It is often said, by way of catechesis, that the Psalms constitite the heart of the Divine Office. Herein, I propose a slight, yet ascetically significant, modification: instead, what if it the Psalms really are at the heart of the devotional life?
Let me attempt to explain. Because Akenside Press has made a commitment to the renewal of the Catholic prayer life, we have agreed that the task of reviving the praying of the Divine Office is not an option, but a necessity. For our own part, we encourage all to give the Divine Office of Praise a look, and better yet, to try it for six months or more. You might try it first for the Noonday. Or you might try it once a day, in the morning or evening. It works anytime, and in all places: Always and everywhere to give thanks to God.
Now, particularly in Anglicanism, there is a high regard for the Cranmerian Office of the Prayer Book, and rightly so. It has stood the test of time, and weathered a great deal of change in society and ecclesial life. One might reasonably fear the loss of all things good and Anglican if the Cranmerian Office is lost. So much else has changed, and Anglicanism as a whole is in such a sickly state. We have to hold on to the essence of what Cranmer did in 1549. It is Benedictine, it is Catholic. It is a weighty tradition, they say.
And they have a point.
However, evidence is accumulating from scholars like Paul Bradshaw, an Anglican, that the story of the history of the Divine Office we have now is far richer and more complicated than it was in the 16th century. Particularly, the claim the “the psalter is the heart of the Office” — something one hears constantly — is coming under legitimate scrutiny.
In the service of helping to make known the insights and research of Bradshaw, below are three excerpts from a journal article he wrote for Anglican Theological Review. All emphasis is added. Some additional commentary follows.
(1) “In the last few decades, however, liturgical scholars have become increasingly aware that the daily office was not a new creation in the fourth century but developed organically out of earlier traditions of daily prayer among Christians going back to the very beginnings of the church, and moreover that the monastic form was not the only pattern that the office took as it developed in the period from the fourth century onwards.
“Based on the practice of some-but not all-Jews in the first century, early Christians were expected to pray several times a day, and again in the middle of the night, the latter not being quite as extreme as it sounds to modem ears in an age when not all the hours of darkness were needed for sleep and little else could be done in the limited artificial light available. These times of prayer, usually observed by individuals on their own or within their households rather than in larger gatherings, did not center around the reading of the Bible the limited availability and cost of obtaining manuscript copies of the text, to say nothing of the low level of literacy among many of the believers, would in any case have rendered this extremely rare-but in praise on behalf of all creation and intercession for the salvation of the world. At first such occasions did not even include the use of psalms, which-like the public exposition of the rest of the scriptures belonged instead to the periodic corporate gatherings of the local Christian community, and especially their eucharistic meals. Only gradually did some psalms of praise begin to form a part of the times of daily prayer for those who were able to observe them communally.”
(2) “The traditional Anglican assertion that the daily offices ought to be founded upon the recitation of the whole Psalter and the systematic reading of the Bible is at least questionable. The regular use of every single psalm has a long history, but arises only out of the monastic movement. The rest of the church in the fourth century, and Christians in the centuries prior to that, felt no obligation to do so, and seem to have restricted their use of the Psalter in worship to very few psalms or parts of psalms. Nor is there any sign that Jewish worshippers before them made much use of the canonical psalms, and the claim sometimes made that Jesus would have known them all and sung them regularly in the synagogue lacks any evidence. Even the modem synagogue only ever makes use of about half the psalms in the course of the year.”
(3) As for Bible reading rather than praise and intercession having been at the heart of early Christian daily devotion, that too seems to be a false reading back of Anglican practice into the world of the first believers. This is not to say that studying the Bible was not important to them or that they did not take the opportunities that were possible for them to do that. But it is to say that it was something different from their practice of daily prayer, which had quite a distinct orientation. As God’s priestly people, Christians were committed both to the oblation of their whole life to God and to priestly worship—the constant offering of praise to the creator and redeemer of the world on behalf of all creation and of prayer and intercession for its present needs and its ultimate salvation. It could therefore be argued that the intense emphasis on the recitation of the Psalter and the reading of scripture each day has rather obscured this older tradition. Regular Bible reading is—or should be—a vital part of the healthy spiritual life of all Christians, but it is not—or should not be—to the detriment of their vocation to engage in prayer of a rather different kind.”
Bradshaw, Paul F. “The Daily Offices in the Prayer Book Tradition”. Anglican Theological Review, 95:3 (Summer 2013), 447-460.
