Saturday, 28 March 2009

Remember that the Office is the liturgical prayer of the Church!

Chatting to a friend recently on the problems of learning to sing the Office, I remembered that I’ve read a couple of posts on various blogs recently by people who have just received their new breviaries (or diurnals or whatever), and so have opened them up to the appropriate hour and just started praying – only to run into problems in working out whether or not they said the right thing.

And we are coming up to the Tenebrae season. Now some choirs are old hands at this. But others may be inclined to just ‘have a go’ at it.

So I thought it might be timely to reflect on the implications of the fact that the Office is liturgy - the official, public prayer of the Church.

Liturgy vs devotions

There is a key distinction that needs to be made between private devotions and liturgical prayer. Devotions, whether in a particular approved form (such as the rosary) or in the particular forms of our choice are essentially our own offering and we can pick or choose in them as we like (subject to any specific guidance from the Church). Liturgy on the other hand is a formal action of the Church.

Before Vatican II priests and religious were formally delegated by the Church to say the Office, and private recitation by the laity was generally devotional rather than liturgical. I’m not sure when this distinction came about, but I suspect it has its origins in Trent.

Vatican II (and the new Code of Canon Law), however, changed this. Now, generally speaking, the Office, provided you are using it is in an approved form (and that includes the Little Office of Our Lady, and pre-Vatican II forms of the Office), even when said by a layperson in private, you are performing liturgy (CL 1174).

Prepare it properly

That has some major implications. For a start it means that the principles that apply to the Mass – such as ‘say the black, do the red’ – apply just as much to the Office as they do to the Masss.

No one would expect a priest to rock up to his first mass never having opened the liturgical books in advance, never having practiced what he has to do. So we shouldn’t expect to just start saying the Office either. You should make sure before you start that you know what you are doing by studying the text and instructions carefully, and practicing in advance if necessary.

Giving glory to God

Liturgy in general arguably has three purposes – first and foremost to give God the worship he is due, secondly our sanctification, and thirdly to unite us to each other. It is the vertical dimension, worship, that tends to get lost in the Ordinary Form of the Mass these days. But what I always find odd is that traditionalists who decry the make it up as you go along/anything goes approach to the mass often seem quite prepared to take just this approach when it comes to the Office, even in public.

Now I know that there are two schools of thought on this. On the one hand there are those who advocate allowing people to join in, for example in singing the Ordinary at Mass, even when the would-be singers are tone deaf, or don’t really know the tunes well. Thomas a Kempis for example says ‘If you cannot sing like the nightingale and the lark, then sing like the crows and the frogs, which sing as God meant them to’!

The better view, however, in my opinion at least is that of St Benedict, who emphasizes that liturgy should strive to be worthy of and make present on earth in a small way God’s great glory, and thus only those whose singing edifies the listeners should be permitted to do so. He requires those who make mistakes in the Office (and mistakes are inevitable, no matter how much one practices and prepares) to acknowledge their fault and make reparation for it. And in fact, the Church has, in past eras, encouraged the saying of a prayer after the Office (the Sacrosanctum) to obtain forgiveness of such faults.


So if you are planning to start saying the Office, or are already saying it regularly, do make sure you prepare in advance, so you know exactly which psalms, readings and prayers are set for that day and hour, and know the rubrics.

Secondly, if you are going to sing it, make sure you know the psalm tones (and ideally have a pointed version to sing from unless you know it very well indeed), antiphons and hymns – and be prepared to sing what you don’t know well enough recto tono (on one note).

And when you are saying or singing it, do so with due care! If your parish or community is singing Tenebrae and you don’t know it well (and the chant versions of some of those responsories are very testing indeed) or struggle to sing in tune, sing very very quietly or better still just listen!

But do say the Office!

Having said all that, singing or saying the Office is a great privilege, and one the Church encourages all of us to engage in. And of course there is always a learning curve that has to be allowed for before one becomes completley proficient.

I don’t personally think most laypeople should attempt to say all of the hours of the traditional Office at least – it takes up a lot of time that might be more appropriately devoted to duties of state of life, including advancing the mission of the Church in the world one way or another. But making at least a few 'hours' of the Office a regular part of your (or your parishes) spiritual regime is a great way of sanctifying the day or week.

Tenebrae in particular - the Offices of Matins and Lauds for Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday - is one of the most beautiful ceremonies of the liturgical year and well worth attending if you can.


expat said...

A problem for those of us who are new to the MD Office and are without access to community, is that it's not always easy to figure out what the rubrics say and mean! A lot of the directions rely on an assumed body of knowledge.

I certainly appreciate sites like yours that help to detail the rubrics more; it is a great help.

For my part, I sure wish someone would feel called to write a "Divine Office for Dummies" book that goes step-by-step and doesn't assume any knowledge on the part of the new participant.

Thanks again taking time out of your schedule to do the Ordo postings -- I say a prayer of thanksgiving for you every time you post one.

Terra said...

You are right expat, it does take a bit of learning. And I have been thinking about doing an 'Office for Dummies' series of posts once I have cleared out a few other tasks, and will certainly try and do some more detailed notes to help people through the complexities of Holy Week!

All the same, if you read the diurnal carefully (preferably with the Rule of St Benedict in hand!) it is pretty much all there!

Although I have to admit, every now and then I have to go back to the full Latin rubrics to doublecheck something! And I still make lots of mistakes - when I don't have my weekly calendar in front of me I'm liable to forget a commemoration, etc.

expat said...

I have such brain fog that even reading the rubrics often leaves me scratching my head (it's menopause that has made me so simple minded!)

If you were to do the "Office for Dummies" posts, I'm sure it would help people like me out a lot.

You mentioned in another post that you were working on your thesis, and, having gone through that myself, I know what a meat grinder that can be -- I will certainly keep you in my prayers!

Terra said...

Expat (and others) - watch the blog this week - I'll go through the rubrics for Holy Week day by day (or group of days) in a bit of detail that i hope will help...

Sharon said...

Expat, if you are talking about the Liturgy of the Hours there is a 'for Dummies' help. It is called The Divine Office For Dodos by Madeline Pecora Nugent

If you are talking about the Latin Divine Office then I am unable to help.

Blog owner - is there such a thing as a CD with the psalms as Australians say them? I would like to sing them but don't know the tunes.

Terra said...

Sharon - We're talking about the traditional Benedicinte monastic Office - so as you hear it in a monastery like Le Barroux in France or clear Creek in the US. I'm not aware of a complete recording of it though - but the monastery of Solesmes have put out a CD of Vespers and Compline for Sunday which doesn't quite use the same psalm texts, but is close enough ton learn it from!

JB said...

"...For my part, I sure wish someone would feel called to write a "Divine Office for Dummies" book that goes step-by-step and doesn't assume any knowledge on the part of the new participant....."

This has been done. The book is titled "The Divine Office for Dodos*" (* Devout, Obedient Disciples of Our Savior).

For information, see here:

JB said...

Never mind. I didn't see that someone else had already posted this.