Bernardino Ochino and his Forty Hours of “Forty Days” in Siena

This translation is based on the introduction, text and footnotes which were published by P. Costanzo Cargnoni O.F.M. Cap. in I Frati Cappuccini: Documenti e testimonianze dell primo secolo, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, vol III/2, pp. 2963-2973.

Introduction by Padre Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

Translated by Gary Devery OFM Cap

The Forty Hours in Siena made their first appearance on the occasion of the coming of Bernardino Ochino to preach for Advent in 1540 and continued in the following years. The fact would probably have remained buried in oblivion, had it not been collected and recorded in a Diary manuscript of the Society of Saint Domenic, a kind of verbal record of this society’s deliberations that also contains authentic letters and documents, and fortunately copied two centuries later by the Dominican Angelo Maria Carapelli.

The novelty of Ochino’s method of organising the Forty Hours is linked above all to the influence of evangelism and the contemporary spirituality of the ‘benefits of Christ’. The theme is that of “most holy penance with true contrition”, linked to confession and communion and to works of charity towards the poor and the sick as the fruit of meditating on the Cross that is adored and carried in procession instead of the Eucharist. It is a way of renewing and reforming the Christian people and becomes, practically speaking, like a school of mental prayer open to all. Each of the confraternities must commit themselves not just to one hour of prayer, but to forty continuous hours, arranging the shifts of the different confraternities; but all together, one following the other, they must continue for forty days, “comparable to the major prayer events that one reads in the Old and New Testaments”.

The intention is to “impress and engrave in our hearts” the image of the Crucified; but at the same time, there is the charitable concretisation, whereby each Society assigns a few brothers every twenty-two days to serve, especially at night, the impoverished sick of the Hospital of La Scala, so that the shift of adoration of the Crucifixion for 40 continuous hours corresponds to another continuous shift of vigil during the night to Jesus Christ present in the sick and the poor. These are the two “graces” that Ochino wishes for his fellow citizens.

The length of the time, 40 hours for 24 continuous times, which is 40 days, desires only to signify, other than the “greatest mystery” of the quadragenarian number, that prayer needs to continuous and accompanied by penance. Therefore, what stands out more is the Crucified than the Eucharist, even if at the end the Holy Mass is celebrated, outside of the oratory, in a much larger church. Everything needs to be carried out with a penitential spirit, in a stark way, without too much “ceremony and pomp”. Also, the sermons need to be “very brief and devout, always teaching how to pray”. Excluded are “apparatus consisting of drapes, hangings, tapestries or vanities”. In the semi-darkened oratory what should stand out is only a devout image of Christ Crucified illuminated by a flickering of a “small lantern”, prayer that is silent and interior needs to substitute for every exterior apparatus.

Source: Siena, Bibl. Communale, ms. A. V. 14: [Angelo M. Carapelli, op], Miscellanea di notizie di cose sanesi, f. 5v: Compagnia di San Domenico – Libro delle deliberazioni del 1540 (fino al 1542). – For this text we took the fragmented edition, but sufficient for our intention, recorded in the volume of C. Cantù, Eretici d’Italia. Discorsi storici, vol. II, Torino 1866, 33-40.

6548 The day being the 17th September 1540. The prior[1] submitted a letter, without a signature, to our Society of Saint Domenic regarding the preaching for the next Advent that was to be done by brother Bernardino Ochino, Capuchin friar. It was not signed but from what follows, it would seem that it was sent by him without his name on it.[2] By order of our prior the letter was read by our brother Lorenzo di Bernardino, the tenor of which is as follows:

“To the Society of Saint Domenic in Campo regi. My dearest brothers in Jesus Christ.

[…] It is pleasing to charity that you desire to be in the same company as many others in carrying out two most devout and holy works, the first being that each invites the other, one admonishes the other with holy love to carry out the most holy penance and true contrition, a very pure confession and integral satisfaction,[3] with spiritual and corporal almsgiving, with fasting truly done and with holy prayer, contemplating that by which the soul is transformed into her lover Christ, at whose humble feet we throw ourselves, our own and public necessity of which we must manifest, exhorting and with good will assisting our soul to cloth itself in the divine virtues of faith, hope and charity, from whose acquired habit we can see and hold as certain that, on the day of Judgement, when we are reunited with these our bodies, together with them we will be with the other blessed in the kingdom of God.

