Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sixth day: the Great Novena to the Holy Spirit

Previously I mentioned the "Liturgy of the Hours", also called the "Divine Office" - and it is possible that some of our readers - even some of our Catholic readers - will not know anything about this wonderful public formal prayer. This "Office" is the daily prayer recited or chanted by all priests, monks, nuns, and religious orders of all kinds, and also by a growing number of laity. It is simply a formal arrangement of praying those most beautiful and ancient prayers called the Psalms - those 150 poetic entities inspired by God.

Now, as with the Mass, my problem is to throttle back the vast flow of thought, and try to reduce it to something manageable in this short (?) column, as well as show some connections to our Mister Chesterton. The striking thing about the Office, of course, is that like the Mass, it is totally biblical, literary, scientific - it is a grand fusion of all Art, of all Science - so that "all flesh bless his holy name forever". [Ps 144:21]

Where is the science? Ah. It's to be found in the Larger Creation Story: "And God said: Let there be lights made in the firmament of heaven, to divide the day and the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years." [Gen 1:14] While it is clear that TIME existed already, since LIGHT already existed, the creation of the Great Lights implies the ordaining of what we now call metrology - the science of measurement. As you may know, the sacred text does not use the pagan names for those Great Lights, so I shall avoid them also. But we all know that the apparent diurnal motion of our local star gives us our "day", and by division our hours, while the motion of our large natural satellite suggests what we now call a "month" which also has a division into weeks - though these are likewise groupings of days. Another apparent motion gives us the "year" but we know all this, so let us proceed.

As you may already know, there are 150 psalms. These are poetic prayers, inspired by God, and recited by pious Jews from the time of David onward. As I mentioned previously, Jesus Himself recited them - we know he quoted two even on the cross! (Ps 21 and 30) There are others hinted in various places like the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:5 vs Ps 36:11, Mt 5:8 vs Ps 23:4, Mt 5:35 vs Ps 47:3) - clearly Jesus knew the Psalms. And it is clear that the Apostles did too: it is fitting for us to note this now, during the Great Novena, since it is proven by Peter's words regarding the replacing of the Betrayer [Acts 1:20] at this very point in time between the Ascension and Pentecost - he quotes Psalm 68:26! Obviously, the Psalms were important - and they remained so as the Church grew. But sooner or later someone must have asked, there are 150 psalms - how should we use them?

There are some religious orders (the Benedictines, I am told) which recite all 150 every day - but this does take some time. Also, the Church in her wisdom realized that this extreme wealth might overwhelm people, so she arranges them to be governed like time itself, by the Great Lights. There are liturgical seasons - Advent and Christmas and Epiphany, Lent and Easter and Pentecost. (Let us defer discussion of "Ordinary Time" - like it or not, every Sunday for nearly 2000 years has been a "Sunday After Pentecost"!) But the Church also uses another tactic, which comes from the Psalms themselves:
Seven times a day I have given praise to thee... [Ps 118:164]
This idea, now perhaps around 3000 years old, gave rise to what are called the seven "canonical hours": Matins together with Lauds, Prime and Terce and Sext and None, Vespers and Compline. These, like so many other things, have been renamed - the two "cardinal" or hinge-hours are Matins or Morning Prayer, and Vespers or Evening Prayer. These are dignified with a larger ritual which includes among other things, the liturgical recitation of the Lord's Prayer (the Our Father) and the chanting of the great canticles of the Gospel - at Matins, the "Benedictus" of Zachariah, and at Vespers, the "Magnificat" of Mary.

Why do I give all this detail? Partly to acquaint you with something which is too poorly known, even though you can get the Office in English and do it yourself - it's not difficult. Partly to indicate that this technique of time-based prayer, even if reduced to the "cardinal" hours, will rapidly give you a working awareness of the Psalms, and a sense of admiration for them which is not easy to get, even if you have actually read the entire Book of Psalms. The difference is akin to the difference between reading a book about something - say hiking - and going on a hike. The Psalms are prayers, and should be prayed, not read as if they were just another bunch of literary efforts. The wise design of the Church in arranging the fixed structure of the Office is thereby revealed - by praying the Office, you will not merely learn something, but will begin to gain practice in a time-honored method of communicating with God. David and Jesus and Peter knew them - why shouldn't you?

I didn't plan to link the Office to a "literary" view of the Psalms - but it turns out that Chesterton linked them:
Forms of expression always appear turgid to those who do not share the emotions they represent: thus the Hebrew songs appeared turgid to Voltaire and the critics of the eighteenth century; thus the epigrams of the French Revolution appear turgid to ourselves. The reason is not that the Hebrew psalmists or the French Revolutionists were affected, but that we are not so interested in religion as the Hebrew psalmists, nor so interested in democracy as the French Revolutionists.
[GKC "Victor Hugo" in A Handful of Authors]
There is also an excellent essay from the ILN collection, from which I will give just a sample:
Some time ago half the Freethinkers in Fleet Street were defending the Bible against the Bishops. Churchmen began to expurgate the Psalms, because they are so naughty. Journalists began to read the Psalms, and to discover how good they are. It was a funny situation...

