In recent years Fr. John Zuhlsdorf has made famous the liturgical instruction, “Say the black; do the red.” In other words, say the prayers as written in black ink (with no embellishments or deletions) and follow the instructions printed in red ink. After too many decades of liturgical errors—even outright disobedience—this is a pithy and memorable way to encourage proper demeanor and invoke the obedience that is due the Sacred Liturgy.
Recently I read an interesting remark from (then) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger about the “red and the black” of the Missal. As always, he plumbs the spiritual depths in his commentary; he also introduced me to a word I never knew: nigrics. Pope Emeritus Benedict (then Joseph Ratzinger) wrote the following:
Participation [in the Sacred Liturgy] … is a question of what my professor of liturgics Joseph Pascher expressed in these words: “It is not enough to observe the rubrics—the external ceremonial directions; much more important is the claim of the nigrics—the inner demand made by what is printed in black, that is, by the liturgical text itself, which as such includes interaction in hearing and responding in prayer, acclamation, and song.” [Address on the Fortieth Anniversary of the Constitution on the Liturgy. Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol 11, pp 585-586]
It was a new word—for me, anyway. Nigrics are the black words in the Missal, as distinct from “rubrics,” which are the red words in the Missal. Sure enough, the Latin word for black is nigra.
But more spiritually, Cardinal Ratzinger was recalling the admonition of his teacher to meditate on and penetrate to the deeper meaning of the text of the Sacred Liturgy. It is the lex orandi (the law of prayer) expressing the lex credendi (the law of belief).
These are precious words, many of them quite ancient and time-tested. They are words that deserve our deepest respect and devotion. They are worthy of pondering in one’s private prayer and of being said with deep and prayerful attentiveness in the liturgical moments.
The Mass is to be prayed, not merely recited or executed. Even simple instructions such as “Let us pray” should incite us to do just that: pray! And the rubric of the collect admonishes just that: “He pauses for a brief time …”
On the table where my current spiritual reading is stacked is a book that has a semi-permanent place: Oremus. Let Us Pray. The Collects of the Roman Missal. It contains them all, in both Latin and English, for study and devotion.
To participate in the liturgy is not just to talk, move about, or sing. It is to plumb its depths through prayer and meditation on the very texts proposed for our worship. The nigrics (the black words) are surely the precious treasure, along with the sacred action of worship that the rubrics seek to preserve from profanation and personal embellishment.
The “inner demand” of the black text is the faith to which we are summoned. As we “say the black” exactly as worded, we must also pray it, plumb its depths, ponder its inner demand, and obey the faith it summons us to act upon. As we “do the red,” we serve the faith announced by the black.
This is a good and salutary remind for clergy and laity alike.
Below is a clip from the movie True Confessions (1981). One of the main characters is played by Robert DeNiro, a method actor. As such, he set about studying the precise details of the life of a priest, including the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. DeNiro says that he studied very carefully the sacred actions and words of the Mass and that very much shows in this clip. If an actor can develop such a devotion to carefully studying the Mass, how much more we who are priests in fact!