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Friday, October 17, 2008

The Divine Office, Made Simple

Lately some confusion has risen over the nature of the Divine Office in the Western rite (a) as it is celebrated today by Orthodox Christians; (b) as it was celebrated for centuries, until the Schism of 1054; and (c) as it was celebrated in early times (5th to 7th centuries, give or take). This blog post is a sincere effort to put an end to unnecessary confusion.

Let us examine the Office chronologically. The Roman rite knows two predominant patterns of Divine Office, one known as the "cathedral" or "parish" use and one known as the "Benedictine" or "monastic" use. The oldest in origin is the cathedral use. St. Benedict (+547) made an adaptation of its weekly cycle or cursus, for use in monasteries of his rule, and called his cursus "Opus Dei," the Work of God.

Primitive (Early) Office

This stage in the office's development might be called the "primitive" or "early" office. It consisted of invocations, psalms, antiphons, readings and their responsory chants, short scripture readings, preces (short antiphonal selected psalm verses), short prayers (orationes, i.e., collects), patristic commentaries on the readings (more or less ad lib), and eventually came to include hymns (poetry in regular stanzas).

Pre-Reformation Office

The next stage was the product of a substantial reworking, a process fairly complete by the year 850. On the one hand, lengthy and repetitive elements in the early office were abolished: no longer were antiphons sung after every verse of every psalm, and the Matins readings were shortened substantially. But as if to compensate, new material was added to the office: an involved system of commemorations (each consisting of an antiphon, verse, and collect) brought into the office a spectrum of prayers to the Saints. New hymns were composed for diverse occasions. And, most telling of all, "little offices" were appended to the primitive Hours, "little offices" of Our Lady, of the dead, and, in monastic use, of All Saints. Also, in monastic use recurrent devotions became indissolubly woven into the fabric of the daily office: the 15 Gradual Psalms, the 7 Penitential Psalms, a daily Litany of Saints., and so forth. This form of office prevailed in the West from the 8th or 9th century until the Reformation. The prevailing "style" of doing the office was a choral service; generally, the local clergy or monastics came together in church to sing it.

(It should be pointed out in passing that a number of monasteries during this time period used not the Benedictine but the older cathedral office.)

"Modern" or "Counter-Reformation" Office

This form of office abbreviated the preceding one, but left intact the structure and content of the core Hours. The little office of Our Lady became optional, and eventually died out. The little office of the dead was made a monthly, instead of a daily, observance. In monastic use, the little office of All Saints and the daily devotion-psalms and Litany ceased to be required, so that the office could take much less time. Also, the prevailing "style" of doing the office came to be non-sung. More often than not, offices were spoken quietly in private, not in church. This stage is represented, in the cathedral office, by the Tridentine use books, and, in the Benedictine office, by the Breviarium Monasticum (e.g., that published in 1925). After 1911 the Tridentine office was radically restructured and the ancient psalm-cycle replaced.

(It should be noted that from the Reformation onward, the Anglican movement resulted in the creation of a whole new divine office, radically distinct from forms existing before it. This is sometimes called the Cranmerian or BCP (Book of Common Prayer) office. The services are re-cast, drastically abbreviated, and combined into one another, to such a degree that only vestiges remain in the BCP office of the ancient structure and content of the office which prevailed in the West before the Schism and was of Orthodox origination. The BCP office represents perhaps one-fifteenth the content of the historic office. Sometimes new, harmonised music has filled in this form of office a bit. This form of office was first approved for Orthodox usage in 1977 by the Antiochian jurisdiction in the United States.)

"Novus Ordo" Office

After Vatican II, by stages, the Roman church revised its office books, again in the direction of simplification and abbreviation. We may call the results the "Novus Ordo" office. The most far-reaching change was to the lectionary, the cycle of readings through the year, but the changes to the psalm-cycle and other features were substantial, both in the cathedral use and, after 1983, the Benedictine use. The results somewhat resemble the Anglican office in brevity, and in distinctness from office forms which went before. The abolition of Prime (that is, First Hour) is one notable feature of Novus Ordo development.

Western Rite Orthodoxy

Most Western rite Orthodox Christians who do a daily office follow the "modern" (Reformer or Counter-Reformation) form of office, most commonly the BCP office or the Breviarium Monasticum of 1925. But in some quarters the "primitive" Western office has been attempted (e.g., by Abbot Augustine, Russian Orthodox Church Abroad), though never with the original repetitions and long readings, and the "pre-Reformation" office has also been used (e.g., the Sarum office, which contains all patristic and historic elements of the Western office; see it here). To this writer's knowledge, no Western rite Orthodox community uses a Novus Ordo office.

It cannot be stressed enough that the most important thing about doing the Divine Office is simply to set about doing an office, as blessed by a spiritual father. The influence of the world's fallenness is very powerful in our postmodern Western culture. If unchecked by godly traditions such as sanctifying the hours of the day in prayer, and regular confession and communion, and retreat and pilgrimage betimes, this "undertow" of the world grows strong and dangerous. We cannot make immediate changes in the culture surrounding us, but we can make immediate changes in the "input" our souls and minds, and all our senses, experience daily. By doing a Divine Office we feed, nourish, and elevate our souls. In this essential task we ought above all to support and encourage one another. We should not judge our neighbour based on what form of Office he does. It is a remarkable thing in this day and age that anyone is still left to sanctify the hours as a Christian believer ought. And doing a brief but daily office is better than advocating a fuller Orthodox office, then never managing to actually do it. Wherever we see the Hours done by the faithful, we should give glad thanks to God.

"It is later than you think. Hasten, therefore, to do the work of God." -- Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), +1982

Amen, and amen.

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