From these historical insights comes the ascetical question, in line with Martin Thornton, what, exactly, is the Office for? If the theological answer Thornton develops is correct — objective praise to God the Father by the whole Church as Christ’s Body — then why, exactly, must the Psalter be recited entirely to fulfill that sort of praise? As Thornton writes:
Let us be honest: if the constant repetition of a curious translation of a set of ancient religious folksongs, interspersed with doubtful legends relating to a primitive tribe, is the Church’s way of inspiring love, devotion, intellectual understanding, and religious edification, then the Church is not just out of date, it is insane” (The Function of Theology, p. 88).
Knowing Thornton, he means that tongue-in-cheek, even impishly. To be clear, he treasures the Old Testament, and a central theme of his theology—the faithful Remnant, as well as key paradigms of the art of spiritual direction—come from it. Yet here his inquiry demands an answer as to how the lectionaries of Psalter and Lessons accomplish objective praise to the Father by the Body of Christ?
Now, to suggest that daily lectionaries might not constitute objectivd praise specifically is not to condemn Scripture, far from it. But it is to inquire, he insists, whether the practice of the historic Anglican Office, particularly the Psalter and Readings, accords with the theology of the threefold Regula, that is, corporate prayer aligned with trinitarian dogma, understood in a more broadly Catholic context, inclusive but not limited to its historic Anglican expression.
Thornton argues that it is not the Psalter, but the Lord’s Prayer, that better grasps the theology of the Office — the answer to the question, What is it for? This is because the Lord’s Prayer addresses, adores, and petitions our transcendent Father through words directly given to us by Jesus as explicit instruction in how to pray. It is set-prayer. And what’s more, the first indication in Christian history of the Office is from The Didache (early 2nd century). It indicates that the Lord’s Prayer is to be used, three times a day, as corporate prayer. That sounds an awful lot like the Office. And there is no mention at all of the Psalter recited every day, week, or month.
Let us consider pastoral facts of today. Very few people, even those who are otherwise completely committed Christians, do the Prayer Book Office. Can this be denied? Thornton points out that we should hardly be surprised. Cranmer’s Office form was arranged for a completely different kind of society than ours — a pre-industrial late medieval village-centered society of peasants — a society where people could easily go to their parish church on the way out to the fields or the shop, and then easily go to their parish church on their way back from the day’s work, before going home. It is a lovely sentiment, today. But it is the reality of very few Christians in the West, if anyone at all.
Now, it seems that the claim the “the psalms are the heart of the Office” does ring true for Benedictinism and its regal tradition. But how far does that truth really go for is today? There are two points to be made:
(1) Generally speaking, today’s committed Anglicans are not monks and nuns. Anglicanism, of course, is Benedictine because of an inherited “ethos” primarily, a “DNA”. But it is not so owing to our literal doing of monastic practice. Saint Benedict’s Rule influenced, but was indeed supplanted by, the Prayer Book as the corporate Regula.
(2) St Benedict developed his rule in reaction to desert monastics. And it was only those monastics who placed such a high priority on recitation of the entire psalter. There appears to be zero evidence that this was a value of the actual pre-Constantinian church.
Yet we as Anglicans, if we are to be true to our tradition, ought continue to live and pray according to fundamentally Benedictine paradigm — a Catholic culture, Catholic imagination, as practiced according to a Benedictine ethos. Perhaps what “fundamentally Benedictine” means actually is to pray according to Regula: that is, a prayer life that fosters balance, stability, recollection, and mystagogy. And perhaps what “fundamentally Benedictine” also means is community, that is the unity of the prayer life between priest and laity: for prizing that solidarity is another highly commendable characteristic of the Cranmerian Office, and particularly important contribution to the Catholic Church by Anglicanism. There is no reason why it should not be able to continue. In fact, according to the theology of the Regula, that the Office must be capable of being prayed by the entire community is a necessity, is it not? Clericalism, particularly with respect to the Divine Office, is to be rigorously avoided, on theological grounds.
Perhaps the historic use of the entire recited psalter was an instrument and means to a greater end: that end being balance, stability, recollection, and mystagogy (etc). All of the Church since the Day of Pentecost has been seeking balance and stability in the prayer life. Saint Benedict very much found that for monastic community. But is that tool required to achieve balance, stability, recollection, and mystagogy (presuming, of course, orthodox doctrine, sacramental and liturgical life) in today’s Church? Of course the Psalter is fundamental to the prayer life, in general. But the Psalter by itself does not serve balance and stability. Something else does, and we see it in Acts 2.42. That is the Regula. In other words, might it be not the Psalter, but in fact the Regula, that is what is fundamentally Benedictine?
