In praise of litanies

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.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: By Byzantinischer Maler um 1020 – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=148590

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2 thoughts on “In praise of litanies”

  1. I am trying to decide if you wanted to especially recommend the Litany of Humility, because surely EVERYONE is going to google it! I sure couldn’t resist!

    That others may become holier than I,
    provided that I may become as holy as I should,
    Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

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