February 21st is the feast of St. Peter Damian, Doctor of the Church, reformer of the Church–and writer of hymns. Although his feast is not often celebrated in most parishes, when it falls during the privileged season of Lent, he is well worth knowing, particularly as we begin this prayerful season. As the Pope Emeritus said of him:
In study and in the daily meditation of Sacred Scripture, Peter Damian discovered the mystical meaning of the word of God, finding in it nourishment for his spiritual life. In this regard he described the hermit’s cell as the “parlor in which God converses with men”. For him, living as a hermit was the peak of Christian existence, “the loftiest of the states of life” because the monk, now free from the bonds of worldly life and of his own self, receives “a dowry from the Holy Spirit and his happy soul is united with its heavenly Spouse” (Ep 18, 17; cf. Ep 28, 43 ff.). This is important for us today too, even though we are not monks: to know how to make silence within us to listen to God’s voice, to seek, as it were, a “parlor” in which God speaks with us: learning the word of God in prayer and in meditation is the path to life.
The Liber Hymnarius includes nine hymns of Saint Peter Damian, of which two are parts of the same original hymn, the Good Friday hymns for Sext and None: Crux, mundi, and Per crucem. All of the hymns commemorate a special saint or mystery; none is sung throughout the year.
Here are my translations of the three Marian hymns among those in the Liber Hymnarius. One of the special features of St. Peter’s Marian hymns is his idea of Mary’s mediation of Christ, Who came through her. This idea is evident in the first and third hymns below.
Just like the morning’s dawning bright
She rises to the heav’nly height,
Maria, splendid as the sun,
Just like the moon, most lovely one.
Today, the queen of all the earth—
Who to that Son has given birth
Who is, before the daystar shone—
Ascends unto her glorious throne.
Assumed above the angels, higher
Than every heav’nly angel choir
This single woman has outrun
The merits all the saints have won.
The One Whom in her lap she fed
And laid within a manger bed.
She sees as Lord of everything,
Now in His Father’s glory, King.
Virgin of virgins, intercede,
And with your Son with fervor plead.
He took up what is ours through you.
May what is His come through you, too.
Praise to the Father and the Son
And Paraclete, forever one,
Who in the saints’ and angels’ sight
Have clothed you in their glorious light.
O Theotokos, Mary blest,
Our human nature’s shining crest,
Through you we have our liberty,
Free children of the light to be.
O Virgin, Queen of heav’n and earth,
Though of King David’s stock by birth,
Your royal dignity has come
Not from your fathers, but your Son.
Remove us from the ancient root.
Graft us in Him, the newborn shoot.
Through you may we become by grace,
A royal, priestly, human race.
O offer holy prayers to win
Release from all our bonds of sin.
We praise your merits to the skies:
May we in heaven share your prize.
Exemplar of virginity,
Give glory to the Trinity,
Whose endless treasure-stores of gifts
Through you our human nature lifts.
Joy of creation, new star in the heavens,
Moth’ring the Sun, and parenting your Maker,
Stretch forth your hand to lift the weak and fallen,
O virgin Mother.
You were created as a living ladder
By which the Most High reaches us, the lowly.
Give us God’s ladder. Let us climb, returning
To the high heavens.
All of the chorus of the blessed angels,
Orders of prophets and the blest apostles
Claim you in honor as their only sov’reign
After the Godhead.
Praise to the highest Trinity eternal,
Who crowned you, Virgin, honoring you greatly,
And whose provision gave you as our Mother,
And Queen forever. Amen.