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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Divine Office: part of a Restored Life

Someone recently commented, regarding the length of Byzantine versus Western Rite services:

> My thinking is that to glorify God is the purpose of these services, whether they're WR or ER, and both do so very well...

Here was my reply:

I would like to expand on these words, starting from the thought that the daily services are for the glorification of God.

People often wonder if it's really the best use of our time, to be in church each day chanting the Hours. This issue is perhaps the most acute for the Byzantine rite, where Matins does take a while, especially on feast days. But it's also acute for the old forms of Western rite, which are undeniably lengthier than the modern. Matins in the Sarum Use of the Roman rite can be managed in an hour and a half (including the Little Office of St. Mary and often the Little Office for the Dead), but only if you are experienced and move briskly (no "What comes next?" or "Where do I flip to, for THAT?").

It really is the best use of our time. By these frequent daily prayers, we glorify our Creator. We also preserve within ourselves a spirit of repentance and vigilance (nepsis), which refines our life in faith and prepares us for death and eternal life. The grace given us by the Holy Mysteries (for prime example, in Holy Communion in the Liturgy on Sunday) is thereby preserved in us across time, so if we do it right, we manage to live in a state of grace day after day. Thus we become bearers of grace, bearers of God, in the world. We turn into human candles which cannot be hidden under a bushel but will shine into the world. Okay, there are other ways in which that can be done, but back to the topic.

When we pray the Hours, heaven and earth are in communion. We know that at the Liturgy angels of God stand there and pray and sing alongside us. Usually you can't see them, but sometimes you can. Well, the exact same thing is true for the Hours. Angels concelebrate them with us, as St. Etheldreda experienced so keenly.

In the Hours (especially, in Western rite, the Matins) Christian instruction is delivered. Holy Fathers comment on Scripture. The lives of Saints are unfolded and impress themselves in our minds, showing us how to implement the Gospel teachings in various circumstances. The theology of the Church is revealed (one advantage of the old Roman rite over the modern forms: higher theological and educational content).

In the Hours, that divine order in which creation rejoiced before the Fall, is renewed and restored. Things proceed by grace and divine order, rather than the randomness and purposelessness of the post-Christian life of alienation. This helps a person order his thoughts and feelings, thus reducing harmful effects of passions and bringing greater spiritual rootedness to one's life.

By imposing a divine order upon our words, thoughts, and bodily motions, the divine office breaks the wheel-rut of our daily grind. Thus the power of worldliness is broken, for a time, and new avenues are opened for the human spirit. (It is necessary, afterwards, to use this corner of freedom to deepen our personal relationship with God in private, inward prayer; if we don't do that, we're getting a momentary blessing but discarding it.)

The divine office prepares us for other spiritual tasks, such as feeding the poor, instructing the ignorant, visiting the sick and those in prison, studying the Holy Bible, obeying our superiors, etc.

The divine office is like a mighty spiritual tool, for it can make us clay in God's artistic hands. Like any tool, it can be misused, misdirected, and does not guarantee healing or salvation for all. Still, the most hardened church-attending sinner can find that a little "Cupid's arrow" of repentance may be shot into his heart, at some moment, from the quiver we call "the divine office." It can perfect saints, and it can lead a thief to cry, "Remember me, O Lord, when Thou comest in Thy kingdom!"

What, we have time enough for two hours of television and over an hour on the computer, but that's too much time to spend in church on God, soul, life, faith, the kingdom, and all the reasons we were put on this earth? That's not realistic.

In our post-Christian age we need powerful tools to overcome the powerful influence of growing darkness and evil. We need a radically re-ordered way of life, maybe more like the rhythm of mediaeval life. Not working a job all the time like the 19th century factories, and not aimless leisure, but the support of community; church- and family-based education; living close to church, within the sound of the bells; going to daily services (full round not required); soup kitchen or a workshop for employing unemployed people; small-scale agriculture / horticulture; and spending more time in carpentry and carving and sewing and learning music and video producing, for God's glory, or minding an Orthodox bookstore, than in other activities which take up too much time (each person knows which those are).

Down with Babel, raise the walls of Jerusalem!

Fr. Aidan+ sinner
Holy Protection Russian Orthodox Church, Austin, Texas
http://www.orthodoxaustin.org

7 comments:

TheMoosecatcher said...

Sounds a bit like distributism. I wonder if there have been any Orthodox thinkers who have formally put out any works that parallel it. The closest I can think of is the Slavophile movement.

Anonymous said...

Can I ask, for an ordinary person, what part in the everyday life, does mental,personal prayer play ? In the western tradition, ordinary people might spend half an hour or wenty minutes daily in personal paryer or meditation, what part does this play in the western orthodox tradition and practice ? Some western Christian might recite part of the Divine Office, but my guess is that more would use mental prayer as their staple diet. Can you comment ? Thanks, Alan Robinson

Fr. Aidan said...

