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The Consecration of a Widow

Article by Phillip Tovey

While the rite for the consecration of virgins is perhaps well known to us, not least because of its active revival in the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council, in the mediaeval service books there is another rite which is very common, that of the consecration of a widow. Indeed, in some of the mediaeval rites some of the prayers are shared in common between the 2 consecrations. Both of the services include a blessing of garments, which would imply in the mediaeval period that people so consecrated wore distinctive dress. However, there is great diversity in the services, some being quite simple and others being quite complex.

It was not until the late mediaeval period that any vows were included in the liturgy at all, like the rite for the consecration of the virgin the consecration of a widow predates the later mediaeval focus on poverty, chastity and obedience.

There is one prayer which is used throughout all the different services and goes back to the Gelasian sacramentary, an eighth century service book, and as such is one of the oldest prayers for use in the consecration of widow. The prayer runs as following:

Comfort, O Lord, this your handmaid who is bound by the sorrows of her widowhood, as you undertook through the prophet Elijah to comfort the widow Zarepheth. Grant her the fruit of chastity, that she may not remember the fleshly pleasures of the past. May she not even know the stirrings of lust, so that she may accept the yoke of belonging only to you and that through these great trials she can more fully bring forth the seed sixtyfold, an acceptable gift of devotion. Through Jesus Christ…

The first sentence looks to the sorrowful situation of widowhood and points to the biblical reference of Elijah and the widow, with whom the prophet seems to have had a major relationship. Indeed, if you remember the story, this even includes feeding the widow in a miraculous way. The second section of the prayer concerns a reorientation from the married state to that of chastity. It anticipates a trial in this area and is honest about the dangers of looking back. The final section looks at the fruitfulness of consecrated widowhood, in particular, remembering the parable of the sower where the seed produces a good crop, 100, 60, or 30 fold. Mediaeval understanding of the passage saw the hundredfold fruit going to the consecrated virgin, or monks and nuns, the sixtyfold fruit going to consecrated widows, and the thirtyfold fruit to those who get married.

While not necessarily wishing to approve of this particular interpretation, the prayer might be seen as both referring back to the parable and being a general petition for fruitfulness in the consecrated life.

While the prayer is used for the consecration of a widow in all mediaeval rites, I think if we meditate on it, it will be of value to us all in SCL.