Textual Reflections on Ubi caritas

When the fit strikes me, I can ramble interminably about music, liturgy, and the unique intersection of the two found in Gregorian chant. As we travel the liturgical kathemerinon we inevitably pass certain chants that have a high probability of triggering one of my rambles, and thus it was that my choir got to hear an extended spiel on the text of the Holy Thursday chant Ubi caritas. I was sufficiently pleased by the result to refine it into the following short essay.

From Amor to Veritas

Before the second editio typica of the current Missale Romanum was published in 1975, the refrain of Ubi caritas read thus:

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

By 1975, liturgical archaeology had uncovered ancient manuscripts with a different text, which was printed in the second editio typica and all subsequent editions:

Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est.

Solesmes revised the current chant books accordingly, but the preponderance of music, including previous chant books, which uses the pre-1975 text has kept it in use, and for practical purposes it has not been displaced. While pure antiquity seemed to settle the issue for the custodians of the liturgical texts, despite Ven. Pope Pius XII’s contrary admonition in paragraphs 61 and 62 of Mediator Dei, the previously-accepted reading affords a point of deep theological reflection on the Christian understanding of love, which may be approached via Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus caritas est and the writings on love of the German philosopher Josef Pieper.

Caritas and Amor in the Christian Experience

Amor serves both as the generic word for “love” in Latin, and more familiarly as a translation of Greek eros, which concept shall be treated in more detail below. Caritas, often used to translate Greek agape in the New Testament (cf. 1 Cor 13, 1 Jn 4), is derived from carus, meaning “dear, precious, or valuable.” In the classical sources it bears connotations of a disinterested love, a love that does not require the wants and desires of the lover to be satisfied, which connotations are only enhanced by associating it with agape.

Eros, on the other hand, is a needy love. The lover in apprehension of the beloved is drawn out of himself, and in so doing recognizes some want in himself which may be supplied by union with or pursuit of the beloved. For the ancient Greeks, the ecstasy of eros was a theia mania, a divine madness, which overpowers reason but is capable of granting the highest joys and greatest blessings precisely because man is no longer in control of himself, but rather in communion with the divine. Omnia vincit amor, et nos cedamus amori; so Virgil in his tenth Eclogue gives voice to the Greek (and Roman) conviction that eros should not be resisted.

The Church, and the Jews before her, could not accept such an understanding in the light of revelation. In Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict XVI writes:

[The Old Testament] did not directly reject Eros as such, but rather fought the battle against its destructive manifestation…. [D]runken, undisciplined Eros is not an “ecstasy,” a raising-up to the divine, but rather the degradation of man. It is clear, then, that Eros required purification and discipline, in order that man would be given not a mere moment’s pleasure, but rather a true foretaste of the heights of existence — that blessedness for which our entire being yearns. (para. 4, my translation from the German)

The purification and discipline referred to entail the exclusion of egotism and self-centeredness, the refusal to bend the exstasis of eros back into a circle, whereby one becomes self-contained in one’s exploitation of the beloved, and the ability, or rather grace, to seek the good of the beloved even when one’s own desires remain unfulfilled. Here we find ourselves on the threshold of agape, that love which perfectly seeks the flourishing of the beloved with no thought for the lover’s own interests. Eros needs agape, amor needs caritas to be perfectly realized.

Yet, no matter how filled with grace we are, we cannot give agape in the manner of God. We are the finite creatures of an infinite God; with respect to God we cannot be more the lover than the beloved, nor can we love other men by giving only without receiving. Josef Pieper, relying on St. Thomas Aquinas, elaborates on the consequences of being a finite creature:

We cannot repeat it too often: What happens “by nature” happens “by virtue of creation”; that is, on the one hand, it springs from the creature’s inmost and most personal impulse; on the other hand, the initial momentum for this impulse does not come from the heart of this same created being but from the act of creatio that set in motion the entire dynamics of the universe…. The functioning of eros is exactly of this kind — insofar as we mean by eros the desire for full existence, for existential exaltation, for happiness and bliss: a desire that cannot be diverted or invalidated and that naturally dominates and permeates all our emotions and all our conscious decisions, above all our loving concern for the world and for other human beings. (Faith, Hope, Love. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997, pp. 233-234)

We are thus confronted with a paradox: human acts of love, even caritas insofar as we participate in it, build upon the ground of that ability to love we are given by creation, and we are created needy. We apprehend something good, something lovable, and yearn for it. Had the Fall not happened, such desires would always be rightly ordered, and following them would lead to beatitude; instead, our minds are darkened by original sin, and we rely on grace to form in us the virtue of caritas. Further, we cooperate with grace through our own acts of denial and self-discipline, strengthening our wills to yield first place to the beloved rather than to our own desires, since we know they are not necessarily ordered to the good.

So we see that the perfection of love in the human mode is well-expressed by the text Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Its combination of caritas and amor echoes the famous and oft-misquoted sentence from St. Irenæus of Lyons: Gloria enim Dei vivens homo, vita autem hominis visio Dei; that is, “The glory of God is living man, and the life of man is the vision of God.” God is present where human love is perfected, with grace supporting rather than contradicting nature, and with that love tending towards union with the divine, as the final stanza of the hymn tells us:

Simul quoque cum beatis videamus,
Glorianter vultum tuum, Christe Deus:
Gaudium quod est immensum, atque probum,
Saecula per infinita saeculorum. Amen.

Together with the blessed, then, may we see
Thy face in glory, O Christ our God:
That joy which is both vast and honorable,
Unto endless ages of ages. Amen.

May it be argued that est vera also implies this perfection of love in the human mode? Perhaps, but not as forcibly as the junction of caritas and amor; the language of worship, which expresses otherwise ineffable realities by means of concrete symbols, is better served by the latter. By recalling to us our own experiences of love grounded in the human realities previously discussed, Ubi caritas et amor leads us quickly into recapitulating those experiences in Christ. Ubi caritas est vera, instead, leaves us hanging while we grope for the definition of true charity.

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