Distributism? As in, an emphasis on laity as well as clergy and monastics praying the divine office resembling each one having a share in the means of [religious] production? I'm not quite sure what is meant.

Fr. Aidan said...

Alan, what you wrote is nearly exactly what I counsel people to do, in that I counsel people to both pray the essential morning and evening prayers out of the prayer book, and also pray in their own words, and also read the scripture for the day, or even a portion of it, very slowly and meditatively, so that it can sink into the heart. I would tell beginners to do the reverse as far as their "diet" is concerned: more divine office, less personal prayer and meditation. The idea is that the divine office can establish rootedness and the correct spirit of prayer, and then once someone is steeped in that, he can more safely navigate personal prayer, including unspoken prayer and contemplation of divine things. I think those are somewhat deeper waters and so you need to be able to swim first, and the divine office teaches you how to swim, so to speak.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Father, for your advice.Alan

Dale said...

The western rite parish to which I once belonged followed the shortened service of Mattins and Evensong from the BCP, with normal Anglo-Catholic additions. The parish whilst very small in number, offered mattins, said Mass, and evensong DAILY. In a large mid-western city with many, many ethnic Orthodox churches, both real and pretend, none of them offered daily offices. And many even did not offer services during major feast days. There is much, perhaps, to be said for a usable, easy to follow, liturgical tradition over a complicated and almost unusable tradition.

It is wonderful that Byzantium does tend to grade spirituality by length of services, but when they are not offered and no one comes (try dropping in on a Greek parish for Orthros some Sunday morning) I feel that perhaps the hype does not really reflect the reality.

I still remember as a child attending vigil on Saturday in the Russian Church, attended by the priest, his wife (who doubled as cantor), and myself (the server).

Fr. Aidan said...

Dale wrote that the WR "parish to which I once belonged followed the shortened service of Mattins and Evensong from the BCP... the parish whilst very small in number, offered mattins, said Mass, and evensong DAILY."

This point is very well taken, that that WR parish was more orthopraxic as to time spent in divine office each week. This is no small thing!

> ... In a large mid-western city with many, many ethnic Orthodox churches, both real and pretend,<

The word "pretend" as an adjective for some Orthodox churches, inspires me to pray for whatever unhealed wounds must be hurting, in your heart. I know how that is.

> ... There is much, perhaps, to be said for a usable, easy to follow, liturgical tradition over a complicated and almost unusable tradition.<

Whether we consider short, Protestant services BEING prayed, or interminable Orthodox services going UN-prayed, the underlying goal is to be drawn up into heavenly life, through church services and personal prayer. In the case of a Protestant order of service, what does advancing look like? Perhaps, and this is just one possibility, that service might turn into a manageable-length Orthodox-originating service of WR. In the case of Eastern rite, it is clear what "advancement" would look like: one might hope that a simple daily Vespers could be begun in each parish, or a daily akathist or paraclesis, with an eventual goal of simplified daily Vespers (and even Matins) services. Certainly in many places that is exactly what is done. Some people abbreviate the psalmody, or speak texts instead of chanting them at full-length. All of this is an advancement for us, ER and WR, towards the onrushing kingdom.

I served for decades in a small WR monastic parish with Sunday attendance that varied from a high of 45 attendees (average) in the early 1990s to a low of maybe 21 in the sparsest years. We offered daily Vespers and Matins, often shortening the Matins to exclude the little offices and to monotone some parts instead of chanting the ornate melodies. We had Mass (always sung) from three to seven times a week, always on great feasts. Daily requiem Masses were sometimes sung (at least half) in monotone instead of the prolix melodies. And that's with all the clergy involved, working full time jobs. Currently the believers who used to attend there, belong to ER parishes that don't do any of that cycle, day by day.

> ... It is wonderful that Byzantium does tend to grade spirituality by length of services, ...<

Does it happen? My take is, Yes and no. Certainly the service of chrismation is short but considered of greatest holiness. What is viewed suspiciously, is any attempt to unilaterally reduce length of services whose structure was fixed so long ago by Saints and men of theosis and prayer. If the "service receptus" is short, its shortness is accepted, its holiness undoubted. If long, likewise.

> ... (try dropping in on a Greek parish for Orthros some Sunday morning) I feel that perhaps the hype does not really reflect the reality.<

I must agree. And in this the Western rite has a valuable role, a vital witness, to the Church as a whole. I would only caution: don't knock those services with only a few people present. Sometimes the coal of prayer can burn as warmly in a small censer as in a large one.