I’d Like an Illuminated Missal, Please

I’d Like an Illuminated Missal, Please

crucifixion page

On Sunday as I sat in Mass and my mind wandered (not during the homily, which was excellent) I had Saturday’s dazzling feast of illuminated manuscripts fresh in my memory when my eyes fell on the missalette: dull newsprint pages with boring type, no pictures, no bright colors to delight the eye. A purely utilitarian book, words on a page, but nothing for the imagination, nothing of beauty. Suddenly I was almost crying at the lack of beauty.

Ben holds his light up to the painting.

There they were in my mind’s eye: those beautiful handmade books, each one the product of thousands of hours of manual labor from the husbandry of the animals whose skins made the parchment, the butchering and the skinning, the hours of processing, scraping, soaking and trimming to prepare the sheets of parchment. The hardening and cutting of the quill, the preparation of the ink, the ruling of the page and the careful writing of each letter and the painstaking scraping for every error. And then the illuminating. Sketching the figures and the foliage, the capitals and the creatures. Applying the glue and then the gold leaf and carefully brushing away the excess gold, the burnishing and polishing. The preparation of the pigments: hours of grinding in a mortar, the pestle crunching, the arm aching. Mixing each pigment and then, finally, the careful application of layer upon layer of color. Details finer than fine made with brushes often only a single hair-width. As we watched the video about the making of an illuminated manuscript I was staggered by how many hours go into just one page of one of those books. You had to be fabulously wealthy to own any books in the era before printing presses. And one of these masterpieces… I can’t comprehend how valuable it was.


Each page a treasured work. Is it any wonder the books were so often cut apart and the leaves sold individually, framed individually? Each in its own glass case, shining bravely against the dark.

And now we can mass produce stunning full color reproductions for so very little money. But we don’t. We could have gorgeous jewel-like Mass books for every person in the church for a fraction of what one page of one of those manuscripts cost. No longer are beautiful books only a luxury for the rich, with today’s technology they could also be a feast for the poor.

I long to fill the pews with beautiful books, with a crucifixion page to contemplate during the consecration. With annunciations like little jewel boxes and Pentecosts like poems, all the most exquisite images. And between the pictured pages, beautiful prayers to recite and beautiful songs to sing. Like a deer longing for running streams, I thirst for all that is timeless and shimmering. I long for beautiful Mass books.


Amy Welborn recently wrote, in a slightly different vein, starting from a very different point, but coming to a very similar conclusion about her desire for Mass books for children: 

Magnifikid is good, but is a disposable and for Sunday Mass.

I would love to see a publisher produce an inexpensive, attractive, but not twee or childish Mass book especially for groups of Catholic children. It would include the main parts of the Mass in English and Latin, the rite for Benediction, and a few pre and post Communion prayers. That’s it. Nothing more fancy than that. Sell it in bulk, teach schools how to teach their kids to use them, and boom. More choices, more active participation than just sitting and watching the first grade trail up the aisle, hands folded over chests for their blessing while not singing “Our God is Here.” Yes, there are children’s missals, but I am thinking about something that falls between that kind of vinyl-bound actual book and a flimsy pamphlet and that is not as picture heavy as a typical “Mass for Children” book. Something that a school or parish can publish in bulk and pull out for Masses and encourage children to use. Perhaps it exists? If so..tell me!

Note that this is not a screed against “how people act in Mass,” even though it may sound like it. Some bloggers do that. I don’t. I stand (or kneel or sit..whatever) in awe of every congregation of which I am a part and indeed, contemplating the diversity of people there and praying for their needs, whatever they might bed, forms a bedrock of my own experience at Mass.

But still, it  bothers me to see all of us – us – just..staring at the Communion line as it creeps up that aisle.

Because it is a struggle to focus, isn’t it? You are curious to see who’s there. You’re starting to think about what you have to do and where you have to go later. Your kids are poking at each other. You know you should be praying, and indeed you want to, for Jesus is here, right now, but you are not a Spiritual Master, it’s hard to concentrate, it’s hard to know what you want to say, what you could say, what you should say, and it’s really hard to know, simply, how to listen, since you know that’s what you should be doing right now, above anything else.

