10 August 2008

Merits of the Saints?!

St Peter Chrysologus concludes his sermon on the life of St Lawrence with this reference to the merits of the saints:

Therefore let us honor and esteem the merits of the martyrs as being the gifts of God. Let us beg for them, and add the inclination of our own will.

Most often, traditional Roman Catholics defend, and Orthodox and Protestants polemicists decry, the term "merits" within the medieval matrix of "supererogatory works" and "treasury of the saints." St Peter Chrysologus, however, is certainly not medieval, and does not, to my mind, evidence "pre-medieval" tendencies (whatever these may be). Hence, his use of the term "merits" suggests that, perhaps, there is a proper use of the term that neither reactively requires its deletion nor unthinkingly compels it to be understood in a scholastic context.

This suggestion is strengthened by hearing St Peter's use within the larger context:

My brethren, let no one arrogate to his own ability that which no one save God gives. When the Apostle was addressing the martyrs, rightly did he say what you heard when his Epistle was read today: 'You have been given the favor on Christ's behalf--not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him.' Therefore let us honor and esteem the merits of the martyrs as being the gifts of God. Let us beg for them, and add the inclination of our own will. For, our will follows; it does not take the lead. Nevertheless, charity is not lacking if our will is not lacking, for the eager will itself is called charity. Who is there who willingly fears? Who is there who unwillingly loves? May prayer be fervent, and let the feast of this martyr be celebrated. But let everyone who celebrates also imitate him, that the celebrating may not be idle. (Source)

Caveat: I don't have access to the Latin, only Ganss' translation. Perhaps the translation is misleading.


D. Benedict Andersen OSB said...

Good stuff, Father. This is a question which has always fascinated me. I'd love to do some research on the concept of the "merits of the Saints" in the Latin Fathers, but alas, no time.

Based on the little research I have been able to do on the topic, I don't believe that many of the Latin liturgical references to the "merits of the Saints" are later interpolations reflective of the fully developed Roman Catholic understanding of the "thesaurus meritorum" (as Fr Alexander Turner and many Old Catholics claimed).

There are plenty of collects and hymns dating from the time of Saint Leo and Gregory which make reference to Saints' merits. Fr Paul Schneirla told me that years ago he searched and searched in vain for an old version of the collect of Saint George which did not invoke the Martyr's "merits."

Plus, the writings of the Latin Fathers contain references to the merits of the Saints. In his homily for Ember Saturday in September (appointed for that day in the Breviary), he exhorts the Roman faithful to worship at the shrine of the blessed Apostle Peter "by whose merits and prayers we believe that we shall be aided, so that we may please our merciful God in our fasting and prayer." (cujus nos meritis et oratiónibus crédimus adjuvándos, ut misericordi Deo jejúnio nostro et devotióne placeamus.)

I've also been told that the medieval Greek translation of the Roman Liturgy (that is, the highly Byzantinized Liturgy of Saint Peter) uses the term
"praxis" (works, deeds) as a translation of the merits of the Saints.

I also recently ran across a very interesting description of the role of the Martyrs and Confessors of the faith in early Christian penitential practice.

Apparently, it was very common for a penitent under the discipline of the Church to visit a Christian in jail to ask the soon-to-be martyr to offer up his sufferings as a sort of "satisfaction" for the penance that the penitent was assigned to perform. The martyr would then write a note (libellus) imploring the bishop to grant a pardon (indulgentia) to the penitent.

Could this have any connection to the early Christian invocation of the "merits of the Saints"? I don't know, it sounds plausible.

Of course, I'm sure this all sounds frighteningly Romish to many Orthodox and Protestants, but at least it indicates that the notion of the intercessory power of the merits of the Saints is not some sort of purely post-schism development.

Again, much, much more research would have to be done ...

Dn. Lucas said...

I must admit, that I am much more comfortable with the reference to merits that Fr. John makes in St. Peter's passage, than that given by Benjamin in his last example.

I suppose my question (regarding the latter) would be: if penance is always given, in the Orthodox understanding, for the therapeutic restoration of the sinner--rather than a legalistic 'satisfaction' for sin--does not this example serve more of a juridical paradigm, than a real, organic one?

Put another way, if I receive a penance because of, say, theft, so that I might have a time of prayer to benefit my soul, how does a letter written by a soon-to-be martyr to my bishop fit into what should be a medicine for my sickness? Would not this rather be counter to the healing intended?

I hope the above is understood in a tone of one seeking to better understand (it is not my custom to ask questions for the sake of polemicizing.)

pray for me the sinner,
Sbdn. Lucas

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

There may be another way to view this issue of merit (though it still seems to me that any introduction of the concept will inevitably bring distortions in theology). We may recognize that at one time, the word could be used in a profitable way; but later developments have rendered the use of the word misleading at best. Therefore maybe it's best simply not to use it. For the sake of layfolk, and simple priests like me, let us speak one theology in two rites.

Andreas said...

Hi there!

What's the word used in the original that is translated in English as "merits"? Does anyone know?

Maybe that could shed more light on the issue.

Jon Marc said...

An interesting example of the penitent going to the martyr! It resonates of the kenoticism of the East.

Orthonomian said...

In answer to your question Andreas:

The word "merit" in English is simply a cognate of the Latin word "merito" and its various grammatical forms. If you see the word "merit" in a prayer or hymn that was once translated from Latin into English, you can be reasonably certain that it is a direct translation of the word.