Last October I was invited to speak at the National Assembly of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious in Belleville, Illinois. My subject was: The Psalmody of the Divine Office, A Path to Holiness for the Apostolic Religious. Although I was addressing women religious, nearly all of what I said can also be applied to the faithful in other states of life. I’m happy to share my conference with the readers of Vultus Christi.
The Primary Service of Religious
Addressing a large assembly of men and women religious on 9 September 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said:
From the monastic tradition the Church has derived the obligation for all religious, and also for priests and deacons, to recite the Breviary. Here too, it is appropriate for men and women religious, priests and deacons – and naturally Bishops as well – to come before God in their daily “official” prayer with hymns and psalms, with thanksgiving and pure petition.
Dear brother priests and deacons, dear Brothers and Sisters in the consecrated life! I realize that discipline is needed, and sometimes great effort as well, in order to recite the Breviary faithfully; but through this Officium we also receive many riches: how many times, in doing so, have we seen our weariness and despondency melt away! When God is faithfully praised and worshipped, his blessings are unfailing. . . .
Your primary service to this world must therefore be your prayer and the celebration of the Divine Office. The interior disposition of each priest, and of each consecrated person, must be that of “putting nothing before the Divine Office.” The beauty of this inner attitude will find expression in the beauty of the liturgy, so that wherever we join in singing, praising, exalting and worshipping God, a little bit of heaven will become present on earth.
The Heiligenkreuz address to religious was the first time Pope Benedict XVI spoke so clearly of the place of the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours, in the life and mission of all religious. In affirming that the primary service of religious to this world is their “prayer and the celebration of the Divine Office,” the Holy Father placed the other essential elements of the consecrated life in a compelling and challenging perspective.
Citing a key phrase from the Rule of Saint Benedict, Pope Benedict XVI invited all religious to the interior disposition of “putting nothing before the Divine Office.” The application of this principle to the reality of daily life in apostolic communities will, necessarily, oblige religious to review their daily round of prayer and work critically and effectively, so as to give priority to what the Holy Father calls the primary service of religious to the world.
Wherever religious rise to meet this challenge by embracing the Holy Father’s vision of a consecrated life characterized, first of all, by the worthy celebration of the Hours, “weariness and despondency will melt away,” and “a little bit of heaven will become present on earth.”
In order to respond effectively to the liturgical vision of religious life articulated by Pope Benedict XVI, I will focus on the single most important element of the Divine Office in its various forms: the recitation of the Psalter. The Roman Liturgy of the Hours, reformed after the Second Vatican Council in view of the many demands made on the time and energy of the diocesan clergy and apostolic religious, distributes the entire Psalter over four weeks. Each Hour contains, nonetheless, an element of psalmody. The psalms belong, then, to the very substance of the Liturgy of the Hours.
The psalms, inspired by the Holy Spirit and entrusted to the Children of Israel in view of the day when Christ Himself and, after Him, His Bride, the Church, would pray them, are lyrical poems expressing every sentiment of the human heart, and directing those sentiments Godwards. The psalms are, at once, universal and personal. Rowland E. Prothero, writing over a hundred years ago, says:
The Psalms are a mirror in which each man sees the motions of his own soul. They express in exquisite words the kinship which every thoughtful heart craves to find with a supreme, unchanging, loving God, who will be to him a protector, guardian, and friend. They utter the ordinary experiences, the familiar thoughts of men; but they give to these a width of range, an intensity, a depth, and an elevation, which transcend the capacity of the most gifted.
An outsider, attending an Hour of the Divine Office in any one of your communities, will notice the preponderant place given to the recitation or chant of the psalms and the manner in which the psalmody is carried out. The traditional way of reciting or chanting the psalms, based on the fundamental principle of Hebrew poetry called parallelism, alternates verses of two or exceptionally three lines with an interval of silence at the heart of each verse. The Church has practiced this form of choral psalmody since the time of Pope Saint Gregory the Great (c. 540-604). Consider the following examples:
Blessed is the man who does not guide his steps by ill counsel, +
or linger where sinners walk, *
or, where scornful souls gather, sit down to rest;
the man whose heart is set on the law of the Lord, *
on that law, day and night, his thoughts still dwell.