Different people are helped in this moment by different things: contemplating the congregation, the priest’s actions, the crucifix, the art in the church, listening to the music, singing the music, smelling the remaining scent of incense, fingering beads, closing one’s eyes and listening, opening one’s eyes and seeing.

And one of those things that can help are words printed on a page in a small book you’ve slipped in your purse or pocket, words that reflect what others – hundreds, thousands and millions – have found in this moment, in this Presence. It is good to have that book, to open it up right now in this place, present with your own quiet, noisy, still, moving, wandering crowd – to open it up in this Presence, see those words, and join them.


As I pondered those ugly missalettes, I remembered Amy’s musings. I’m not sure I’m on the same page with her about wanting something less picture heavy. But, well, maybe, if by pictures she means the sort of pap that is usually thought of as appropriate for children. Still, my ideal book would have plenty of pictures to contemplate because, as Amy says, different people are helped by different things and one of the things that helps many people is art, but not all churches have art to contemplate. In fact, all too many churches are sadly lacking in beauty worth looking at, but even in those that do have lovely art like my own parish church you still run the risk of the same thing Amy describes, you risk trying to look at the art but getting distracted by the people. So beautiful pictures there in your book, you can look down and lose yourself in the details. And that’s what this art was originally created for, right? An aid in prayer, a window into the eternal.


Surely it could be done. Someone could publish a beautiful missal with illuminated pages from the most beautiful manuscripts. Something children could hold and look at and pray with. It could be done. It should be done.

(Why does no Catholic publisher do these things? Are they afraid it will cost too much and too few people will buy them? Fair enough. Dom says we need Catholic entrepreneurs, venture capitalists who will be patrons, who will finance things like this that just need to be done. Who aren’t afraid to lose money, who take the risk because it’s the right thing to do.)

I’m envisioning a hand missal like Amy describes, but not just words, images too. With devotional prayers for before and after Mass, before and after communion. Something for kids, yes, but for adults too, to look at when they get distracted, when they need to focus on prayer, when they can’t see the altar when the eyes and the mind need a gentle nudge to help with contemplation. At our parish in Salem they ordered Magnifikids for all the kids and handed them out at the door on Sunday, but the surprising thing was how many of the adults took them. Even though we had missalettes in the pews the adults liked the format of Magnifikid and found it helpful. Hmmm.


I imagine one book that could be given as a gift to the first communicant, the confirmation candidate, the newly married couple, the aged grandmother in the nursing home.

I imagine toddlers looking over mother’s shoulder at her pretty book.

Look, there’s Jesus! Look, Mary! Look, angels!

Look, the last supper!

Look, the crucifixion!

Look! Pentecost! The Good Shepherd!


The first communicant whose mind wanders a bit has a beautiful picture to engage her imagination instead of staring at the people in line. The grandmother can contemplate the annunciation and the fall in the same picture. Who wouldn’t benefit from something beautiful right there to hand?

I’ve seen many beautiful books illustrated with great works of art, but I think there’s something special about the art of illuminated manuscripts that should give them pride of place here. Illuminated books of hours and missals were designed to be held in the hand, the pictures are full of fine details to delight the eye and the mind and to feed the imagination.


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    • Isn’t that delightful? The museum educators were so very resourceful and creative and had so many wonderful ideas about how to help kids connect with the exhibits, but the little votive lights were by far the biggest hit.

    • Yeah, the extraordinary form doesn’t work too well to follow along at an ordinary form Mass.*

      But… the same company does make a pew missal that’s actually pretty close to what I’m looking for:

      It’s not really a personal missal, and I find the photographs of the Mass discordant and not in keeping with the sensibility of the rest of the book, but otherwise the sensibility, so far as I can see, is very similar to my own. The illuminations, what the previews show of them, look like they’re from traditional manuscripts. And I don’t mind the alternation of full color illuminations with black and white woodcuts. I like the attention to font and paper and layout. I like the Latin and English side by side. I like the inclusion of the gradual. We’re going to buy a copy and check it out. Look for my review.

