:

“To him which smote great kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:
And slew famous kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:
Sihon king of the Amorites: for his mercy endureth for ever:
And Og the king of Bashan: for his mercy endureth for ever.”

Poor Og of Bashan! That’s all I ever knew about him, but I’ll never forget him. Even Og could have the mercy of the Lord, if he wanted it.

Litanies have the power of poetic form as well as the power of prayer, and so the repetitious rhythms can lull you into a meditative state, making it all the more startling when some unexpected phrase turns up. For instance, the Litany of Loreto, which includes a long list of the many names of Mary, is delightful and profound, and has been illustrated in many churches and chapels. If you’ve been puzzled by images of towers, roses, or stars, they are probably depictions of the names of Mary.

A friend described this litany as a carefully faceted gem that you can hold up to light, admiring its many faces in turn. The Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus is a good example of this.

The Litany to the Holy Spirit works well as an examination of conscience (and it’s good to examine one’s conscience while praying, rather than trying to step away from the presence of God and scrutinise our souls on our own); and is also a good corrective to our tendency to focus on the Father and the Son, whose attributes can be easier to imagine and understand.

Litany to the Sacred Heart has 33 invocations, one for each year of the life of Jesus, and brings you through everything you need to know and remember about the Lord.

Litany to Old Testament saints is one that’s new to me. It includes a list of the holy men and women who preceded Christ and places us personally in the drama of the chosen people, perhaps rescuing us from the notion that the first reading at Mass is all about other kinds of people:

“From breaking Your Commandments,
O Lord, deliver us.

From falling away from the Faith,
O Lord, deliver us.

From doubting Your Word,
O Lord, deliver us.

From denying Your Name,
O Lord, deliver us.

From fear of proclaiming Your Name,
O Lord, deliver us.

From lack of sincere repentance,
O Lord, deliver us.

From losing hope,
O Lord, deliver us . . .”

And you can go off-script. A good many Catholics have cobbled together their own litanies, patching together a list of all their family’s official and unofficial patrons and drawing it up over themselves like a quilt before heading off to bed. Just be careful with the notorious Litany of Humility. I’ve never had the guts to pray it, myself, and I won’t even link to it, as I’ve heard that it should only be used under the supervision of a spiritual director. Those prone to scruples should steer clear altogether.

But litanies in general should be rescued from obscurity. They’re not only for special feast days or for communities dedicated to specific devotions. They’re for everyone.

The call-and-response form of the litany answers a deep, universal human affinity for rhythm and repetition, which manages to variously recall both the soothing, intimate rocking motion of the nursery and the stirring battlefield drills of a loyal army.

More and more, I find myself at a loss for words before the Lord. It’s a very good thing to have the pattern already worked out for you, so you can pray the things you know are important but which aren’t immediately present to you; and in the process, you may be surprised at how, in the midst of the repetition, familiar phrases suddenly blossom and become poignant and profound.

Here is a list of 236 Catholic litanies! Something for everyone. Why not choose one tonight?