The Ageless Story

FordNativityI recently acquired The Ageless Story: With Its Antiphons pictured by Lauren Ford, a slim children’s picture book on the boyhood of Christ, beginning with his grandmother, St. Anne. Printed in 1939 by Dodd, Mead, and Company, Inc., it was the Caldecott Honor Book in 1940 as the most distinguished American picture book for children for that year. I was enjoying other works by Lauren Ford and saw that a description of The Ageless Story mentioned Gregorian chant antiphons. Gregorian chant in a book with a secular award? This I had to see for myself.

FordAnnunciationThe book is rare, but it’s a gem. I have an ex-library copy, lacking a dustjacket and a little worn on the binding, but the pictures are gorgeous and full-color, and yes, there are Gregorian Chant antiphons. The music itself is also a work of art, with the chant hand-calligraphed, with gorgeous illuminated Initial Capitals. The Chant is Solesmes style, with the front matter explaining “Grateful Acknowledgement is made to Société de Saint Jean L’Evangeliste for permission to use rhythmic signs of Solesmes.” I couldn’t find any images of the chant, but did find a site that had a few of her illustrations from this book. My scanner isn’t working yet, so I couldn’t share any here.

However, I wasn’t excited only because of the illustrations in this book. It was the introductory letter that really grabbed me:

Dear Nina,

This book is dedicated to you because you are my goddaughter and godmothers are made to bring everything that there is about God to their godchildren as far as they are able.

Of course, you know the story of the boyhood of Christ in the Bible, the most beautiful story in the world. I have copied this music and painted these pictures because they make it come real.

The music is called Gregorian music. It is the true music of the church. It very nearly got lost and it pretty badly got spoiled and this is the reason why—

If you want to know, it is the reason why everything gets spoiled. It was pride that spoiled it. There came a time in the turning of this funny world when men became very pompous (that time is called the Renaissance), when men went back to what the Greeks had done, and the Greeks were worshipers of the body. After that, Church music that you could sing and I could sing, and painting and architecture and all the beautiful things to do with God, lost their spirituality and became humanistic. That is why a Fra Angelico Blessed Virgin looks to be a Heavenly Soul and the Boy is all pure and kingly, while a Raphael one is just a good human mother with a good, fat baby boy.

Now the music again. That is why they wove patterns all around the simple music—because they thought it needed to be more grand. It was beautiful music but it all became so complicated that they had to have special singers to sing it and, just like the Raphael Madonnas, it became good, human music and gradually lost its spiritual quality. And it became so difficult that it moved upstairs into the organ loft and that is why you and I just sit downstairs and listen.

Don’t think that Gregorian music wasn’t sung any more. It was still sung in the Convents but the copyists became careless and forgot to put in the rhythmic signs so that it was wrongly sung and it all had to be discovered again.

One day a little boy, smaller than Denise, was walking along the river bank in Solesmes with his nurse. Every day he walked that way. And he saw the ruins of the great old Benedictine Monastery reflected in the river. Gradually the ruins became built up again in his mind until he grew up and became a monk, Dom Guéranger, and started to rebuild those ancient ruins. He found something else necessary, too. He began to rebuild the ancient music. It was hard work. Dom Pothier and others came to help him—and then Dom Mocquereau. The monks at Solesmes are still working on it. They found the old illuminated manuscripts—the very oldest ones. They had to compare them all. They sent the monks all over the world to copy them. An American lady that your Aunt Lauren knows came there. She studied very hard and she has made it possible for many children to learn it in Europe. Soon children in America will be singing it, too. You won’t be able to sit down at the piano and play it. You won’t be able to sing it yourself now either—but some day all the children will.

Gregorian music is not like the music you know. Even the scales are different. This isn’t the book to teach you how to sing them. You can get other books for that. This book will make you accustomed to seeing this music.