...this very notion of a presence perverting the body has not only come as natural to many pens noting the contemporary madness of the enemy, but is the real criticism of the contemporary quarrel about the Psalms. Paradoxical as it may appear, the true meaning of the language about breaking the teeth of the tyrant and eater of men is connected with the high mysticism about the body as the temple of the Holy Ghost. It is the true warning to the wicked man that he may so become, as it were, a theatre or seat of usurpation. And it is simply the sign of it that his very face becomes provocation and his very body an obstacle. All that is at war with wrong really wishes to break his teeth, as it would wish to break the portcullis of an ogre's castle. Whether we believe in demons or no, the ultimate thing to be avoided is really this incorporation with badness, this incarnation of blasphemy. Physical metaphors, and even physical acts, are very far from being irrelevant to it. And it is no mere flippancy to say that, if such a man really does not know that he is ugly, it is the first and highest spiritual duty to, tell him he is ugly. The second is to hit him in the face.
[GKC ILN Jul 28 1917 CW31:131, 134]
Perhaps it would have been better to post the whole thing somewhere, but it might get a bit complex to discuss, as it touches on a number of issues which would also need discussion, and it is the point about the Devil and the Psalms which is the critical one here. (Incidentally, the Psalm referred to is likely the one which reads "For thou hast struck all them who are my adversaries without cause: thou hast broken the teeth of sinners." [Ps 3:8]

The point of course is not merely the "verbal fireworks" or the incidental commentary on World War I, or even on the debate between journalists and some churchmen. The point is that the Psalms indeed form a chief weapon against the Powers of Evil, which are quite real, and must be fought against. And this is another reason for the power of the Office - that by praying God's Own prayers, dictated by the Holy Spirit and prayed by Jesus Himself, we work against our Enemy. (It ought to be noted here that our Enemy does know the Psalms - he quoted them in the Temptation: see Mt 4:6 which quotes Ps 90:12)

But you say, what if a person can't read the Psalms - or hasn't that kind of time? Chesterton gives us the answer in a curious place:
More than one portrait of Chaucer remains to give a general idea of his appearance, though that was the time of the first beginnings of the portraiture in paint, at least in this country, as Chaucer himself may be called the beginning of portrait-painting in literature. The pictures we have represent him as he was in later life, ... The best existing portrait is that published by the poet Occleve, to illustrate one of his own poems. It shows the head in a black hood against a green ground; two tufts of grey beard and a wisp of whitish hair rather recall, at least to modern associations, the elvish comparison; but the face is sober and benevolent, not without something of that sleepiness touched with slyness, that is the mood of much of his later work. Red cords on his dress support writing materials and he appears to be carrying a rosary; at least, as it is certainly a string of beads, it seems most likely that it is a rosary. For I cannot suppose that Chaucer's quarrel with the Friar even if it went to the point of assault and battery, would have prevented him from carrying what has been called the Layman's Breviary, devoted to the Virgin to whom he had so much devotion, merely because the instrument happens to have been invented by St. Dominic.
[GKC Chaucer CW18:232-3]
A "breviary" is nothing more than the book of the Divine Office, which we see Father Brown carrying in the famous episode of the "Flying Stars" (in The Innocence of Father Brown).

The "Layman's Breviary", as GKC tells us, is the Rosary - and that formal prayer we shall consider tomorrow. But for today I have one more point to make - the same point as I have been struggling to communicate in previous discussions. That is, if we have something formal and ritualistic, such as the Office - or even any given individual Psalm - how can it be OUR prayer - how does MY OWN particular message enter into such existing formalism?

There is a famous quip of Chesterton's which implies the answer. It is funny, and maybe flippant - but there is a clue in it, and I wish you to ponder it.
A woman cooking may not always cook artistically; still she can cook artistically. She can introduce a personal and imperceptible alteration into the composition of a soup. The clerk is not encouraged to introduce a personal and imperceptible alteration into the figures in a ledger.
[GKC Apr 7 1906 CW27:161]
We are not free to alter the composition of a Psalm - or the Office - yet we can use it artistically, just as an organist can exert his art in performing the most rigidly precise Bach fugue. He is not a computer governing a MIDI synthesizer, or a CD player regurgitating thousands of samples through a D-to-A converter. It is not the mathematics of the Psalm which provides the art, just as it is not the chemistry of the paint in the portrait. When Jesus gasped "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" He did not alter the text - but He stamped His own suffering into those words in an unutterably personal way. (Yes, I have noted the comments, made some time ago, surrounding GKC's views on this particular phrase, and perhaps someday will be able to address it at length.) If we are to be like our Master, according to His own last, most specific and most generative command "teaching them to do everything I have commanded" [see Mt 28:20] then we ought to pray as He did - and let our hearts and minds add that wordless but authentic "personal and imperceptible alteration" to our Work: yes, even to the Psalms.

Remember too, that "Master, teach us how to pray" is itself a prayer. If you need help, ask Him.

1 comment:

  1. The Rule of St. Benedict prescribes that the 150 Psalms be prayed every week.


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