Prayer options for the stealth hermitess (and others) - Part I

God's Reluctance - Julian of Norwich  "Pray inwardly, even if you do not enjoy it. It does good, though you feel nothing. Yes, even though you think you are doing nothing."    "Prayer is not overcoming God's reluctance. It is laying hold of His willingness.":
St Julian of Norwhich

One of the posts I've been meaning to put together for a while is on choosing which form of the Office (or other prayer) might best suit your needs.

Given the latest assault on religious life by the Vatican, this seems like a good moment.

Pray without ceasing

Every Christian, of course, is called to 'pray without ceasing' (1 Thess 5:16-18).

Just what that means in practice has always been fairly controversial.

At one end of the spectrum, some of the Desert Fathers are those who take the injunction very literally indeed, even hiring people to pray for them when they had to stop to eat or sleep.  St Clement of Alexandria also articulated a 'gnostic' ideal of  the person devoted to continuous prayer, and some religious orders down the ages (including modern ones devoted to perpetual adoration) have devoted themselves to the maintenance of continuous prayer at the collective level, even if not the individual.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who see the injunction fulfilled through the orientation of our lives: good works as liturgy, as it were.

St Benedict's Rule advocates something of a happy medium: formal prayer at seven set intervals through the day, and again once at night, in order to fulfil the injunctions of Psalm 118 (Seven times a day will I praise you, and at midnight I rose to give praise to you); provision for private prayer as led by the Spirit; and a balance of work and spiritual reading to fill out the day.

St Benedict's Office, of course, was not designed for laypeople, or even really hermits or anchorites.  First it is quite hard to learn, and requires considerable effort to do regularly and correctly.  Secondly, it was intended to be sung, preferably in community, and in my view loses a lot when it is just said (private recitation is a relatively modern innovation, and really a Jesuit thing, not a Benedictine one!).  Thirdly, it  takes several hours a day to sing in full, requiring more time than most people can spare.  Finally, while some or even all of the day hours will be manageable for many, even if you just say it, the long Night Office (especially on Sundays) is a much more formidable undertaking (and there are no good translations of the full night Office available).

So what to do?

Devotions and private prayer

Everyone should, of course, have their own regime of private prayer as a base to build on.  Things like making a morning offering, grace before (and ideally after) meals, and an evening prayer for a happy death.  Most people will say some of the rosary each day.

The thirteenth century Anchoresses Rule (one of my favourite books I have to admit) has a lot of concrete suggestions, for this, starting from:
"When you first rise, bless yourself and say In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritui Sancti, Amen.  and begin at once Veni Creator Spiritus..."
Lectio divina (spiritual reading), systematic study and meditation on Scripture and other spiritual works is also absolutely essential for everyone in my view.

Monks can devote several hours to it, but even devoting a short amount of time each day to being nourished by Scripture is worthwhile in my view (provided it is guided by good Catholic commentaries, since the meaning of Scripture is not self-evident, and Catholics do not believe in 'sola scriptura'!).

But what more?

Association with the monks and nuns

The first thing you should consider, I would suggest, is to become an Oblate of a monastery, and thus gain a special share in the prayers they offer.

Oblation doesn't excuse from the obligation to pray yourself of course.  But your financial and spiritual support for the monks or nuns of your monastery (Benedictines are always associated with a specific monastery, there is really no such thing as the Benedictine Order in the same sense as the Carmelites, Francisans or Dominicans for example) helps ensure that the Work of God they carry out on behalf of the Church can continue.

The point is that we are one body but many parts, each with different roles, and the role of monks and nuns is above all to pray; the orientation of (most) laypeople should be to the things proper to their state of life, including family, work and active works.  We each support each other, but work in different ways for the kingdom.

Attending the Office when it is available

The second thing is to attend the Office (in whatever form) when it is available.

Up until the Council of Trent parish priests were pretty much expected to sing the day hours in their churches, and the laity often attended and joined in, particularly on Sundays.  The tradition was never, as far as I can determine, for the laity to attempt Matins (Vigils) - that was always viewed as a particularly monastic preserve.

These days it is a rare parish that makes even Sunday Vespers available, but if it is possible to attend, go.  And consider making a retreat at a monastery that actually does sing the Office (should such a thing exist in your location!).

 Listening to the Office prayerfully

A more accessible option for many will be listening prayerfully to the podcasts of the Office made available by the monasteries of Norcia and Le Barroux (see the sidebar links).

Just listening to broadcasts of the Office is not a participation in liturgical prayer of course - it is akin to Mass for you at home on the television.

But Gregorian chant and even singing the Office recto tono (on one note) has an inherent spirituality that can assist our own private prayer.

Use the prayers and psalms of the Office devotionally

Another option worth considering is to use prayers and psalms of the Benedictine Office devotionally.

Praying the Office liturgically is a serious undertaking, in my view, that requires knowledge and preparation.

But there is no reason why you can't use the Monastic Diurnal, for example, to access the spiritual riches of St Benedict's legacy devotionally.

You could, for example, start off just by saying the opening prayer of the day hours - O Lord come to my aid, O God make haste to help me - at the seven times of the day St Benedict expected his monks to pray (first light, before work, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, before bed).

You could add an Our Father to this.

Or perhaps say one of the fixed psalms of the Benedictine Office - St Benedict, for example gave his monks Psalm 3, a song of the spiritual warfare, as one of the repeated psalms of the night Office, and it is a great way to start the day.

Liturgical prayer

Finally, you can learn to pray at least one or more hours of one or other forms of the Office liturgically.

The Divine Office is  part of the formal worship of the Church, just like the Mass and sacraments.

One of the positive fruits of Vatican II, though the 1983 Code of Canon Law, was to make it clear that laypeople can pray the Office liturgically not only when they are present when it is said by monks, nuns or priests, but also when praying by themselves.

Under the 1983 Code of Canon Law, priests and religious are required to say some form of the Divine Office, and laypeople are 'earnestly invited' to participate in the Office as an action of the Church. 

This a wonderful privilege.  But as with all privileges, it carries obligations with it.  We can't just make it up as we go along, and muddle through.  We have to do it correctly, lest we be guilty of liturgical abuse.

Still want to do it?  I'll go through the main options for saying the Office in my next post in this series.


Benjamin Ekman said...

Thanks for these new posts! Very helpful. Why do you VULTUM DEI QUAERERE an "assault on religious life"?

Kate Edwards said...

Thanks Benjamin.

On Vultum Dei, Hilary White has a good piece on this:

Pope Francis has already made it much harder for new monasteries to get started by requiring approval from Rome, not just local bishop; this takes it several steps further. None of the new traddie ones would have been able to get approval under these rules and it makes it much harder to create stable communities or reform nearly defunct ones due to nine year formation requirement (vs 1 for men!) before full (voting) membership; imposes things that may be inconsistent with some charisms, one size fits all approach; and much more.