6549 And because praying requires [that] the soul, gathering in its powers, ascends to heaven to the feet of the Most Holy Trinity, and this cannot be done if the body does not distance itself from the works of the world, and it being true that how to do this (as one can say in a Christian way) has not yet been seen, nor knowing the most expeditious way, not so much to make everyone participate, but it is more to show those who do not know (of which there are many) the way of praying, is that which has recently been initiated in our city, that is, praying during the space of forty hours.

Well, on behalf of God your charity is asked for in that having made the above disposition and preparation of your soul, you will be content, according to the order set down below, when it is your turn to enter your oratory, to prepare it as is usual, and to arrange the people who are to watch over the times allotted, and to conduct the brothers and the others in whatever number into the said oratory, without noise and confusion, where they will remain in continuous prayer for forty hours; when it arrives to the last hour and the space is occupied by those brothers that wear the habit of beaters (battenti)[4], you shall go to the Society that afterwards you will follow to their oratory so as to work out how much time it will take to go from your oratory to theirs so that when they come for you and you arrive at the other oratory, the forty hours will be completed, and there, saying a few prayers, there will begin the new period of prayer, while those of the first hour remain there, you will return to your own oratory, where those of the last hour will be waiting for you, and you will all make a few prayers together to finish that period of prayer.

The order of the prayer will take place as described from one Society to another for forty days, resembling the major periods of prayer that are read about in the Old and New Testaments,[5] and commence on Tuesday morning, the 19th October at the 14th hour [in Italy at the time the day was measured from sunset – which varied according to season and place], the day following the feast of St Luke, and continue until the first Sunday of Advent,[6] to the same hour which will be forty days, doing the period of prayer twenty four times, the total hours being 960.

6550 Arriving at the final morning, the first Sunday of Advent, you are invited to make a procession in the following way: while dressed in the habit of the beaters we are all to listen to the preaching, after which, the Society that was the last to do the period of prayer, with the image of the Crucified whom we have to impress and engrave in our hearts, goes through the city and the others follow, without confusion and without any other emblems, but standing in whichever order they want, they return to the Cathedral church, where the aforementioned Society needs to have made provision for a priest who will celebrate the Mass at the main altar, and when finished and given the blessing, each one returns to their house, resolved to be stripped totally of the old man and dressed anew in blessed Christ.[7]

This is the first grace you will see. If everything is to be of benefit to you, seek therefore to respond to Jesus Christ Crucified who will inflame you towards the second.

This is the order of the Societies, chosen solely for convenience; it is for you to know which Society is ahead of you and which is following you, as you prepare to do this period of prayer; one animates the other and in virtue of the most precious blood of Christ, overcome every temptation that the enemy of humankind puts before you.

You are given this order now, so that you may have time to find the brothers and encourage them in this and dispose them towards their hour: 1) Begin in the name of God with the Society of Corpus Domini from Tuesday morning 19 October, at the 14th hour, and finish on Wednesday night at the 6th hour. 2) At the 6th hour on Wednesday night will be San Niccolò through Thursday and they will finish on Friday at 22.00 […].[8]

The first Sunday of Advent will conclude the forty hours of forty days, to the praise and glory of the most holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

6551 The second grace will be no less than the first, which is the act of confirming oneself in the primary goods; it is this: that your Charites, without any contradiction, are content to send according to the above stated order, when it is their turn, four or five brothers to look after for a night the impoverished sick in the major hospital. It is not only to be there for the night, but also during the day they have need of your charitable presence and consolation, when they are governed solely by mercenaries and by those who can be seen to have love for no one, indeed by those who give no consideration to what is lacking, they are sicker in spirit than in body.

Oh! Of how much good you will be the cause, and to yourselves first of all, because by this you will learn your own self, and how much in vain are our efforts outside of the way of God, and also to them, when you comfort them and with love help them in their afflictions and sufferings. It would take a very long time to explain the many and good things that this work will bring forth; therefore, we will keep silent, being sure that you will know them from the works themselves, for with words they would not be demonstrated.

However, on the part (once again) of Jesus Christ Crucified, your charity is beseeched, indeed to which your charity is commanded by virtue of his blood that the first and second of these graces are fulfilled by you and be effective, and Christ, and to this you are called, finds his place in you and in your soul, and gives you the grace that with pure faith you may carry out that which it commands.

Remain in the love of Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father and Holy Spirit be the honour, glory, and power always, for ever and ever”.