It hasn’t any chords and the words are very important. They can’t be translated because translation makes the words get out of place. This music is like the flight of a bird—on important words, like God or Mary, it will rise and hover in the air a minute as though it were holding its breath—and then come quietly down and slip off peacefully before you know it.

Now I want to tell you why I made the pictures as I did. You will see landscapes that you know, roads that you have taken, the Baby Jesus is born in the barn down the hill. It is because He belongs to you and me. He is living inside you and me. He is living inside our hearts, just as the barn is. A stable is a stable. If it isn’t the kind of stable we know, it doesn’t look like a stable to us. The barn that Jesus was born in would look like a cave to us but it looked like a stable to Him. If Jesus doesn’t look like a little boy, like the boy next door, He won’t seem like a boy to you and He won’t look real. He really wore a woolen dress, you know—like a girl to us, but a real boy’s suit to Him. But there is something an artist can do to keep him from looking just like a good, fat, little boy, and Christian artists have always done this thing. An artist can try to think about Him all the time. He can keep on thinking about his being God, and how God lends us everything we have—our talent, our paint brush, our life—how He gave us His own life, every bit of it, because He loved us. If an artist will try to do this, the Little Boy in the picture will look all pure and kingly and His Mother will look like a Heavenly Soul.

God bless your darling Heart.
Auntie Lauren

Bethlehem, Connecticut

Interesting notes on the humanistic Renaissance, and I would have to agree with that shift of focus. Raphael created beautiful works of art, but the focus was definitely different than Fra Angelico. While so much was so much good that came out the Renaissance, I do tend to prefer the medieval mind. (She has such wonderful thoughts on how to keep pride out of being an artist—all for the honor and love of God!)

I love the way she describes the chant; her words paint brilliant sketches that enable the reader to understand just how chant should sound. But it’s her account of the monks at Solesmes and the American Lady that surprised me most. How wonderfully she describes those monks at Solesmes and their sacred work. The “American lady” she mentions—it has to be Justine Ward. (More on her at Wikipedia.) These people are among the Who’s Who in Sacred Music and the Liturgical Movement! Years ago I was introduced to Justine Ward through the Ward Method (and have talked about it here several times), and here is Ms. Ward in a children’s picture book. Amazing!

Bethlehem, Connecticut, is the home of Regina Laudis, a Benedictine Abbey of contemplative nuns, and they are known for their art and for Gregorian chant. Was Lauren Ford influenced by these sisters? With a little searching found the artist took the founding sisters in her home before the abbey was built. Ever watch the movie Come to the Stable with Loretta Young? is the cinematic rendition of the foundation of that abbey! More information found in the book Mother Benedict: Foundress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis by Antoinette Bosco.

From the aforementioned book Mother Benedict I found that Lauren Ford was an Oblate of the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes and had been to the Abbey in France several times. Since the book was published in 1939, seven years before Mother Benedict came to America and founded the abbey, the connections with Solesmes and Justine Ward were formed before she met the sisters. In fact, that is how the artist came to host the sisters. Justine Ward was a friend of Lauren Ford, and she also helped establish the abbey. And if I had read Mother Benedict (it’s on my shelf), I would have learned this earlier.

From a gallery biography, I learned a little more about the artist/author/illustrator. Lauren Ford was sent to France with her uncle at the age of 9 to study painting. “Uncle Lawrence’s tutelage, the medieval art of France, and the magic of the liturgy and Gregorian chant of the monks of Solesmes, began to shape young Lauren’s artistic and spiritual development. She would eventually become a Catholic, taking simple vows as a Benedictine Oblate, and an aesthetic and spiritual force for good through her art and philanthropy.”

After reading so much by Justine Ward and other writers in the early Liturgical Movement about the primacy of Gregorian Chant, seeing the music texts that were used in all the parochial schools, I can’t help but wonder what happened? Lauren Ford was sharing a vision of so many others in the Liturgical Movement, that “Soon children in America will be singing it, too. You won’t be able to sit down at the piano and play it. You won’t be able to sing it yourself now either—but some day all the children will.” Were they close? Where did it fail?

