Saturday, August 22, 2009

Not To Us, O Lord

In Shakespeare's play, The Life of Henry the Fifth, Act 4, Scene 8, the British have just won an unexpected victory over the French at Agincourt. They have had relatively few casualties and his men would love to pat themselves on the back. King Harry says, "Come, go we in procession to the village, And be it death proclaimed through our host To boast of this, or take that praise from God which is his only." He then commands, "Do we all holy rites: Let there be sung Non nobis and Te Deum, The dead with charity enclosed in clay;..."

The movie version of the play (Henry V, 1989, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh) portrays that command. While the tired, mud-soaked and bloody men slowly walk the field, a young soldier begins singing these words to a haunting melody:
Non nobis, Domine, sed nomine tua gloria.
Other voices join his, then an orchestra, so that the last notes ring over the battlefield and in our minds for long moments afterward.

My own knowledge of Catholic Church history and Shakespeare's words reminded me that King Harry's command would not have been unusual. "Te Deum" refers to an ancient prayer (To you, God) and "Non nobis" is shorthand for Psalm 115. Before English became an accepted sacred language, the Bible was read widely in Latin. Most people couldn't read, so prayers and Psalms were memorized. The first line of each Psalm, in Latin, became a title for that Psalm and a memory jog so people would know which psalm to pray--or to sing as in this depiction in Henry V. "Non nobis, Domine" becomes in English:
Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
but to your Name give glory;
because of your love and because of your faithfulness.
To me, Psalm 115 is a prayer of mindfulness, of awareness that we have been blessed with powerful senses, and we don't use them. We can become like stone and metal idols that just sit on a shelf, uninvolved, uncommunicative. The last two verses of this psalm really stick with me:
The dead do not praise the Lord,
nor all those who go down into silence;
But we [emphasis mine] will bless the Lord, from this time forth for evermore.
If anyone is going to look around this earth and give thanks and praise for all that we've been given, it's not going to be the dead. This is a job for the living.

When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies with yourself.--Chief Tecumseh

I'm with the Chief, King Harry and Psalm 115. How about you?

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