He stands firm as a tree planted by running water, *
ready to yield its fruit when the season comes,
and never shedding its leaf; *
all that he does will prosper.
Reciting or Chanting the Psalms
The traditional Gregorian Psalm Tones, and the various simplified adaptations to the English text inspired by them, are faithful to the essential characteristics of the Hebrew parallelism reproduced in the Latin Psalters of the West. What are these characteristics? Each verse is formed of two clauses; an interval of silence follows the cadence at the end of the first clause and leads into the second clause, closing the verse with a final cadence.
The American editions of the Liturgy of the Hours, marketed by Catholic Book Publishing Corporation, and other editions derived from them, break with the Church’s age-old liturgical tradition by not presenting the psalms and canticles in verses. This indefensible editorial decision reveals an egregious ignorance of what choral prayer requires, and has led to confusion in religious communities attempting to use these editions for their common prayer.
The midway interval of silence (normally indicated by an *) fosters contemplative prayer. It makes the rhythm of the psalmody restful and allows the meaning of the words to descend from the mind into the heart. Almost imperceptibly, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us with ineffable groanings (Romans 8:26), one begins to experience while reciting the psalms, a quiet union with the Heart of Jesus, only-begotten Son of the Father and Eternal High Priest.
The most effective way of reciting or chanting the psalms requires that the text be apportioned verse by verse to two choirs, or to one united choir alternating with two or more cantors. One choir responds to the other with a gentle, rhythmic regularity, taking care to observe midway a notable silence, always of the same length. This silence is an integral part of choral psalmody. Great care must be taken lest it become abbreviated, irregular, or in any way treated as being somehow less important than the verbal element of choral prayer.
Singing on One Note: Recto Tono
In the Teresian Reform of Carmel, in various other reforms, among Institutes founded in the wake of the Council of Trent, and among apostolic Institutes founded in the 19th century, one finds the tradition of chanting the Divine Office on a single sustained note. This is often referred to as recto tono, meaning on a straight or unadorned tone. This practice must not be judged as somehow inexpressive, unnatural, or artificial because it is without melodic modulation. It is, rather, the most unadorned form of chant: chant reduced to its simplest expression. As such, it is eminently suited to the ordinary daily choral prayer of a community engaged in apostolic works. Executed well, the recto tono recitation of the Hours is restful, and pacifying. It can, in effect, foster a contemplative union with the Heart of Jesus that will bear fruit in every apostolic endeavor.
Until fifty years ago, it was not uncommon for Institutes of religious women to chant on a single note The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary or of one of the excellent pre-Conciliar vernacular adaptations of the Roman Breviary that were widespread before the Second Vatican Council. Where this was practiced with care, respecting the intervals of silence and embracing a moderate and serene rhythm of recitation, the choral Office became a daily immersion in the Word of God and an oasis of contemplation in the midst of activity.
Chanting the Evangelical Counsels
Choral psalmody resembles, at more than one level, the virtues corresponding to the three vows of religion: poverty, chastity, and obedience. It gives corporate expression to the evangelical counsels and, at the same time, impresses them, day after day, more vividly in the heart.
Poverty: the melodic formula draws upon very limited musical resources. Recto tono has but a single note. Modal psalm tones are limited to a certain number of closely related notes and combinations. By resolutely choosing to pray within the limitations of a certain tonal poverty, one enters sacramentally into “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who being rich, became poor, for our sakes; that through his poverty we might become rich” (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:9).
Chastity: the psalmody of the Divine Office is chaste when it abstains from drawing attention to itself. In liturgical psalmody there is nothing that seeks to entertain, to charm, or to possess. One who surrenders to this form of prayer day after day assimilates its attributes. Choral psalmody fosters chastity; it is a school of purity of heart. Rightly does the psalmist pray: Eloquia Domini, eloquia casta, “The words of the Lord are chaste words” (Psalm 11:7).
Obedience: liturgical psalmody is obedient to the sacred text. It obeys the natural accents and verbal harmonics of the inspired Word of God, embracing it, espousing it, and remaining within the limits that it defines. The musical treatment of the psalmody is an ecclesial expression of Our Lady’s response to the Archangel Gabriel in the mystery of the Annunciation: “Be it done unto me according to Thy Word” (Luke 1:38).