And this is the tenor of this letter, as I have said, of the new way of praying, newly established by the reverend Capuchin friars fathers, and by their preaching.[9]

Having read the letter, nothing further was resolved that morning, it being late, but was resumed at another gathering [….].

6552 The day being the 7th October 1540. In the name of Jesus Christ Crucified, the chapter having gathered, it was for our Prior to present a policy on the part of the vicar of the archbishop, the tenor of which was this:

In the name of Jesus Christ,

The Lord Vicar of the Archbishop and the three canons elected by the others for the purpose of the prayer of forty hours, and the Reverend Father brother Bernardino Ochino, by your charity, in order to escape confusion, want to know if you are content with the things described below for the first Sunday of Advent: and firstly, by reason of the communion that is to be held in common in the cathedral, it is asked that before they arrive there, they go to confess themselves wherever they like, because for many reasons it will not be possible there in the morning […].

6553 The day being 14th October 1540. In the name of Jesus Christ Crucified, our Father Prior presented this letter addressed to our Society,[10] and by order of the same prior, was read by Lorenzo di Bernardino, cimatore [textile cutter or gardener or shearer], its tenor being this:

The Society of San Domenico. My dearest brothers in Christ Jesus Crucified,

The prize is reserved not for those who begin but for those who persevere,[11] and this we see from experience: if the tree, having fruited once, stops and gives no more, or rather, having first given good and after given bad, it is to be cut down and thrown on the fire.

It would be for this reason, brothers in Christ, seeing that serving Jesus Christ our most holy Lord is so fruitful, good and necessary, having granted the first and greatest grace, the second grace must not be denied, which is easier and not less acceptable to our Redeemer Jesus Christ, which is to visit the impoverished sick, or rather Jesus Christ himself in his most holy house in the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, the stairway to paradise,[12] and we need to carry this out in a way and in an order that will be permanent, and very easy with the grace of Jesus Christ, as there will be no exhaustion or regret whatsoever, as there can be no exhaustion nor regret for us in placing ourselves in the service of Jesus Christ.

6554 Let us therefore take this order: we are twenty-two Societies; every twenty-two days let us visit at least once (with two, four or six, as each Society pleases) that most holy house, and to keep vigil one night with Jesus Christ,[13] and keeping to this order let each Society visit sixteen or seventeen times a year; let each Society of those [who] are most suitable for this service make as many visits as it pleases, so that in one year they visit at least once per group or as many times as they please.

And who will be the one who once a year for the love of Jesus Christ, does not want to take part in the consolation of remaining in vigil one night with Jesus Christ? So let us do it, brothers, come on, let us do it! let us do it and let us have no doubt, for with Jesus Christ we can do anything.

You, dear brethren of the Society of Saint Dominic, will take up this holy work in the name of God on Tuesday, 12 November, and you will follow this holy work, and every third Tuesday it will be your turn, and then, with the grace of God, the other Societies will follow […].[14]

6555 1540, 1st November, at the hour of 22. The Society having adorned itself with sky blue and the church and sacristy with arras, the brothers having gathered together move forward, at the correct hour, 21 dressed as beaters, everyone with torches, to the Society of Santa Caterina in Fontebranda with the Crucifix, and processing with many torches arrive to our Society, accompanied by very many brothers of the Society of Santa Caterina, and having arrived at our Society, they do the said prayers and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, and Master Bernardino of Saint Dominic makes a brief sermon in exhortation of the frequenting of the said period of prayer and thanks the Society of Santa Caterina and the many people who have accompanied the Crucifix, giving leave to everyone, except those who desire to remain in prayer, and so the Society being finished, all the torches are put out, except for the small lantern that enlightens the figure of Jesus Christ carried by the cross, and so with praise to the omnipotent God ends the said period of prayer. And each one stays in prayer for an hour, when the hour finishes other people take their place hour after hour, in the above said order the brothers have organised […].[15]

6556 The day of the 17th January 1541 a Nativitate. Gathered in Chapter, the Father Prior presented the following letter addressed to our Society.[16]

Grace, praise and glory to blessed Jesus Christ.

By the great and wonderful effects that have come forth from the past forty days of prayer, it can be clearly known and judged, that it was not by human motive that such order came forth, but that it comes from the Giver of all grace, from the goodness and mercy of our Saviour.

