29 July, 2007

The quietest moments of the day

I pray neither as often nor as well as I should like, but I do pray. (We cold-hearted misanthropists need all the help we can get towards reforming ourselves!) I typically feel best about life when I'm in the habit of praying the Psalms, in the format of the Liturgy of the Hours, also called the Divine Office. Such moments as I can steal are the quietest moments of the day, immense, peaceful pleasures when, if only for an instant, I know the presence of God. No matter how absent-mindedly or inattentively I may pass through the sacred words of the Psalms, I have resigned myself to something greater than my petty concerns, and its beauty surpasses all that I have known.

I've mentioned the Liturgy of the Hours before, and quite a bit recently. The Hours (as I will call them) are the daily prayer of both Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Along with the Mass, they constitute the "official" prayer of the Church.

The origin of pausing at certain hours predates Christian faith, and is something we inherited, along with the Psalms, from the Jews. I have read that the Jews of Christ's time had the habit of pausing several times a day for prayer; the Bible reports that the apostles held to this practice long after the resurrection. St. Paul recommends to his readers to infuse their lives with God using Psalms, songs, and canticles. (Colossians 3:16, or Ephesians 5:19-20) Western society has long lost this practice, but for many centuries it manifested itself in many forms: the thrice-daily tolling of church bells for the Angelus prayer; Sunday evening services that grew out of (and in some cases, continue) the celebration of Sunday Vespers; and so forth. It's a practice reported and exhorted by both the Old and New Testaments. Yet I never heard of it until shortly after I became a Catholic.

The Liturgy of the Hours was also influenced by the practices of Christian monks, who originally prayed the entire Psalter daily while they worked, by memory. The practice began so early in Christianity that in the 6th century St. Benedict conceded in his Rule to the "laziness" of the monks of his time that they should pray the entire Psalter at least every week. (Actually, Benedict calls the monks of his day lukewarm, and calls those who can't pray the Psalter in a week lazy.) In modern times we can't even be bothered to do that, so the current usage schedules the Psalter over a four-week cycle—and not the entire Psalter at that, but some few of the psalms and verses which are somewhat harsh in tone have been omitted, especially because of the difficulties that were foreseen from their use in vernacular celebration. (Promulgation of the Divine Office, Pope Paul VI)

The cycle begins with Psalm 141 (vss. 1-9, apparently someone considered the last verse "somewhat harsh in tone", which is odd considering that harsher verses remained). The opening lines are appropriate,

I have called to you, Lord; hasten to help me!
Hear my voice when I cry to you.
Let my prayer arise before you like incense...
The cycle ends with Psalm 45, which also concludes appropriately:
May this song make your name for ever remembered.
May the people praise you from age to age.
(Note that I link to the NAB, which will be in the new edition, if it ever comes out. The quotes are from the Grail Psalter, the old edition, which to my knowledge isn't online.) A number of canticles, prayers, responsories, Scripture readings, etc. are added, mostly after the Psalmody. "Canticles" are songs found elsewhere in Scripture, whereas a substantial number of the prayers and responsories themselves consist in quotes from the Psalms.

For example, the day's prayer opens with the Invitatory,
V/ Lord, open my lips.
R/ And my mouth will proclaim your praise.
This passages comes directly from Psalm 51. Each Hour then opens with,
V/ God, come to my assistance.
R/ Lord, make haste to help me.
These are the opening words of Psalm 70. And so forth.*

Currently I try to follow this schedule:
  • Morning Prayer sometime after I rise from bed;
  • around midday, I turn to the Psalms from the Office of Readings, followed by Daytime Prayer;
  • Evening Prayer during the evening or the night.
On occasion, my wife joins me, and she likes it. Our son joined us once, too, but he never returned. I'd like our family to pray the Psalms in the morning and in the evening, but one cannot always realize one's ideals. Maybe if I paid more attention at prayer, they would see the attraction, hmm... ;-)

My one complaint about the Hours is that the most important prayers are actually thin on the Psalms! Everyone says that Morning and Evening Prayer are the most important prayers, but they each contain two Psalms, or else one longer Psalm split into two parts. That's it! The "less important" prayers during the day have three Psalms, or three parts of two psalms, etc. That seems backward! Former versions of the Hours, which sought to cycle the entire Psalter over a week, naturally gave more Psalms to Morning and Evening Prayer ("Lauds" and "Vespers"). I can't help but think that the editors of the current arrangement were a little too zealous in their goal of simplifying the books. I don't have a better solution, though, so I don't gripe about it much.

Monasteries and convents, whose one certain job is to pray the Psalms, typically sing these prayers. Often enough, they rely on Gregorian chant. I have some books of chant, published by the Solesmes monastery no less: two hymn-books, and a Psalter laid out according to the former arrangement of the Hours. I don't have an Antiphonal. Someone once told me that eventually Solesmes would publish an Antiphonal, but that was nearly ten years ago, and as far as I know it's nowhere in sight.

None of these chants are required for the Hours, of course, and often enough they can distract one from the main purpose, which is to pray, using the Psalms. I do chant them sometimes. Some chants are easy, unless I'm doing them wrong, and I probably am, since I have no official training. I just try to imitate what I have heard in the monasteries. Some chants are not easy in the least! My favorites chants by far are the hymns, most of which I can sing reasonably well, and some of which I have translated for this weblog (look for the label The Cantus in Cantanima at right). But there other other ways to sing the Psalms, too. John Michael Talbot's Abbey uses a nice style of chant that is not Gregorian, which you can hear on his CD Chant from the Hermitage.

There are periods in my life when I start to feel as if I am too busy to pray the Hours, or that I should stop "playing monk", or that I'm not praying them well enough, etc. So I lay my Book of Hours aside for a while, and after a few days, weeks, or months I begin to feel as if something is missing from my life. It's like the period before my wife and I married, and we had to stay apart for a long time... something was missing. I don't think I can prove God's existence scientifically, but I don't want to; I have experienced God's absence, and that is awful. Sooner or later, I return to the Hours, and again the Psalms help me sit down with God during the quietest moments of the day.

*This is quite typical of the Roman liturgy actually; the Mass itself can be viewed as a long series of Scripture quotes, tied together by a minimal amount of connecting passages. This starts with the opening words: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, which comes from Jesus' commandment to baptize all people, and is in fact meant to recall our baptism. The very next phrase contains the phrase, The Lord be with you, which occurs in a number of places in the New Testament. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Roman Mass probably contains more quotes from scripture than the most fundamentalist of Protestant services. (This, of course, will convince no one that we really are Christians and not the antichrist, since even the devil can, and does, quote Scripture.)


Aumgn said...

Lovely post.

Solesmes do seem to be finally getting the Antiphonale Monasticum into print (two volumes are currently available and the third is due next year). Just thirty years late, that's all.

jack perry said...

Thanks. I will have to look for the Antiphonale. If it's in three volumes, I'll have to wait a while before I can acquire them.