Thursday, January 5, 2017

Prayer options for the stealth hermitess (and others) Pt IV - The Offices of the religious orders Pt 1

Image result for nuns praying

Some time ago I started a series entitled 'prayer options for the stealth hermitess (and others)'.  In previous posts I've covered:
I promised to go on and talk about the liturgy of the religious orders, but when I started digging into this topic in more depth, I realised that there are actually some difficult issues around this topic, so I've hesitated to jump into this pond.  Nonetheless, here at long last I'm posting something on this topic.

I've split this into two parts: this first part looks at why you might want to say the Office of a religious order; the second part looks at the issues around the right to say these Offices.

Forms of the Office and the spirituality of the Order

Traditionally, most (though not all) of the religious orders had their own distinctive forms of the Divine Office.

The origin of this can probably be traced to the Carolingian era, where legislation required all secular priests (and canons) to say the Roman Office, and all monks to use the Benedictine form.  Prior to that time, monasteries seem to have either followed the usages of their region; said the psalms in numerical order using a combination of collective and individual prayer; or developed their own practices (of which St Benedict's Rule is by far the most developed).  The extent of the success of the Carolingian attempt to impose uniformity is somewhat debated, but regardless. over time it did, of course, unravel.

In some cases the rites used by religious orders were largely based on either the Roman or Benedictine psalm cursus, but added a rich panoply of particular texts and feasts, and often distinctive styles of chant.  Some orders, such as the Dominicans and the Bridgettines (being one of the few that has survived), had their own psalm orderings as well.

Over time these particular forms of the Divine Office were thought to be an integral element to formation in the spirituality of their respective Orders.  As Laszlo Dobszay has pointed out:
In the Middle Ages the members of different religious orders or secular churches jealously guarded their privileges to have a proper liturgy as a symbol and guarantee of their self-identity.  'The choir makes the monk' - said the old dictum, and we may add: this choir makes this (kind of ) monk. [1] 
In the case of the Benedictines, for example, there are arguably close connections between the purpose of the Office and its essential architecture, as well as between key themes in the Rule and the ordering of the psalmody.

St Benedict specifies, for example, that his monks say all of the psalms each week, aligning their work to the work of creation, and thanksgiving for it.  His numerical symbolism perhaps also points to the intercessory value of the Office: 150 psalms for the 150 days that it rained in order to destroy the evils of the world in the Great Flood; and a penitential load of 40 psalms each day for example.

There are also many key connections between the themes of the Rule, and the arrangement of the psalms in St Benedict's Office, as John Fortin, for example, has pointed toin relation to St Benedict's theme of God's constant scrutiny of us, and the ordering of Prime, inter alia. [2]  There are, in my view, many other such connections which appear to be under-appreciated by the Order (at least in the public literature I have been able to access).  These connections don't have to be explicit to have an effect: rather the implicit messages embedded in the forms help form a particular mindset.

For this reason, those attracted to the spiritualities of particular orders will naturally be interested in the liturgies particular to those orders.

The Romanising force

Just how important these distinctive liturgies are in shaping the spirituality of members of the religious orders, though, has long been debated.

In the case of the Benedictines for example, St Benedict's Office was early abandoned outright in favour of the Roman for the Triduum, for example, and a romanised version adopted for major feasts, with the use of special sets of psalms rather than the psalms St Benedict wanted used each day (the Rule suggests that only the antiphons and readings change).  In addition, St Benedict gives permission for other orderings of the psalms than the one he prescribed to be used, provided that all of the psalms are said in the course of a week, and that permission has been used both in the past (and far more extensively in our own time).

In the case of other orders, the most famous is probably the Discalced Carmelites, who adopted the Roman Rite wholesale instead of that of their own order in the seventeenth century.

Abandonment after Vatican II 

Still, the whole process accelerated dramatically after formal permissions was given for Orders to experiment with their liturgies in 1968.

Since Vatican II most religious orders have actually abandoned the particular Offices of their Orders in favour of the 1970 Roman Liturgy of the Hours, or in the case of the Benedictines, Office's of each monasteries own devising.

While some Orders initially made only relatively minor changes, in most cases, the old rites were quickly abandoned and formally suppressed, or extremely restrictive conditions were placed on their use (such as a requirement to obtain a rarely granted special permission).

In the case of the Benedictines, the 1963 breviary was never (as far as I know) formally suppressed.

But monasteries were instead generally 'encouraged' (ie forced) to 'update' their Office in line with the principles set out in the Thesaurus Liturgiae Horarum Monasticae of 1977.  The Thesaurus included some four new psalm schemas (and recognised that others could also be devised) aimed at facilitating the elimination of Prime (in line with the Roman Office), removing the repetitions in the psalter, and spreading the psalms over longer periods.

Some did, of course, cling to the traditional Benedictine psalm cursus, and until relatively recently that effectively meant continuing to use the older chant books even if not the older calendar.

In 1981  however a new psalter (Psalterium Monasticum) came out, causing many monasteries to move to the neo-Vulgate, and in 2005 Solesmes produced the first of a set of new liturgical books adapted to the modern Roman calendar and the various alternate psalm schemas.  And for reasons I don't really understand, even where monasteries like Solesmes actually do use the traditional psalm cursus, they have tinkered with lots of other elements of the hours, for example changed the placement of the hymn.  Perhaps it doesn't really have an impact, but you have to ask, why do it?

The problems with the reforms

As the reforms have progressed, however, some have come to appreciate just how integral the older forms of the liturgy are to their charism, and have observed the consequences of its abandonment.

