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.