The psalmody of the Hours, executed in organic continuity with the Church’s tradition of choral prayer, fosters the evangelical virtues in an almost imperceptible but entirely effective way. Just as one becomes what one contemplates, so too does one become what one sings. The psalmody of the Divine Office, held in honor by the Church for centuries, is a humble but strong support of the vowed life.
Simplicity and Abnegation
The musical profile of the traditional psalmody is disarmingly simple. One abstains from any subjective interpretation of the melodic formula or of the sentiments contained in the sacred text. One abstains likewise from giving expression to one’s personal sentiments of piety, even when these are in harmony with those of the inspired psalmist. This requires detachment and self-abnegation.
The ascetical element involved in choral prayer makes it a school of life and of virtue. The abnegation demanded by the very nature of choral prayer fosters growth in charity, in humility, in courtesy, and in all the other virtues necessary to community life.
The restraint full of respect for the Word of God that marks choral psalmody, and the unadorned and austere beauty that carries it along, fosters within a religious community an atmosphere that draws the heart into a state of vigilant quietude and receptive silence.
Books for Choral Celebration of the Divine Office
In 1942, The Liturgical Press at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota published The Short Breviary. A second edition appeared in 1954, and a third in 1962 . The Short Breviary was a treasury of authentic liturgical prayer, allowing active religious and layfolk to pray with the Church. Explanatory notes by Dom Pius Parsch (1884-1954), an Augustinian Canon of Klosterneuberg, presented each of the Hours in the context of the Mystery of Salvation, and cast the psalms in a Christological light. The typography and layout of The Short Breviary was conceived in view of choral celebration. The Short Breviary facilitated the choral chant of the Hours by presenting the psalmody in verses of two or exceptionally three lines, marked by a dagger to indicate the flex, and by an asterisk to indicate the mediant. Although the success of The Short Breviary was eclipsed after the Second Vatican Council by the first editions of the reformed Divine Office, it set a standard in Catholic liturgical publishing in the United States that post-Conciliar editions never attained.
In 1974, when Catholic Book Publishing began marketing the first American edition of The Liturgy of the Hours, prepared by ICEL (the International Commission on English in the Liturgy), it was evident that no attempt had been made to prepare volumes suitable for choral celebration by religious communities. The complete edition, as well as Christian Prayer, an abbreviated edition of the reformed Office, were obviously designed and produced to meet the needs of the diocesan clergy and of isolated individuals devoted to reading the Breviary. In contrast, The Divine Office, produced by the Episcopal Conferences of Australia, England and Wales, Ireland and Scotland, and first published by HarperCollins in 1974, was designed with an eye to its use in choral recitation by religious communities.
In 2007, rendering an invaluable service to the English-speaking Church, and to religious communities in particular, The Liturgical Institute at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, produced The Mundelein Psalter, with chant melodies by Father Samuel Weber, O.S.B. Father Weber’s psalm tones are entirely faithful to the tonal color of each of the traditional Gregorian modes. Moreover, they espouse the natural accents of the English text in such a way as to render the psalmody intelligent, regular, and peaceful.
Apart from presenting the psalms and canticles in verses suitable for choral recitation, The Mundelein Psalter also offers, in English translation with suitable melodies, the treasury of the official hymns of the Liturgia Horarum. The hymns of the Liturgia Horarum, rich in biblically-inspired poetry, in sacramental imagery, and in patristic theology are a goldmine of authentic Catholic piety.
For those communities eager to enter more fully into the Church’s tradition of choral prayer in Gregorian Chant and in Latin, it is now possible (thirty years after the publication of the Liturgia Horarum) to sing Vespers on Sundays and feasts from a single volume containing in full all the elements necessary to do so. With the publication of the Antiphonale Romanum II, the Abbey of Solesmes has made it possible for religious communities (as well as cathedral and parish churches) to sing the Church’s evening sacrifice of praise, according to the Liturgy of the Hours, from a book designed to facilitate “plainsong for plain folk.”