But know for sure and hold firm, that every grace and every perfect gift comes from above,[17] from the infinite goodness and charity of God. From whom today there is presented to you a most precious spiritual gift, which is not only to you, while you live, but also to those who will come after you, it will be of such benefit, that always you and they will give thanks to God for it.

The gift is this, that your charity without any contradiction, with a sincere heart and thankful spirit, hoping always in God, and with you they are disposed to make resolutions and win not with beads, but with a lively voice, not for a determined time, but that it may pass from you to your posterity, and from them in perpetuity, that in your oratory (as will be done in the other) the prayer of forty hours be done four times a year according to the undersigned manner.

This thing is so honest, just, holy and divine that there is no need to persuade you of it, holding for certain that, in you hearing presented such things to you, to all of you a thousand years will seem like one hour when you find yourselves there, and for the love of him who sends this to you, you will carry it out.

6557 Before anything else is said to you, we beg your charity to take care and diligently observe the warning below, lest our enemy sow some disorder in our work, which he is always prepared to do, and especially against prayer, where (the saints say) he will use all in his industry to divert them from it. And because this is to be the last time I shall converse with you of this, do not be annoyed if the writing is a bit lengthy.

Let it first be known to those who do not know, therefore, that, having to give a specific time, we have taken this one of forty hours and forty days, because the quadragenarian number has always been of great mystery, and what is more, we need to pray not only during this specific time, but always, so this is done to arouse us and remind us to pray.[18]

You are to do four times a year the prayer of forty days, thus forty hours each time takes up six days and sixteen hours per year for the Society […].

6558 In order for this prayer to have its effect of making our mind ascend to God out of pious and humble affection, holy penance must be given to it for guidance, that is, with a firm resolve to rise from offence towards God and towards our neighbour, making a splendid preparation of true contrition, a full confession and entire satisfaction,[19] and then

spiritually and sacramentally taking communion; more is needed besides this guidance, that of adding to this prayer two wings, namely, true fasting and spiritual and corporal almsgiving; doing so, repenting, and asking for God’s mercy for our faults and giving thanks to his goodness for so much grace that he has granted us, and continues to pour his kindness upon us with full hands, we can always be certain that his Majesty will be pleased to receive our prayers, and give us the grace that we may know what is good and have it, that we may flee from evil, and that we always work to his honour and glory […].[20]

The sermons so as not to become tedious are to be very brief and devout, always teaching prayer; let them be given by ecclesiastical persons and for the love of God it is advised that they be brief and without ceremony, thanksgivings and trifles, this is very important, because zeal for God does not come in worldly pomp and vainglory.[21]

When the end of the forty days has arrived, the last Society invites the others; and whether they come or not, let them make a short and devout procession, hear the Mass and take communion, and if they find other Societies willing, they lead them to some place of worship, where, after a public sermon or preaching, a public and devout communion is made, and singing the Te Deum each one returns to his oratory, and the society that was first shall take up its cross, and take it to its oratory. Do not make apparatus consisting of drapes, hangings, tapestries or vanities, rather let it be done simply with devotion and zeal of God, and any display being in our soul.[22]

6559 It is commanded of you on the part of Christ crucified, that you flee all precedence, ambition, and honour, so that there never be the slightest scandal, and when doing the procession, do it without any signs of distinction, everyone mixing together. If you invite the other Societies and only some or none of them arrive, do not be scandalised, rather remain quiet, and think that this is the will of God. When the others invite you, be there first, and humble yourselves, because with holy humility one acquires paradise.

In short, when you hear anything about altering things, immediately cut off the initiators, and let it not be spoken of or thought of again, and make this resolution now and for ever, that each of you do your work for the honour of God, and carry it out freely and purely, and thus you will see that things for you will go from good to better, and this most holy prayer, will bring forth fruits most pleasing to God and salutary to us.

For one of the things necessary to a Christian, indeed the most important is prayer, and most importantly mental prayer; they are rare those who know other than to just move their lips, which is not praying; however, we beg your charity, that sometimes, indeed often that you caution our brethren that they let themselves be taught by those who know; and, moreover, that they provide themselves with spiritual books that contain this, and many will see how much they have lost up until now either through negligence or ignorance, having been deprived of so useful a thing.