A recent post over at Rorate Caeli by Peter Kwasniewski, for example, has recently pointed to the problems posed by the watered down version of the faith propagated by the suppression of so much of the psalter in the 1970 Liturgy of the Hours.

The problem is all the more acute for Benedictines, where the liturgy arguably plays such a central role in the charism.  Abbot Phillip Lawrence of Christ in the Desert Monastery, for example, has observed that:
Today very few follow these chapters of the Rule, especially with regard to the structure of the Divine Office. Unless we understand them well, we will begin to lose a truly Benedictine life, which has at its heart the praying of the Divine Office. There is no way that one can follow this structure of Rule of Benedict and not be aware of the truly important place of the Divine Office in the daily life of the monk and the amount of time that Saint Benedict presumed that a monk would spend in public prayer.
Indeed, some monks in monasteries once claimed to be Benedictine have taken to styling themselves as ‘a monk of  x monastery’, rather than 'OSB' perhaps in recognition of the distance they have moved from the original charism.

Turning of the tide?

Even as the erosion of the charisms of the various orders has gathered pace though, a series of legislative provisions, starting from Pope John Paul II's 1984 Indult for the Traditional Latin Mass, and most particularly Pope Benedict XVI's Summorum Pontificum (2007) and Universae Ecclesiae (2011) reopened the way to these older forms of the Office.

In addition, some of the more traditionally inclined within the Orders have gone to some trouble, in recent years, to make their traditional liturgies more widely available, and even actively promoted them to the laity.

For the Benedictines, of course, there is the St Michael Abbey's reprint of the Collegeville Monastic Diurnal (as well as the French-Latin and Italian-Latin versions of the Diurnal), daily podcasts of the Office by the monasteries of Le Barroux and Norcia, many youtube videos, and a number of recent recordings released by monasteries.

The Carthusians have placed most of their Office books online.

For the Dominican's, Fr Augustine Thompson and friends provide links to online versions of the 1962 books, Ordos, and supporting material.

You can also obtain the breviaries of many other Orders secondhand, or through recent reprints.

Offices of the religious orders and tradition

Interest in the older forms of the Office of religious orders is not just confined to those who are Oblates, third order or equivalent members of the religious orders.  These older rites have acquired another attraction for the laity more generally, namely their consonance with ancient traditions of the Church.

The reasons for this in my view, are simple: the damage to the Divine Office really started with the reforms of St Pius X, which radically restructured the psalm cursus among many other changes.

Some defend these reforms on the grounds that "the weekly recitation of the entire Psalter had become more or less impossible, both because of the proliferation of feasts over ferial days, and because of a huge burden of psalmody well-suited for monastics but not for seculars."[3]  Personally I think a severe pruning of the calendar, and reduction in the level of some feasts would have done the job.

As it is, as Dobszay has persuasively argued, in my view, that the 1911 reforms eliminated a number of the most ancient and beautiful features of the Office, including several near universal features between Eastern and Western, secular and religious versions of the Office, such as the daily use of the three Laudate Psalms (Psalm 148-150).[4]

The even more drastic reforms of the 1970 Liturgy of the Hours, which cut vast chunks of the psalter out of the Office altogether; eliminated several of the hours and bowdlerised others (most notably the transformation of the Night Office into a day 'Office of Readings'); and spread the psalms over four weeks, has created a new constituency for a more traditional diet.  This is, I can't help thinking, a case of the sensus fidelium at work, for as we all know, lex credendi, lex orandi.

People are instinctively interested in the the Benedictine Office, in particular, whether they are attached to Benedictine spirituality or not, I think, simply because that form of the Office has nearly 1500 years of history behind it (and of course many of its elements go a long way further back than that).

There are, however, some interesting issues around just who is entitled to use these Offices (at least for liturgical purposes), and I'll talk about that a bit more in the next post in this series soon.


[1] Laszlo Dobszay, The Restoration and Organic Development of the Roman Rite, 2010, pg 73.
[2] John D Fortin, “The Presence of God: a linguistic and thematic link between the doctrinal and liturgical sections of the Rule of Saint Benedict”, Downside Review 117 (1999) 293
[3] Peter Kwasniewski, The Omission of the "Difficult" Psalms and the Spreading-Thin of the Pslater, Rorate Caeli, 15.11.16, summarising Cekada.
[4] Laszlo Dobszay,  “Critical Reflections on the Bugnini Liturgy: The Divine Office”, 1983 PDF available from


Marco da Vinha said...

The Portuguese Benedictines had their own rite up until the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid-19th century. I've yet to find their liturgical books on-line, or discover if they had their own Office.
The little that I've read, however, is that it influenced the use of Braga (and vice versa) for quite some time.

Kate Edwards said...

Interesting. Yes most Benedictines have had at least some differences in the Mass, but a use rather than a rite, but it would make sense that they aligned with Braga. Do let me know if you ever discover their books, I'd be very interested...

Marco da Vinha said...

I have only heard it mentioned in one of Archdale King's books, as a sub-chapter on the use of Braga. It was brought from Spain, by the Benedictines of Montserrat in the 14th or 15th century, and is apparently of Cluniac origin. It was used in all Benedictine houses throughout the kingdom of Portugal. After the Benedictines returned to Portugal in the late 19th, early 20th century, it was not picked up again.

There is a very small article comparing its rites to that of Braga, done by a Portuguese Benedictine in the 1930's, but the author admits that his work is just a first atempt, which he hopes someone one day will build upon. I'm not aware that anyone actually has taken the study up. If you are curious about their ordo of the Mass, you can find the comparison here: