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Welcome to the Gueranger Blog! You have stumbled across the notebook I use to record my thoughts as I read through Dom Prosper Gueranger's 15-volume set, The Liturgical Year. I do not have any special expertise in liturgy, but I have some general knowledge of Catholic theology and an enthusiasm for Gueranger's magnum opus. Think of it as the Liturgical Year fan site!

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A mysterious hymn for the conversion of St. Paul

Canisius | 25 January, 2006 16:55

In vol. 3, pp. 404-5, Dom Gueranger offers an ancient hymn for the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul that he says is "full of mysterious references". Mysterious indeed! The first verse says (if we exclude Gueranger's italicized, interpretive suggestions), "The Lord said: I will turn him from Basan; I will turn him into the deep sea." What could it possibly mean?

I can't honestly say that I have any expertise in Scripture or allusions thereto, but let's see if we can't track down a few of these "mysterious references". It seems to me that the author of this hymn intentionally started it with an obscure statement to arouse the reader/hearer's interest, and then slowly clarified its meaning over the course of the hymn. So we'll get back to this opening line at the end.

First of all, the author is playing with Psalm 113 (Vulgate numbering), which describes the exodus of Israel from Egypt. A few lines into the hymn he says, "The earth was moved at the presence of the Lord; it trembled and then was at rest." This is a quotation from Psalm 113:7. Paul's conversion was a kind of exodus. The reason for the author's interest in Psalm 113 becomes clear only towards the end of the hymn, when he quotes verse 3: "...the sea beheld and fled, the Jordan was turned back." "Turned back" is a translation of the Latin conversus est retrorsum: the sea was "converted!" This is a great text to weave into a hymn about the conversion of St. Paul. We'll get to its meaning in a moment.

The other text the author is playing with is Psalm 135 (again, Vulgate numbering), another psalm describing the exodus of Irael from Egypt. This psalm also describes (in verse 20) how God slew famous kings, including "Og, the king of Bashan" to bring his people to the promised land. The author of our hymn refers to Og towards the end of the hymn; the very last verse of the hymn, "...now adore but thee, O Christ, their creator, whom they believe to have come in the flesh to redeem them", is a clever allusion to Psalm 135:24, "And he redeemed us from our enemies...."

So what does it all mean? Given that both major texts the author plays with describe the exodus of Israel from Egypt, we should start there. The traditional mystical interpretation of the exodus is that the sinner is enslaved by Satan and by sin, but crosses the red sea through baptism, navigates the wilderness of this life, and at last comes to the promised land of heaven. In other words, the exodus is a Christian sign of conversion from sin.

At this point, St. Augustine can help us. His commentaries on the psalms was very influential and, I would argue, stands behind our hymn for today. In his commentary on Psalm 135, he interprets the name "Og" as "heaper-up" and the name "Bashan" as "confusion": "Heaper-up of confusion". This "heaper-up of confusion" is none other than Satan. In this light, we can appreciate the verse towards the end of our hymn: "Because the multitude of the nations, returning from the depths of sin, to the confusion of Og the King of Bashan...." The conversion of the nations is the confusion (or confounding) of Satan; did you catch the word-play between "Bashan" and "confusion" in the hymn?

In his commentary on Psalm 113, St. Augustine interprets the turning back of the Jordan as the nations turning away from sin and towards God. This explains the use of Psalm 113:3 in our hymn: "When [Paul] preached God, the sea beheld and fled, the Jordan was turned back...." The nations converted at Paul's preaching!

Now we have a key to the puzzle. The sea means the nations; their "turning back" is their "conversion"; "Og" is Satan; "Bashan" is Satan's kingdom. Back to the beginning of the hymn, and we'll make sense of it!

From this point on, quotations from the hymn will be my own translation. "The Lord said: I will convert him from Basan; I will turn him unto the depth of the sea." In other words, the Lord said that he would convert Paul from the kingdom of Satan and send him to the nations! It makes sense now!

But there's more. At the bottom of p. 404, the hymn says, "leaving thine enemies, he returned to this." The Latin has, ex inimicis ad te rediens, Deus. This is parallel to what is said about the nations toward the end: "...returning from the depths of sin...", or in Latin, rediens vitiorum profundo. In other words, the hymn is crafted so that Paul's conversion is paralleled by the conversion of the nations. This is why Psalm 113:7 is quoted to describe Paul's conversion, and then verse 3 of the same Psalm is quoted to describe the conversion of Paul.

As I mentioned before, Psalm 113:7, "At the presence of the Lord the earth was moved", is used towards the beginning of the hymn to describe Paul's conversion. St. Augustine interprets this verse of the Psalm as referring to the presence of Christ, who said, "Behold, I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20). And indeed, Paul was converted by the presence of Christ appearing to him on the road to Damascus!

So the "mysterious references" fall into place. I haven't done much with the middle of the hymn, for lack of time, but let me just suggest for those interested that Paul is portrayed as a new Moses, a new giver of the law. I would further suggest that "and the hungry are fed" is an allusion to Psalm 135:25.


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