Anything that has been steeped in prayer takes on an aspect that wasn’t there before. Churches, for example, are just buildings… until the liturgy, music, prayer and people inhabit the space—and sanctify it. Rosary beads are pretty things until they have been blessed and have slipped through the fingers of the person praying them.
Objects, we might say, are transformed through prayer.
And not just objects. Everyone’s been transported through beautiful music, but even the most exquisite of secular music is missing something that’s present in sacred music. When what we do is an offering to God, no matter what it is, the thing or activity is transformed.
That is certainly true of the illuminated texts that have survived from the era of their creation up to our time. The monks—and, sometimes, nuns—who spent their lives bent over these manuscripts were not only painters, they were people of prayer, and that prayer was infused into the work that they did.
One of the criticisms leveled at the medieval Church was that there was too much richness on the altar and not enough in the lives of the faithful. How can there be gold chalices when there are people without enough to eat? Illuminated manuscripts were expensive on every level: they required the skins of many animals, they employed paints that were difficult to source, they used real gold and silver in their embellishment, and they obliged people to give their lives to create them. Could those resources have been better spent? Yet an offering to God must be made with all the resources that one has. Should we not give our very best to the proclamation of God’s Word and the celebration of his Eucharist?
The prayer that infused these manuscripts is still alive for us today, and that gold embellishment was, and is, a right and just offering to God.
Illuminated manuscripts were not the only enduring gift we have from the faith of the Middle Ages. The period opened with Gregorian chant, possibly the most spiritually moving and profound music in Western culture. Guillaume de Machaut created a polyphonic setting to the Ordinary of the Mass that paved the way for the flowering of choral music in the fourteenth century. The Notre Dame School of polyphony soared along with the cathedrals it inhabited. Like art, music that is dedicated to God is music that is more than simply the sum of its notes or the smoothness of its performance; quite simply, it becomes prayer.
What happens when these two forms of praise, manuscript illumination and music, come together?
Whatever you do, if you do it in a spirit of prayer, of making it an offering, then the transformation we spoke of earlier happens. “You can praise God by peeling a spud,” said one Scottish Protestant pastor; and it is true that the ordinary is sanctified—becomes extraordinary—through the prayer with which it is infused.
Save 20% on Scripture Illuminated Coloring Book for Prayer and Meditation
So how can you experience this transformation in your prayer life? One option is to combine color and melody by making your prayer through one of our coloring books while listening to music sung by the Daughters of St. Paul Choir. Our most recent coloring book, Scripture Illuminated, enables you to color in some of the illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages and beyond, so in addition to the beautiful experience of coloring, it offers the opportunity to connect with the illuminators of the past, the Christian men and women who made these colors their life’s work. In a sense, you will be continuing the prayer of praise and joy and thanksgiving that they began.
And adding music to that coloring experience will help your prayer… soar!
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Jeannette de Beauvoir is part of the marketing department at Pauline Books & Media. She did graduate studies at Yale University and Boston University in liturgics and Church history.