      *And that’s one of my pet peeves, actually… why is there this assumption on the part of just about all Catholics that people who tend to love tradition have to go to the extraordinary form? I like Latin. I like medieval art, I like ad orientem and chant and beautiful architecture and vestments; but I really do not feel drawn to the extraordinary form. I feel like there should be a place for that, and yet I feel homeless. I want a Latin Mass… but in the OF. No one is doing that. And why is it so hard to find good Mass materials for the OF. There are gorgeous book explaining the Mass for kids (Maria Montessori’s book or Knox’s Mass in Slow Motion, for example) that could be revised to work with the OF, but the message seems to be that anyone who likes old things like that should just go to an EF parish and be done with it. Sorry, probably shouldn’t unload on you, but this is a sore point with me.

      • Heh. I go to an EF parish. Until recently, I have had to make do with a booklet missal and a download of the proper prayers on my smartphone. My parish prints out the Mass propers each Sunday as part of the weekly newsletter, but I dislike these as much as I dislike the OF missalettes I grew up with — for the reason given in the Jogues Missal video: What a scandal to be printing the Word of God so cheaply!

        A friend who likes visiting antique shops found me a Latin-German missal from 1951, which I’m very grateful for. It’s all words and no beautiful pictures . . . (Quite put to shame by some illustrated PDFs of Mass propers!) . . . but at least I’m not tossing something out with the recycling every quarter.

        Your feeling of homelessness, Melanie, both touches me and puzzles me. It occurs to me that before I started hearing Mass regularly in the EF, I felt homeless, too. And I know at least one “former Trad” who felt that she had come home to the OF precisely because it usually lacks the things you wish it had. (That is, she finds the EF loaded with unnecessary “externals” — her word — and loves that the OF has trimmed the Eucharist down to the barest essentials. I don’t know how she’d feel if the gradual became a “thing” again in the OF!) Anyway, as you have already noticed, for people who definitely lean one way or the other, the EF communities and OF communities offer definite havens. For people who are “both-and” in unexpected ways, it’s a little more complicated.

        Are there others like you in your parish, who could help envision and produce the OF missal you dream of, and who would be willing to support a Kickstarter? (It doesn’t literally have to be a Kickstarter, but I think mentioning it is the fastest way to get my meaning across.) It seems to me that Catholic publishers have had decades to notice that there is a market for such missals, and if they haven’t figured it out yet, they probably never will. Perhaps the solution is for the market to be its own publisher.

        • Maybe I haven’t given the EF a fair shake. I’ve only been the once and devotees say you need to give it more time and it grows on you. But I’m really unattracted to the lack of the dialogue, the silence does not appeal to me. And really while I love Latin, I also love English and I think my ideal Mass has room for both/and. My favorite Masses have been those that have had lots of Latin but also some English, the OF done reverently with all or many of the propers in Latin is nice but so is the English Mass done well. And I’ve been lucky enough to have grown up in a parish where the English Mass was celebrated with reverence and beauty and so I know it’s possible. Also, I recognize in myself the tendency to snobbishness which is one of the things I’ve found most unappealing in many of the traditionalists I’ve encountered both online and in person. I don’t think that’s an aspect of my personality that needs to be fed. And finally, the logistics of going to Mass at a EF parish that’s even further away geographically does not appeal to me at all. We’re lucky enough to have a parish that while it’s not perfect is acceptable that’s less than 15 minutes away.

          And you’re right it’s a complicated place to be, neither fish nor foul. I feel just as ill at ease among the more extreme traditionalists as I am among the devotees of the music and liturgical practices that are more extreme at the other end of the spectrum. The sad thing is I think Pope Benedict’s vision has yet to be realized because I think he was really hoping for a both/and church where an organic blending developed. And perhaps it still will be realized since that kind of development happens slowly over the course of decades and centuries and not in the blink of an eye. But meanwhile here we are in the middle of the muddle….

