Michaelmas Observed

In a short article in the Daily Telegraph, Christopher Howse explains the meaning and importance of St Michael whose day is marked tomorrow (29 September) as Michaelmas. Howse is reminded of a prayer to St Michael which is mentioned in one of Evelyn Waugh’s novels:

On Michaelmas Day two years ago, the Pope asked pious Catholics to say a prayer that seeks the intercession of the Archangel Michael. This surprised some people who thought Pope Francis trendy, because the prayer in question is old-fashioned.

It had, in 1886, been ordered by Pope Leo XIII to be recited after Mass. It begins, in Latin, Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio, “Holy Michael archangel, defend us in the day of battle. Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God thrust down to hell Satan and all wicked spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls.”

It is this prayer that is remembered by the delirious Guy Crouchback in an open boat drifting in the wartime Mediterranean in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Officers and Gentlemen. But, in his fever, Crouchback directs his words to St Roger of Waybroke, a renaming in his confusion of Sir Roger of Waybroke, a Crusader knight whose chivalry he admires.

The Pope wasn’t invoking Waugh in his call for prayers. He was thinking, he said, of the devil as the “Great Accuser” referred to in the biblical Book of Job, who “goes around the world seeking to accuse”. In the Hebrew of the Book of Job, “Accuser” is a meaning of the name Satan. Satan, in that tale, takes away Job’s wealth and kills his children. Job’s answer is: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

In the novel, Guy recalls the prayer in hospital as he is recovering from the voyage out of Crete and is awakened by a visit from a priest:

There was one clear moment of revelation between great voids when Guy discovered himself holding in his hand, not, as he supposed , Gervase’s medal but the red identity disc of an unknown soldier, and heard himself saying preposterously: ‘Saint Roger of Waybroke defend us in the day of battle and be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil…’ (Officers and Gentlemen, Penguin, 1977, p. 228).

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