A Space for Choral Celebration of the Divine Office
The Divine Office is best celebrated in a sacred spaced designed for that purpose. If one considers Pope Benedict XVI’s injunction that the primary service of religious to this world must be their prayer and the celebration of the Divine Office, it is reasonable to expect that convent chapels and oratories be arranged in function of this primary service. The traditional arrangement of ranks of choir stalls (or similar seating) facing inward across a central aisle facilitates choral prayer with the corresponding liturgical postures and gestures, while allowing for prayer ad orientem, or facing the altar, at Holy Mass and in times of personal devotion.
Until the Second Vatican Council, many apostolic Institutes bound to the choral recitation of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary benefited from having choir chapels constructed in view of this particular form of prayer. The Venerable Mother Mary Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Religious Sisters of Mercy in 1831, gave an outstanding example of attention to the architecture and dispositions of space that choral prayer requires. Engaging professional ecclesiastical architects, such as A.W. and E. W. Pugin, Mother McAuley and the women formed by her took a lively interest in providing one Convent of Mercy after another in Ireland and England with chapels of remarkable architectural quality, each one having a choir constructed at a right angle to the sanctuary, precisely in order to facilitate a dignified and worthy recitation of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Mother McAuley appears to have been keenly sensitive to the aesthetic requirements of community prayer. In addition to building chapels of significant architectural merit, she provided her Sisters with a festive white cloak (patterned after that of the Carmelite Fathers in Dublin) to be worn over their workaday black habits on occasions of greater solemnity. Sacred architecture and sacred vesture are two expressions of the sacramental participation in the Divine Beauty that, in harmony with the liturgy of the Church, should characterize the corporate prayer of apostolic religious.
It would be opportune then, today, before undertaking the construction, renovation, or restoration of convent chapels, to consider that their design ought to facilitate the choral celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours as a primary, indispensable, and constitutive element of Catholic liturgical piety and of the consecrated life.
Through Psalmody to the Trinity
Having briefly considered the material supports of choral prayer–the necessary liturgical books and a suitable sacred space or choir–I should like to return to the core of my thesis: that the psalmody of the Divine Office is a path to holiness for the apostolic religious. The Fathers of the Church have reflected on why and how psalmody engenders interior dispositions favorable to contemplative prayer.
A community engaged in choral prayer is an image of the Mystical Body as defined by Saint Augustine: “one Christ loving Himself.” One-half of the choir offers its verse, not only to God through Christ, but also offers the bread of the Word to those of Christ’s members who form the other half of the choir. In choral psalmody, the daily bread of the Word is continuously offered and received as it passes from choir to choir, providing believers with a compelling image of one Christ feeding Himself and, by means of that food, uniting His members among themselves, and to Himself, the Head of His Mystical Body. This Eucharistic dimension of the Divine Office is, in its own way, a means of communion with the ceaseless prayer that Christ, Eternal High Priest, offers to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
Saint Ambrose of Milan, rather unexpectedly, in his meditation on the six days of creation, refers to alternation of two choirs when, in a poetic vein, he compares the beauty and the beneficial effect of psalmody to the creation of the sea:
How beautiful and mighty is the sea when the tempest raises her waves. Even more beautiful is she when nothing apart from a light breeze moves over the surface of the waters and her waves break upon the shore with a sound that is gentle, regular, and harmonious, a sound that does not trouble the silence but is happy, rather, to give it rhythm and to render it audible.
Saint Ambrose, in effect, describes the ideal of liturgical psalmody: a sound that does not trouble the silence but rather gives it rhythm and renders it audible. He goes on to say:
What else is that melodic sound of the waves if not the melody of the people . . . as the whole people unite in prayer, there is a whisper of receding waves; the echo of the psalms when sung in responsive harmony by men and women, maidens and children is like the sound of breaking waves. Wherefore, what need I say of this water other than it washes away sin and that the salutary breath of the Holy Spirit is found in it?
By comparing liturgical psalmody to a peaceful breaking of waves upon the shore, Saint Ambrose suggests that each wave receives movement from the other and renders movement in return, sustaining all the while a continual rising and receding that remains ineffably tranquil.
