Blessed Captivity: “If your mouth stops chanting psalms…”

St. Peter of Damascus wrote the following in the 12th century about losing track of the text of the liturgy (a psalm in this case) because your prayer takes you elsewhere:

[While you are chanting psalmody,] when God’s grace kindles a sense of deep penitence in the heart, you should allow your intellect to be bathed in tears of compunction, even if this means that your mouth stops reciting psalms and your mind is made captive to what St. Isaac the Syrian calls ‘blessed captivity.’ For now is the time to harvest, not plant. You should therefore persist in such thoughts, so that your heart grows more full of compunction and bears fruit in the form of godly tears.

[“The Third Stage of Contemplation,” in Philokalia, vol. 3, ed. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrand, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 119.]

I think Peter is recommending going with your ‘stray’ thoughts during the liturgy. No worries when your mouth no longer is singing or reciting the text and your mind is captive to other deeply emotional thoughts. Your participation, though apart from the community, is to be praised as “blessed captivity.”

The excellent post-Vatican II document Musicam Sacram (1967) says at no. 15 that full, conscious, and active participation should be “above all internal,” but also “must be…external…to show the internal participation.” To put internal participation first is exactly right.

To be sure, Musicam Sacram thinks of internal participation at no. 15 in a more constricted sense than Peter of Damascus – namely, to “join [your] mind to what [you] pronounce or hear.” Peter seems to be speaking not of internal focus on the liturgical text, but losing track of that text for a time as the mind soars elsewhere.

There has to be both in the liturgy – both a constant undercurrent of internal resonance with the liturgical texts and actions, and room for moments of grace when the mind goes elsewhere. It would be too narrow to expect unrelenting rational comprehension of everything in the liturgy.

To be honest, my mind goes elsewhere a lot during the liturgy. And not always to the good – certainly not always with the “tears of compunction” Peter extols (but my brother monks would wonder about if I cried too much during the Office). Perhaps we might distinguish between blessed captivity, as Peter of Damascus describes it, and cursed captivity (papers to grade, errands to run…).

Now if everyone in the congregation is soaring into blessed captivity at the same time, there will be no one left to recite the texts or sing the chants. That would be a problem.

But I wouldn’t worry about it. I think more blessed captivity would be a good thing.

What do you think? What is your experience of blessed captivity?



  1. As an organist/choir director, there’s a part of me that somewhat dreads the really excellent homily, because that will hold me “captive” for the rest of the liturgy. So I may or may not remember if the sopranos are singing the descant on the Sanctus, or I could miss the cue for the Memorial Acclamation, and so on.

    But, on the whole, I’ll take the “felix culpa” that a really excellent homily will lead me into captivity!

  2. I find myself much more often caught up to pedo-captivity, rather than blessed captivity. That is, chasing children, encouraging them, finding the line between completely corralling them (which also risks a full-blown screaming episode) and keeping them within reasonable childish behavior. So it’s often the moments in which I wrestle my way to actual external participation that I feel so blessed.

    However, I find Peter’s words salutary nevertheless. Anthony’s comment that “It would be too narrow to expect unrelenting rational comprehension of everything in the liturgy” is right-on. I would venture to say it’s not just narrow, but wrongheaded. I hope to explore a related thought in a post later this week!

  3. I’d be willing to bet that St. Peter was a constant source of frustration for the ecclesiarch of his community – we’re trained to “make the Liturgy your liturgy.”

    People want to set their thoughts and temptations aside during Liturgy, and the Liturgy invites us to do so. It’s hard work, and it’s utterly human to stray, to wander – God built us this way. If ritual is related to play, then we have to expect some space for play – and perhaps this is why liturgical bloopers keep ecclesiarchs and sacristans honest.

    On the other hand, doesn’t the monastic tradition also compel us to fast from our thoughts, the logismoi constantly rotating from one side of our minds to another? I wonder if blessed captivity is a matter of the soul, an unplanned moment of divine grace during which the soul is opened to receive God in such a way that the purification of the mind can begin.

    As for me, I try hard to “make the Liturgy my liturgy.” If I don’t, I lose my place, and order is compromised. But I would take blessed captivity without hesitation; it sounds much more peaceful than aridity.

  4. I actually think one of the weakness of the reformed Roman liturgy is that it has been so streamline and “rationalized” that one can get the impression that one is supposed to be intently focused on whatever is being done/said at any given moment. No danger of that with the old liturgy, when often multiple actions were being done at the same time and the things being said were said in a language incomprehensible to most who were present. I find it somewhat gratifying that human nature wins out and people still find ways to be distracted during the liturgy (kids are a great help in this regard, as Tim notes).

    I generally agree with Herbert McCabe’s remark that there are no such things as distractions during prayer; there are only things you really should be praying about, which may be different from the things you think you should be praying for if you were doing it “right” (i.e piously). I find if I’m thinking about grading papers when I should be praying, then the solution is to pray about those papers: that I get them done, that I grade justly and mercifully, that I do not write testy comments in the margins, etc. Of course, matters are a little different with liturgical prayer, since we’re supposed to be more or less on the same page, praying-wise, during the liturgy. But I see no need to be uptight or puritanical about these things. If during the consecration of the Eucharist I find myself thinking about the papers I have to grade, I see no problem with lifting that distraction up to God, pondering how the love Christ shows us in the Eucharist might be related to the mundane drudgery of paper-grading, asking that the sacrificial gift that I receive in the Eucharist might characterize my interactions with my students. Or sometimes I simply realize that the institution narrative has come and gone and I was thinking about grading papers, and then I can only say, “Oh well, I’m glad none of this depends on me and me alone paying attention all the time.”