          Also, part of my “homelessness” has been as much the result of happenstance as anything else. We’ve only been at our present parish for two years now. Our previous parish we were at for about six years and before that I was there about eight years. It seems like as soon as I start to put down roots I find myself uprooted and needing to start the whole long process again from scratch. And I know that homeschooling makes that battle harder. We aren’t plugging in to either the parish school or the parish religious education programs and those are the typical ways that families plug in to parish life. We’ve set ourselves up as outsiders in a way and that makes things harder than maybe they have to be.

          We did order a copy of the Jogues Missal and I think for now it will be sufficient, if not precisely my ideal missal. Well, such is so much of life, a compromise. And I think that compromise might indeed be good for the soul in the long run. I will write up a review of the missal and count that as my little pebble thrown into the pool. Maybe I’ll start some ripples somewhere. And I’ll file the possibility of developing my own away for the nonce. I keep thinking I’d love to be an editor at a Catholic publishing house and get to make some of these calls. But then I’d probably find that as with most things in life actually holding the keys to the castle wouldn’t really be all that I imagine it would be.

          • My first EF Mass was a dialogue Mass! After about a year of that, I heard a more “traditional” low Mass in my current parish and was thrown off a little. As I later told another EF-loving friend of mine, “Father didn’t wait for me to finish my part!” My friend just chuckled.

            In general, I think every community does the EF a little differently. (Heck, every community does the OF a little differently!) When I first stumbled upon my parish, there was a terrible sound system and no choir — so lots of silence. Today there’s a great sound system, a choir, a group within the choir that specializes in Gregorian chant, and two children’s choirs (one from the school and another with children who only show up on Sunday). This means there’s always music, even where there probably should be silence, and although it’s all beautiful and traditional, it’s a bit much. I like understanding the homilies without straining my ears, though. So there’s my compromise.

            I really hope that your parish will start to feel like home soon.

  • I would buy one. Or several. Our church is devoid of adornment (actually we have some lovely abstract stained glass of the sun dancing at Fatima, but it’s hard to see from the pews), and my kids (and myself) would benefit from something concrete. My 4 year old still tells me that “this is the shirt I wore when Jesus gave fire and power to his friends” whenever I put on his red polo shirt. It’s tangible. And illustrations with gold? That’s the way to win their hearts…

  • Something lovely to look at makes me think of this:

    But that is really for the babies, rather than something for the mommas. I’d be one of those mommas.

    I agree with Dom too. Someone please print a quality visual guide to the Mass. I’d buy one! I’ve been looking for one for years without putting it into words as you did here. And buy one for each of my six kids. And give them as gifts. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  • When I was in London for a semester in college, our local Catholic Church was in the round: about 300 degrees around the main part of the altar, but with the high altar against the back wall, and only about 3 pews deep, both ground floor and gallery – I wonder if it had a previous life as a theatre?

    They said Mass ad orientam, and used the communion rail (all 300 degrees of it). It was lovely.

    I agree with your desire for beautiful and non-disposable missals. My mother pointed out that for the non-reader or early reader, having lots of pictures thoughtfully placed could make it so each page turned at about the same rate (instead of having one word “Homily” but staying at that one word for a LOOOOONG time, then whizzing through the word-heavy creed section). I think an illuminated manuscript type book would have a more intentional feel to it than the (beautiful and helpful, but perhaps still lacking) missals illustrated with great works of art painted elsewhere.

    Perhaps I should get blank books and start my kids on illuminating their own missals this year 🙂 Then they’ll know the value too, in the hours expended.

    • I do rather like the idea of making your own missal with blank books. At some point I know I saw doing something like that as a tool for learning about the Mass as a part of first communion prep and then when I went to look I never could find links to any of the blog pages I’d vaguely remembered seeing it on. But I suspect it’s the sort of project I’d start and never finish. I’m bad about that.