If any Society is lacking, let the others succeed each other from one to the other, until the forty days are ended […].[23]

  1. Namely, the president of the society or confraternity.
  2. This letter of Bernardino Ochino was a clever method of preparing for his next Advent preaching, and the strategic means was precisely the intensive practice of the Forty Hours in 40 days. Ochino finds himself in Rome and in a letter of the 27 September 1540 he advises the Magistrate (Balia) of Siena that he should arrive in the city towards the feast of All Saints. Cf. C. Cantù, Eretici d’Italia, cit., 42.
  3. Ochino enlarges on this argument in an interesting homily. Cf. above, nn. 567-568
  4. A type of religious discipline, done wearing a white or grey habit, which is a type of sack worn by the fraternity members in such a way that the penitential flagellation could be easily performed.
  5. With these “major periods of prayer” Ochino is alluding to the 40 days of fasting by the prophet Elias, Nineveh’s 40 days of penance following the preaching of Jonah and to the 40 days of prayer and fasting of Jesus Christ in the desert, etc.
  6. That is, from 19 October to the 28 November, being excluded, therefore precisely 40 days.
  7. This is the underlying theme, together with that of Christ Crucified, of Ochino’s reformist and evangelical preaching.
  8. Hence every confraternity does 40 hours of continuous prayer. As such, the Society of Corpus Domini begins on Tuesday 19 October 1540 at 6.30 in the morning and finishes at 22.30 the following day. In all 24 different groups of prayer of which, with 40 continuous hours of prayer by each, the pious practice endures for 40 days. In the text of the manuscript at this point all the names of the various confraternities are noted with their respective hours of prayer assigned to them.
  9. This affirmation, written at least three years after the “historic” origin of the forty hours in Milan, could be used as an irrefutable argument to sustain the “Capuchin tradition” that is assigned to Giuseppe da Ferno not only the merit of its diffusion, but also the invention of its pious practice. Nevertheless, the sentence, not specifically touching on the problem, only say that the Capuchin friars were the more fervent and immediate apostles of this devotion.
  10. It is another letter from Bernardino Ochino.
  11. Cf. Mt 10:22; 24:13.
  12. Also, in his third sermon at Lucca in 1538, towards the end, Ochino emphasises the service to the sick and poor in the hospital of S. Maria della Scala of Siena, after the example of saint Bernardino. Cf. above, n. 5648.
  13. It is noteworthy the profound mystical parallelism (and much loved by the spirituality of today) of Christ Crucified-Eucharistic and of Christ in the poor and suffering. Bernardino Ochino organised a second aspect of “his” forty hours: not only adoration of the Crucified, but also the nocturnal vigil in the chapel of the sick in the hospital, each Society taking at least one turn every three weeks throughout the year.
  14. In the manuscript there follows “the order for the entire year” of these visits to the sick.
  15. Standing out here is the centrality of the Crucifix and not the Eucharist and the austere atmosphere of silent prayer in the semi-darkness of the oratory. Here the manuscript adds the names of the persons who have to take turns in doing the hour of prayer for 40 continuous hours.
  16. Another letter from Bernardino Ochino.
  17. Cf. James 1:17.
  18. The aim, therefore, is continuous, evangelical and apostolic “prayer without interruption”.
  19. See note 3.
  20. At this point follow many particular rules that the volume of C. Cantú skips over.
  21. This language characteristic of Ochino. In substance everything becomes a school of prayer for the laity, an apprenticeship in practicing mental prayer, as will become evident towards the end.
  22. This is the spirituality of Ochino that was always becoming more radical to in the end going outside Catholic spirituality.
  23. In the manuscript there follows other cautions with the recording of the various functions of devotion, skipped over by C. Cantú, who reports on the notice of deliberation by the Magistrate (Balia) of Siena, dated 20 June 1542, with which it is ordered to do the prayer of “forty days continuous, day and night,” in the oratory and “Society of Our Lady under the hospital” of S. Maria della Scala, because God “by his infinite mercy and compassion, by the merits of the passion and the blood poured out by his only begotten Son for the good of human kind”, desiring to “temper his just indignation… of the great wars that can be seen being prepared throughout Christendom, and the arrival of the Turks against the Christians, because of the disunity of the Christian princes, one being against the other, and other great prodigies of earthquakes with great ruin to the chapels and villas”. The good effect of the preaching of Ochino, therefore, continued in Siena, at the very moment when the Capuchin was devising his clamorous flight from Italy, which happened only two months after this deliberation by the commune of Siena.