Tranquility of Order
The discipline of liturgical psalmody participates in the wise ordering of things that produces the peace. Saint Thomas Aquinas calls this peace tranquillitas ordinis, “a tranquility of order.” Tranquillitas ordinis, psalmody’s most necessary quality, fosters profound recollection, and so disposes the soul to an unimpeded operation of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in contemplative prayer.
When the psalmody of the Divine Office is executed with a gentle discipline and a joyful élan, it generates a healing experience of the tranquility of order. A guest listening to the psalmody of the Divine Office in my own monastery related to me later that he had the impression of being seated on the seashore, watching the waves cast themselves one after the other on the sand of the beach to carry far away all it’s impurities and waste. In the end, he said, nothing more remained apart from the sand made clean.
Psalmody, acting upon the soul in a way not unlike the humble prayer of Our Lady’s Psalter, the Rosary, cleanses the soul of the accumulated residue of impurity and decay that impedes the free circulation of grace and prevents it from becoming “a fountain of water springing up into life everlasting” (John 4:14). It is not uncommon that after an otherwise ordinary celebration of the Office, one finds oneself more peaceful, inwardly more joyous, and more disposed to return with a generous heart to the works of the apostolate. The supernatural value of such choral prayer for religious engaged in demanding professional and apostolic works is, I think, evident. It pertains to the very soul of the apostolate.
In his Exegetic Homilies, Saint Basil the Great profits from his exposition of Psalm 1 to set forth the benefit of all psalmody. Describing the Sacred Scriptures as a general hospital for souls, he demonstrates the outstanding curative and therapeutic effects that are proper to the Psalter.
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful, composed by the Spirit for this reason, namely, that we men, each and all of us, as if in a general hospital for souls, may select the remedy for his own condition. For, it says, “care will make the greatest sin to cease.” Now, the prophets teach one thing, historians another, the law something else, and the form of advice found in the proverbs something different still. But, the Book of Psalms has taken over what is profitable from all. It foretells coming events; it recalls history; it frames laws for life; it suggests what must be done; and, in general, it is the common treasury of good doctrine, carefully finding what is suitable for each one.
The old wounds of souls it cures completely, and to the recently wounded it brings speedy improvement; the diseased it treats, and the unharmed it preserves. On the whole, it effaces, as far as is possible, the passions, which subtly exercise dominion over souls during the lifetime of man, and it does this with a certain orderly persuasion and sweetness which produces sound thoughts.
Saint Basil emphasizes the medicinal and formative properties of psalmody. It is clear from the following passage that the psalmody of the Divine Office is an integral and indispensable element in the initial formation to the vowed life and at every subsequent stage of it.
When, indeed, the Holy Spirit saw that the human race was guided only with difficulty toward virtue, and that, because of our inclination toward pleasure, we were neglectful of an upright life, what did He do? The delight of melody He mingled with the doctrines so that by the pleasantness and softness of the sound heard we might receive without perceiving it the benefit of the words, just as wise physicians who, when giving the fastidious rather bitter drugs to drink, frequently smear the cup with honey. Therefore, He devised for us these harmonious melodies of the psalms, that they who are children in age or, even those who are youthful in disposition might to all appearances chant but, in reality, become trained in soul.
The psalmody of the Divine Office prepares the soul for union with God by purifying the emotions, by ordering the passions rightly, and by fostering charity, apart from which there is no authentic contemplation. Psalmody accompanies the soul through the purgative, illuminative, and unitive phases of the interior life. At no moment in one’s spiritual journey does it become superfluous or redundant.
A psalm implies serenity of soul; it is the author of peace, which calms bewildering and seething thoughts. For, it softens the wrath of the soul, and what is unbridled it chastens. A psalm forms friendships, unites those separated, conciliates those at enmity. Who, indeed, can still consider as an enemy him with whom he has uttered the same prayer to God? So that psalmody, bringing about choral singing, a bond, as it were, toward unity, and joining the people into a harmonious union of one choir, produces also the greatest of blessings, charity.
Here, Saint Basil adopts a lyrical style worthy of the psalms themselves. His teaching makes clear the value of choral psalmody not only in the context of an enclosed monastic life, but also in the context of apostolic religious life in all its expressions.
