Matters Liturgical: May 2012 Archives

Prime Time

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Back in the late 1940s and 50s, when, in synergy with the Liturgical and Biblical renewals, the Benedictine Oblateship was enjoying something of a springtime, it was not uncommon for Oblates to pray the Hours of Prime and Compline each day, leaving the Great Hours of Matins, Lauds, and Vespers, and the other Little Hours of Tierce, Sext, and None to their brethren in the cloister. Prime and Compline were often promoted as the ideal Hours for working folk.

Adé Prayed Prime and Compline

I remember my old friend and mentor Adé Béthune telling me, almost 40 years ago, that as a young Benedictine Oblate working as a lettercutter in the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island, she and her friends would pause to pray Prime and Compline together. Adé's contemporaries, Dorothy Day of Catholic Worker fame, and Catherine de Hueck Doherty of Madonna House, would also have been devoted to Prime and Compline.

A Domestic Prayer

Prime is the Church's second morning prayer. It is to Lauds, what Compline is to Vespers. Unlike Lauds, which can be clothed in a certain liturgical solemnity, Prime has a homespun, domestic quality about it. Whereas Lauds is characterized by the great waves of praise that its very name signifies, Prime is a the humble prayer of one setting out for work. The motif that runs through Prime is one of preparation for the labours and inevitable temptations that the day will bring.

How Prime Unfolds

After the "Incline unto mine aid, O God" that begins all the Hours, a beautiful hymn invokes God's blessing and protection on the waking day.

I remember that in the Béthune household, after reciting Grace Before Meals, Bonne Maman, the indomitable Baroness de Béthune, would energetically invoke Saint Joseph. She referred to him as her "real estate man." The image is Adé's own Saint Joseph the Worker.

St Joseph Worker.jpg

The Hymn

Now doth the sun ascend the sky,
And wake creation with its ray,
Keep us from sin, O Lord most high,
Through all the actions of the day.

Curb thou for us the unruly tongue;
Teach us the way of peace to prize;
And close our eyes against the throng
Of earth's absorbing vanities.

Oh, may our hearts be pure within,
No cherish'd madness vex the soul;
May abstinence the flesh restrain,
And its rebellious pride control.

So when the evening stars appear,
And in their train the darkness bring;
May we, O Lord, with conscience clear,
Our praise to thy pure glory sing.

To God the Father, glory be,
And to his sole-begotten Son,
Glory, O Holy Ghost, to thee,
While everlasting ages run. Amen.

After the hymn comes the Psalmody, the very core of the Divine Office at each of the Hours. There follows a brief lesson from Scripture recited by heart, and a versicle, a vigorous plea to the Christ the King:

V. Arise, O Christ, and help us. (P.T. Alleluia.)
R. And deliver us for Thy Name's sake. (P.T. Alleluia.)

Then comes the customary little litany that closes all the Hours -- Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us -- and the Our Father, recited in silence while bowing profoundly.

The Collect of Prime sums up the spirit of the Hour:


O LORD God almighty,
who hast brought us to the beginning of this day:
defend us in the same by thy power;
that we may not fall this day into any sin,
but that all our thoughts, words and works
may be directed to the doing of what is just in Thy sight.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son:
Who liveth and reigneth with thee
in the unity of the Holy Ghost God:
world without end. Amen.

The Martyrology

In monasteries, once the first part of Prime has been chanted in choir, the monks repair to the Chapter Room to hear the reading of the Martyrology, a listing and short description of the saints of the day.

Work Assignments

Following the Martyrology, the abbot assigns the various works and chores that are a part of family life everywhere. In the Monastic Breviary there are special prayers for the blessing of the daily work, asking the Lord to "prosper the work of our hands."

The Holy Rule

Then follows a short reading from the Rule of Saint Benedict, completed by the abbot's explanation of the text. The daily public reading of the Holy Rule keeps it fresh in the hearts of the monastic family, and affords the abbot an opportunity to teach the souls entrusted to him by kneading into their minds, as into a mass of dough, the leaven of holiness.

The Faithful Departed

It some places it is customary to commemorate the faithful departed, especially those resting in the monastic cemetery, at this point. Psalm 129, the De Profundis, is chanted in supplication for the dead.

The Blessing

Finally the abbot imparts a blessing to all in the house. This paternal blessing is given twice in the Divine Office: at Prime in the morning, and at Compline, before going to bed.

A Strange Suppression

In 1964, the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, laconically decreed in article 89: "The hour of Prime is to be suppressed." As jilted soldiers in World War II used to say, "That's all she wrote."

The suppression of Prime affected only the Roman Breviary. In the monastic Office used by Benedictines, Cistercians, and Carthusians, the beleaguered Office remained -- or was to supposed to remain -- intact.

The suppression of Prime seems strange and illogical when one considers that its counterpart, Compline, was retained. The argument for the suppression of Prime was that it duplicated Lauds as a morning prayer; it was further argued that the distinctive element of Prime, the hallowing of the day's work, could be integrated into the Preces of Lauds. Others argued that Prime was monastic in origin, and therefore was not suitable for clergy and people living, working, and praying in the world. That argument too is specious: Compline is also monastic in origin, and no one contested its significance or suitability.