    1. I also think that an (unintended) attitude has arisen that each eucharistic liturgy is a “one and done” deal – we don’t seem to understand or trust that the liturgy works on/in/through/for us repeatedly, over the course of time.

      Did you blank during the Letter to the Corinthians? Don’t worry – it’ll be back. Thought about what you’ll have for dinner during the invitation to communion? Never fear – you’re still invited.

      To paraphrase a former choir member: “When I get to the pearly gates, I sure HOPE that the thing they want to discuss is that time I got distracted during Mass.”

    2. The old saw comes to mind:

      A Franciscan and a Jesuit were friends. They were both smokers who found it difficult to pray for a long period of time without having a cigarette. They decided to go to their superiors and ask permission to smoke.

      When they met again, the Franciscan was downcast. “I asked my superior if I could smoke while I pray and he said ‘no,’” he said.

      The Jesuit smiled. “I asked I could pray while I smoke. He said ‘of course.’”

    3. I couldn’t agree with you more. I attend almost exclusively the Ordinary Form and not infrequently Eastern Catholic/Orthodox worship. If one’s heart is moved to harvest from the “blessed captivity” at worship, I find it easier to do so (i.e. with less guilt) during the Eastern liturgies where repetition is frequent and worship appears as one flowing movement instead of a series of concrete acts.

      As an example, I find it personally difficulty to pray the general intercessions, as I just auricularly register the petition and make a rote response without any depth before moving onto the next petition.

      I also sometimes realize that I “missed” the consecration/institution narrative by being distracted and I will keep your attitude in mind when it happens again as consolation. Thank you.

  5. ‘Blessed captivity’ is so much better than ‘aimless wandering’, I will feel far less guilty in the future (as long as we’re not the one responsible for leadership at that particular point in the liturgy!) I have often wandered off in blessed captivity at something said in the homily, or in a reading where an evocative turn of phrase brought me somewhere else. When married to the broader understanding of “participation”, including contemplative participation, it bridges our private and corporate prayer. As far as the practicalities of this spiritual wandering, I used to treasure the parish that had a beautiful choir and an anthem where permission was granted to wander mystically before needing to return – perhaps a bit more silence and a bit more beauty may encourage all of us to pray from the interior to many places and back.

  6. When I think of being distracted during liturgy, I think of Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III, q. 64, art. 8, ad. 3, concerning intention and sacramental validity:

    Although he who thinks of something else, has no actual intention, yet he has habitual intention, which suffices for the validity of the sacrament; for instance if, when a priest goes to baptize someone, he intends to do to him what the Church does. Wherefore if subsequently during the exercise of the act his mind be distracted by other matters, the sacrament is valid in virtue of his original intention. Nevertheless, the minister of a sacrament should take great care to have actual intention. But this is not entirely in man’s power, because when a man wishes to be very intent on something, he begins unintentionally to think of other things, according to Ps. 39:18: “My heart hath forsaken me.”
    I find Thomas’ use of Ps. 39 very amusing and yet on target.

  7. What a wonderful topic! I am glad to know I am not the only one who sort of slides into “captivity”.

    When a deacon is serving at the altar, we don’t have a whole lot to say for long stretches. We’re like those percussionists who have to count 128 measures and then ping a triangle once. So the danger of missing a cue is always lurking. Once or twice, the priest has more or less had to stuff the chalice into my hands at the doxology that ends the Eucharistic Prayer in order to rouse me from my reverie.

  8. I like the comment from Lizette Larson-Miller that “contemplative participation, it bridges our private and corporate prayer”. I struggle with how long we are permitted to spiritually wander before having to return. At times, part of me is urging continued contemplation while another voice is beckoning me to focus on the rite at hand.

  9. View from the Pew
    Regarding: ‘blessed captivity’
    – The prep school to which I was sent required a religion course in ‘family living and counseling’. The focus was largely the sacrament of marriage, responsibilities of the single life, interrelationships, and of course faith.
    – One classmate, during an unit on prayer, noted that when she prayed all that seemed to happen was that she had ‘visions’ of sex. Naturally, the whole class of 15/16 year olds fell to leering as we knew when there was an incoming set-up for sister.
    – Sadly our expectations of stammering and blushing were not met. Instead Sister advised that what was called for was rejoicing and gladness for being alive, and gratefulness to God while listening for God. Still good advice even if sex is not that which flits through during prayer.

  10. We try so hard to do it right. Yet the grace given is from outside ourselves, and it humbles us.

    Our common prayer in the liturgy allows for so many levels of engagement, and forgives so many vagaries of the heart and mind. As Fritz said above, if we are willing to be attuned to God’s action, even the distractions can become part of the prayer.

    It’s hard of course when the distractions reveal something about ourselves that we would rather not see: impatience, worries, irritation. But the event itself is a dynamic process and this can help us. We don’t always leave the way we came in.

  11. During his rather frequent stays in prisons India’s Mahatma Gandhi chanted prayers and hymns from the Gita, the Indian Book of spiritual Songs.

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