A psalm is a city of refuge from the demons; a means of inducing help from the angels, a weapon in fears by night, a rest from toils by day, a safeguard for infants, an adornment for those at the height of their vigor, a consolation for the elders, a most fitting ornament for women. It peoples the solitudes; it rids the market place of excesses; it is the elementary exposition of beginners, the improvement of those advancing, the solid support of the perfect, the voice of the Church. It brightens the feast days; it creates a godly sorrow. For, a psalm calls forth a tear even from a heart of stone.
Finally, Saint Basil presents psalmody as a school of the moral virtues: courage, justice, self-control, prudence, penance, and patience. The Psalter is, for the great legislator of the common life a perfect, that is to say, a complete theology.
A psalm is the work of angels, a heavenly institution, the spiritual incense. . . . What, in fact, can you not learn from the psalms? Can you not learn the grandeur of courage? The exactness of justice? The nobility of self-control? The perfection of prudence? A manner of penance? The measure of patience? And whatever other good things you might mention? Therein is perfect theology, a prediction of the coming of Christ in the flesh, a threat of judgment, a hope of resurrection, a fear of punishment, promises of glory, an unveiling of mysteries; all things, as if in some great public treasury, are stored up in the Book of Psalms.
Choral Psalmody: A Test and a School of Charity
The discipline of choral prayer in religious communities is not merely to produce an aesthetically pleasing sound. It is a means to contemplative prayer, a means tested and tried by tradition, towards attaining unity with oneself, unity with others in community, and unity with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Before the grace of unity becomes audible in a community’s choral prayer, there must necessarily be an individual and corporate assent to the silence that makes listening possible. A community in which there is no silence is a community in which there is no listening to God, to one another, or to oneself.
Choral psalmody reveals what is going on below the surface in a community. One hears the sound of struggles, rivalries, lack of reconciliation, and want of recollection. When a single voice expresses hostility–either by singing or by not singing–one experiences a kind of acoustical pollution in the choir. Dissonance in choral prayer sounds a call to repentance.
Choral Psalmody and the Apostolic Mission
Psalmody has more to do with listening than with producing sound. If one inclines the ear of the heart to the Word of God, even while it is on one’s lips, one begins to experience what Saint Bernard, in a sermon on the Song of Songs, called “visitations of the Word.” The presence of the Divine Bridegroom becomes almost perceptible in the manner of chanting and in a certain presence of the voice, the condition for which is a presence of the whole body, for the voice is the clearest sign of the body made present to the presence of God, especially the body of the woman consecrated to Christ in and by the Church.
The voice must articulate the sacred words with care and with reverence. The mission of the voice is to prepare, in a kind of renewal of the mystery of the incarnation, an acoustical body for the Divine Word. The Word thus chanted and heard is the springboard of every ecclesial mission, and the guarantee of any Institute’s apostolic fecundity.
An apostolic community resolutely engaged in choral prayer will begin to experience its effect in their apostolic works and professional services. Teaching Sisters, for example, effectively prepare a path for souls into the presence of God by their fidelity to choral prayer. The seeds of more than one religious vocation were planted when a student happened by chance to hear the Sisters who were her teachers in the classroom, spending themselves for her, in another way, in the celebration of the Divine Office.
Similarly, the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Hawthorne Dominicans, and so many other religious dedicated to the care of the elderly and the sick will find that the celebration of the Divine Office, surrounding the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and echoing it throughout the day, has a profound effect on residents and patients, even if they do not participate actively in the Hours. I was privileged, some years ago, to visit a nursing community in France where any patient in their hospital can listen to the chant of the Divine Office from his bed. The number of conversions to Christ brought about simply because a patient lying in bed “tuned in” to the Divine Office being chanted in the chapel is impressive.
In conclusion, addressing those of you who are already committed to the choral celebration of the Divine Office, and those of you who are moving towards the renewal of your community prayer by a fresh commitment to the Divine Office, I would reaffirm three principles:
1. The choral celebration of the Divine Office is for all apostolic religious a path to contemplative prayer .
2. The choral celebration of the Divine Office is, according to the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI, your primary service to the world.
3. The choral celebration of the Divine Office assures the supernatural fruitfulness of your apostolic works.