I do pray and have high hopes that Justine Ward’s vision “That All May Sing”—especially “all the children”—will happen now with our new liturgical movement. One child at a time. And I’ll start with mine.

Before I finish, I thought I would list the antiphons contained in the book:

I Hodie egressa — Antiphon at the Magnificat, Second Vespers, December 8 (From the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

II Nativitas – Antiphon 2, Vespers, September 8. (From the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

III Virgo prudentissima — Antiphon Magnificat, First Vespers, August 15. (From the Assumption)

IV Ave Maria — Antiphon 2, Vespers, March 25. (From the Annunciation)

V Intravit — Antiphon 2, Vespers, July 2. (From the Visitation)

VI Hodie Christus — Antiphon Magnificat, Second Vespers, December 25. (From the Nativity of Our Lord)

VII Hodie beata — Antiphon Magnificat, Second Vespers, February 2. (From the Purification)

VIII Vidimus — Antiphon Communion at Mass, January 6. (From the Epiphany)

IX Crudelis Herodes — First verse Hymn, Vespers, January 6. (From the Epiphany)

X Puer Jesus — Antiphon Magnificat, Second Vespers. (Sunday within the Octave of Christmas)

XI Post triduum — Antiphon 1, Second Vespers, Holy Family. (Sunday within the Octave of Epiphany)

XII Descendit Jesus — Antiphon 3, Second Vespers, Holy Family. (Sunday within the Octave of Epiphany)

I know this book is expensive, so I’m not advocating running out and buying a used copy. But do see if you can borrow a copy from your library, even through Inter Library Loan. It’s a treasure to see how the Liturgical Movement was extended to all of culture of society—even to a beautiful child’s picture book.

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23 thoughts on “The Ageless Story

  1. I didn’t know that Lauren Ford was an illustrator! Many years ago, my second oldest daughter’s godmother gave her a large framed print of a guardian angel protecting a little girl as she walked through the woods. This has picture has been a family favorite due to its childlike simplicity and soft, muted colors.

    I will certainly be looking for this book…the background information on the artist is wonderful, and the book seems a real treat. Thanks for the great detective work!

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  3. This is wonderful! I love Lauren Ford. Do you know her book, Our Lady’s Book? It is a wonderful book. It was reprinted a few years ago by Ignatius Press but is out of print again. Original hard-bound copies can frequently be found though!

  4. In “Come to the Stable”, the part of Lauren Ford is played by no lees than Elsa Lanchester! Lauren Ford left her home to the Abbey of Regina Laudis after her death.

  5. Wow that sounds like an amazing book. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for a copy.

    I just love the letter with everything about the Renaissance and Gregorian chant. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  6. Lauren Ford was not just a gifted painter and illustrator, but also a very good writer. I have a book of saints by her, found in a library sale. Awesome stuff.

  7. What a treat to find this! Came to you via The New Liturgical Movement. Let us hope that our time’s liturgical revival can carry forward the work that was being during before the Great Rupture of the 60s. Enjoyed touring around your blogs.

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  9. I grew up in Bethlehem CT, about 1 1/2 miles from the Abbey. the little girl in the Guardian angel painting is my best friend Carol Lassuaze’s Mother Lauren as a young girl. She was Lauren Ford’s Grand daughter. She died when my friend Carol was about 5. the Lassuaze children are Henri,Jean,Agatha,Anthony,Martha,and Carol. a few of the children live in France and a few in CT, 1 in SC

  10. This is the first time I have found she also was a writer. I used to have a large print of The Guardian Angel. Had to sell when times got ruff. I plan to get one again. As My life has gone down hill since I sold her picture. I also plan to look up her books. 1/15/2010

  11. i’m a Chinese fan of children illustration. when google the information about Lauren Ford i found your web. The letter from the godmother,it’s so amazing and wonderful! thanks alot to shareing your thoughs~

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