Thursday, August 7, 2008

Breviaries? What good are Breviaries?

“Good morning, Brothers. Today we celebrate the dedication of St. Mary Major in Rome. We will take the common of the Blessed Virgin starting on page 1732 in the one-volume. Psalms and canticles from Sunday, Week I, starting on page 707. The opening hymn is No. 162, “Hail, Holy Queen”. And we will recite the Benedictus in Spanish…. Please stand….”

Okaaaay... Well, welcome to morning prayer in a typical Franciscan community anywhere in North America. Twice a day, the friars gather to pray the Liturgy of the Hours (formerly known as the Divine Office) together. In doing so, we join our collective prayer with that of the universal Church.

The prayerbook we pray from is called a “breviary” (pronounced BREEVuree) As you may have already guessed, it is meant to be a ‘brief’ or ‘condensed’ collection of the psalms, canticles, readings from Scriptures, and hymns used in daily communal worship. Tradiitionally, this type of worship was restricted to religious communities, but now it is more frequently experienced and enjoyed by laypeople as well. The selection of specific prayers may vary day to day (hence, the complicated football plays at the start of this article) due to various celebrations and liturgical seasons. But there is an overall rhythm to the sequence of prayers and, once you get the hang of it, it begins to serve as a consistent background and foundation to individual and collective worship.

The Liturgy of the Hours has its inspiration and remote origins in the Temple worship of the Jews in Jerusalem—morning and evening prayers which at first accompanied ritual sacrifice, and then later served as a de facto substitute for that sacrifice. In the Christian tradition, the Liturgy of the Hours continues that spirit of dedication to daily and even unceasing prayer, most especially in the context of monastic life. Originally, monks would pray all 150 psalms of David every single day. But in the interests of practicality, the chanting of the psalms eventually spread out over the course of a single week, particularly in the Benedictine tradition.

With the rise of the mendicant orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, etc.) in the thirteenth century in the West, the recitation/ chanting of the Divine Office became even more “brief.” Itinerant friars could not spare the time to pray all of the nine liturgical “hours” that tradition required. They were and are busy (sometimes too busy) people. Consequently, the recitation of psalms in the monastic weekly cycle eventually gave way to the current four-week cycle. The breviary adopted and adapted by the Franciscans was that of the Pope’s own court, or Curia, and eventually became the standard for all “apostolic” communities (i.e., those involved in active ministry). Its present form dates from the reforms of Vatican II, implemented in 1974.

So what good are ‘breviaries’? Well, Francis of Assisi put a great deal of stock in them (literally). In our Rule, Francis wrote: “Let the clerical (brothers) recite the Divine Office according to the rite of the holy Roman Church excepting the psalter, for which reason they may have breviaries.” (RB,III:1). In the time of Francis and Clare and before the invention of the printing press, breviaries were precious, one-of-a-kind objects. Francis would never have permitted the friars to possess such expensive prayerbooks unless he believed that a more important spiritual value was at stake. And he was right!

For Franciscans today, the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours from our breviaries forms the background music of community worship and life. Twice a day, if at all possible, we try to get together to pray. Community prayer brings us together, shapes and molds us spiritually, reminds us who we are and whose we are, and strengthens the bonds of connection between and among us. We could not have survived and flourished for eight hundred years without it.

Of course, the experience of the Liturgy of the Hours recited from the breviary will vary from house to house. So much depends upon the unity and ‘spirit of devotion’ of each particular fraternity. Some places the friars put tremendous energy and passion into communal prayer; other places, the brothers just seem to drone and drag on forever. Welcome to community life! We ain’t in heaven yet, kiddo. But the important thing is that, inspite of ups and downs and in-betweens, we do pray. We have this steady flow of brother-beside-brother praying through which the Lord continues to knit our lives together.

“Like a deer that longs for flowing water, so my soul longs for you, my God.”…. “Oh God, you are my God, for you I long.”….. “Have mercy, O God, have mercy. In your compassion, blot out my offense. Truly I have sinned against you….” Snatches of poetic meter wend and weave their way in and through our individual and collective thoughts, prayers, and longings throughout the day. Over time, they provide us with a rich collective vocabulary in prayer. Poetic, yes; but not limited to poetry. The psalms are tough and sinewy; strong and durable as well. They not only affect us, but they serve to form us as well. It’s the persistence of commitment and effort over time rather than any aesthetic intention which give the psalms, part of the God’s own Living Word, such power and presence.

If you would like to start to pray the Liturgy of the Hours on your own, I can recommend a great starter volume: Shorter Christian Prayer (Catholic Book Publishing) is a slim and handy tome which contains the fundamentals: the complete texts of Morning and Evening Prayer for the entire year. If, in time, you feel ready to enter into the complexities of shifting proper and seasonal readings, then you can graduate to the one-volume Litury of the Hours (also available through Catholic Book Publishing Co.). Either edition will put you in good stead. There is also a special breviary with an adapted Franciscan supplement, and a fancy-schmanzy four-volume set as well. But keep it simple. In this case, you really don’t need all the extra smells and bells.

Where and if at all possible, I would highly recommend finding a way where you can pray the Liturgy of the Hours with others. Some religious communities will gather together in their parish churches to pray on a regular basis with laypeople (we usually don’t because we have such varying work schedules). Or you can find a prayer group which makes its recitation a central part of its purpose.

Either way, becoming acquainted with the Liturgy of the Hours through the breviary is well worth it. It gives us, individually and collectively, a wonderful opportunity to enter into the power and beauty of the Word. What good are breviaries? Well, I happen to think they’re pretty darn good, through and through. //


liturgy said...

Thanks for this insight into your life for many

Anonymous said...

I have recently returned from a retreat at a Franciscan Centre, where we joined the Sisters for Morning and Evening prayer. Home now and reading the Morning prayer, I wondered how the prayers were chosen and how this all began. And then I was introduced to this blog.... Thank you so vey much for writing on this topic.

liturgy said...

I've just created a badge to encourage people to pray the Liturgy of the Hours: