On the Divine Office

10 04 2019

I have followed sedevacantist priest Fr. Anthony Cekada’s writings for almost two decades now, and I am quite fond of his approach to theological and liturgical questions. I am most appreciative of his mischievous humor as well when he is polemicizing. A recent piece of his from some years back praising St. Pius X’s reform of the Divine Office (known in the current Church as the “Liturgy of Hours”) was brought to my attention. He brings up the main issue of the pre-Pius X office not reciting all 150 Psalms a week as well as its length and complexity. Cekada thus thinks the reform was a good idea and not without historical precedent. Archimandrite Robert Taft, for example, produced an exceptional book on the Divine Office indicating that its reform had been an issue for centuries prior to St. Pius X.

I believe that the main issue here is that in the West, the Divine Office had long ago become a “private prayer book,” especially outside of monasteries and cathedrals, so its recitation had to be compact enough for the average cleric to recite to himself. This is not necessarily a trait shared in other apostolic churches. By way of example, no cleric or monk is expected in the Orthodox Church to recite the entire Divine Office privately. Indeed, having been in a monastery, I can say that daily celebration of the Office utilized about half a dozen books, with constant juggling between the set Psalms, prayers for the saint(s) of the day, and the kathismata (the recitation of a certain number of Psalms during Matins and Vespers).

To address Cekada’s concern about the recitation of all 150 Psalms per week, my understanding (not really going to look this one up as it would take too long), is that in the Eastern Orthodox practice, these are said in addition to the other Psalms constituting Matins, the Hours, Vespers, and Compline. They are usually read by one monk during Matins and Vespers while everyone sits and listens. I was once in a Coptic Oriental Orthodox monastery and during one office, a monk went around and started reciting numbers to people. I was given a few and I had no idea why. It turns out that those were the numbers of the Psalms we were supposed to recite to ourselves silently so that the custom of reciting the whole Psalter each day could be kept. I guess they failed that day due to my ignorance.

From that I have concluded that when the “Eastern” churches talk about the Divine Office being the “Prayer of the Church,” it is literally because it is a prayer that happens whether you are “plugged into it” or not. The Small Hours (in the West, Prime Terce, etc.) on a weekday in the monastery I was in was usually read by one monk in an empty church. And these did not vary except for a couple of parts, being the same Psalms each time. If you had to do these Hours, plus Matins, Vespers, Compline, and the Midnight Office, you would have been driven mad.

So from Cekada’s description of the pre-reformed Office in the Western Church, it seems to have had the same issues as the current Eastern Offices do. Except no one in the East is expected to read the whole Office themselves. In a monastic setting, it’s good enough that you show up for Matins and Vespers, and maybe Compline, and if you have other things to do, oh well. Also, you probably had your own prayer rule of the Jesus Prayer. Once you make it an obligation for every cleric in the world to say it, then you have to worry about length, complexity, reducing it to a sensible number of books, etc.

In saying this, I don’t condemn one situation or the other: they are both different, and both contribute their own insights. I suppose I would point out here that the Western mentality requires innovation; change is almost built into it. If you aren’t just going to add on and add on (the “Eastern approach”) then yes, you are going to have to cut things out, rearrange things, and so on in order to at least uphold one non-negotiable principle (reciting 150 Psalms over the course of a week, for example). Of course, the Western Church doesn’t even do that now: the whole Psalter is read over the course of a month in the Vatican II office. One could then wonder what would have happened if the Western Church had taken a different approach: making the Divine Office optional in many of its parts, making a two-tiered Divine Office (one for secular clergy, one for monastic clergy), or just replacing it with a prayer rule (which is what the rosary was in the first place for the laity).  Instead of being the obligatory prayer of each and every cleric, it could have been conceived as a prayer that is just “going on” that you plug into when you can, one that is celebrated and sung in communion with the choirs of Heaven, instead of being hastily recited and “gotten out of the way”.

But as in all things involving the Western Church, it’s probably too late for all that.

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