Thornton seems to think so. He writes, “The greatest Benedictine achievement … is the final consolidation of the threefold Rule of prayer which is absolutely fundamental to all Catholic spirituality…. Here is the basic Rule of the Church which, varying in detail, is common to East and West, monastic and secular, to all the individual schools without exception, and which forms the over-all structure of the Book of Common Prayer” (English Spirituality, p. 76). How Benedict formulated his Office is very important to understanding his view of monastic prayer. But to apply his insights beyond monastic contexts, but into secular contexts, means we look first to Regula as what is fundamental about Benedictinism.
Of course, St Benedict’s Rule did work, very well, as a response to the excesses of desert monasticism, which were stretched the devotional life too far as a norm for the vast majority of people, despite the apparently widespread intrigue and secular curiosity of their life and prayer. It would be wrong and strange to suggest that the Benedictine monastic paradigm of practice is anything but glorious, fundamentally Catholic, and Church-preserving, for that is exactly what Benedictinism did: preserve the Church amid serious social strife, and did so for 1500 years and counting.
The danger is making particular “liturgics” into idols. Yet even more, to claim the Psalter exemplifies the true, fundamental character of the Benedictine Office is to risk obscuring what Thornton points out: Saint Benedict’s genius was in the overall system of prayer. So any interpretation of the Divine Office, whether it issues in reform of it or mere refinement, must situate the Office within an overall theology that underpins Regula. Because without an overall theology of prayer, the justification becomes too close to the “church’s national anthem” of “we’ve always done it that way”. And that simply won’t do when vital reform and renewal is needed.
Akenside Press is committed to Anglicanism as a Benedictine way of doing Church. And we are committed to solidarity with the pre-Constantinian Church (PDF). Both sought a Regula for a recollected life by the light of Jesus Christ. The pre-Constantinian insight is that doing so is spontaneous, joyous, and total. The Benedictine insight is that doing so requires balance, stability, and integrated life.
So what, then, for the Divine Office?
It seems that seminary life, certain cathedrals, and monastic houses would continue to benefit from the Cranmerian Office. Perhaps even some parish churches if their congregation is mostly from the nearby neighborhood. But for the rest of us who are, for better or worse, part of the “highly mobile global village” — that is, we move around a lot and lead active, busy lives that don’t orbit our parish church in any geographic way — a different Divine Office as an option seems not just appropriate, but long overdue. Yes, the American Prayer Book has shorter forms, “Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families”. These are perfectly acceptable, and can be memorized. But if one is going to memorize, isn’t it better to memorize a summary of the entirety of God’s story?
The Divine Office of Praise offers that. It is to be sung, memorized, and hence deeply absorbed and internalized. It tells a full story of God’s might acts of creation, salvation, and reconciliation. It is by itself catechetical, and owing to its heavily reliance on the Doctrine of Creation, encouraging of mystagogy — “O ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord; praise him and magnify him for ever!” And as an endeavor that takes about ten minutes, and can be done with children as young as two years old — always, and everywhere we praise Him — it recognizes that we don’t live in a pre-industrial, agricultural, medieval village anymore.
Finally, what about, then, the Psalter? The answer is surprisingly simple: of course we are to be devoted to the Psalms. One way to maintain the centrality of the Psalms is making them part of, not the Divine Office, but one’s broader devotional life — that is, read and prayed with slowly, through lectio divina, in a meditative-approach: at one’s leisure, or perhaps as part of a communal, devotional formation group—all of which is summed up as seeing the Psalms as a part—the heart!—of a Daily Office of Readings.
In short, we suggest a rearranging that moves the Psalter from one part of the Regula to another, from Divine Office to Devotion. Hence the Psalms become the heart of our devotion rather than used for corporate set-prayer. Is this unreasonable? It may seem strange, but it follows from understanding first the Divine Office on theological grounds (that is, doctrinally), and then understanding how to match practice with the theology. By following this method we remain on a safe, orthodox path.
In the way described here, the Regula now possesses (1) a Divine Office both theological and socially realistic for clergy and laity alike, (2) a Devotional life that regards the Psalter (and all of Holy Scripture) as the authoritative thesaurus of our emotional, mental and spiritual experience in minstry—as the heart of our devotional life. And then where both of which find source, summit, and concentration: (3) in the Mass, the central corporate eventing of Christ’s most focused presence.
All of this amount not to a “revolution” in Regula, but rather a theologically defensible re-tooling that accords with orthodox doctrine and Catholic practice, yet acknowledges and adapts to social reality: something Cranmer himself did expertly in 1549. Is it not high time that we do that ourselves, today, for the sake of the Church?