The framers of Sacrosanctum Concilium seemed to have entertained an illogical antipathy for Prime. Had they any real awareness of just how valuable Prime was to committed layfolk living and working in the real world, they would have not decreed its suppression. On the contrary, they would have taken the pulse of Catholic workers, and promoted it.

The same article 89 of Sacrosanctum Concilium mandates, concerning Compline, "Compline is to be drawn up so that it will be a suitable prayer for the end of the day." Could not, indeed, should not, the same principle have been applied to Prime? The length of the Psalmody, for example, could have been slightly reduced, or another choice of psalms made.

When it came to the Divine Office, the framers of Sacrosanctum Concilium suffered from a narrowly legalistic "all or nothing" vision of ecclesial prayer. There was no need to suppress Prime; it could have been included in a revision of the Divine Office as an Hour especially suited to layfolk having to dash out the door to work in the morning, or get the children breakfast.


For Oblates

My own experience in encouraging and helping Benedictine Oblates to pray ( these would be mothers at home with small children, fathers, husbands, wives, working people in a variety of trades and professions) obliges me to conclude that, in fact, Adé Béthune and her friends were right: Prime and Compline are, as a rule, the most suitable Hours of the Divine Office for layfolk.

Try Prime at Home

Why, some would ask, are Prime and Compline more suitable than the great "hinge Hours" of Lauds and Vespers? I can think of three cogent reasons: First, the structure of Prime and Compline is simple and, apart from the psalmody, invariable. Second, Prime and Compline are relatively brief and, therefore, manageable for working folk. Third, the texts of Prime and Compline speak to the universal experience of beginning and ending the day.

Even little children can be taught to sing the hymn of Prime to a simple chant melody. A psalm should follow, one that children can learn by heart: Psalm 8 (O Lord, our Lord, how glorious is Thy Name) perhaps, or Psalm 22 (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want). Children can be encouraged to learn by heart and recite a sentence from Sacred Scripture. The versicle, response, little litany, Our Father, and Collect would bring this family Prime to a close. One can also, however, imitate the monastic practice and announce the saints of the day, assign chores, pray for the departed by name, and give a final blessing.

Crux Gemmata Ravenna.jpg

The image shows the mosaic in the apse of Sant'Appollinare in Classe in Ravenna with its glorious Crux Gemmata (bejeweled Cross), having at its centre, the adorable Face of Christ.

The Passion and Cross in Paschaltide

The oldest liturgical traditions in the Church contemplate, celebrate, and adore the life-giving Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Paschaltide. Some benighted souls object to recalling the mysteries of the Passion and Cross after Pascha. Such an opinion betrays little knowledge of the Church's living and abiding tradition in this regard.

The Lamb That Was Slain

In the brightness of the Resurrection, the contemplation of the Passion and Cross becomes suffused with glory; the celebration of the Passion and Cross -- above all in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass -- becomes a foretaste of the triumph of the Prince of Life; the adoration of the Lamb that was slain becomes a real participation, here and now, in the liturgy of heaven described by Saint John in the book of the Apocalypse:

And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne, and the living creatures, and the ancients; and the number of them was thousands of thousands, Saying with a loud voice: The Lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power, and divinity, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and benediction. And every creature, which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them: I heard all saying: To him that sitteth on the throne, and to the Lamb, benediction, and honour, and glory, and power, for ever and ever. (Apocalypse 5:11-13).

By His Holy and Glorious Wounds

At the very beginning of the Great Paschal Vigil, as grains of incense are being inserted into the Paschal Candle, this prayer evokes the Five Wounds of Christ: By His holy and glorious wounds, may Christ the Lord guard and protect us. This liturgical formula is a fitting invocation at all times, but in Paschaltide it holds a particular resonance. The contemplation of the Wounds of Christ began with His apparitions to the Apostles after the Resurrection. The origin and impetus thus given to devotion to the Five Wounds is essentially biblical and liturgical. I have written elsewhere of the devotion to the Five Wounds as revealed to Sister Marie-Marthe Chambon, a humble religious of the Visitation Order.

Family Prayer

It would be fitting, during Paschaltide, to close family prayers with the above-mentioned liturgical formula. Children might be invited to learn the prayer by heart and recite it after kissing the five wounds of Our Lord depicted on the crucifix or in an icon of the Risen Saviour.

Commemoration of the Cross

In our Benedictine Antiphonal (1934 edition, Solesmes) there is a commemoration of the Holy Cross at Lauds and Vespers during Paschaltide. This liturgical practice keeps the mystery of the Cross present to the eyes, the ears, and the heart. The liturgy of Paschaltide does not obliterate the Church's focus on the Passion and Cross; it transforms it.

At Lauds:
Antiphon: The Crucified is risen from the dead, and hath redeemed us, alleluia.

At Vespers:
Antiphon: He who suffered the Holy Cross and shattered hell, rose on the third day, robed in power, alleluia.

At both Hours:
V. Tell ye among the nations, alleluia.
R. That the Lord hath reigned from the tree, alleluia.

Let us pray.
O GOD, who for our sake
didst will Thy Son to undergo the torments of the Cross,
that Thou mightest drive far from us the power of the enemy;
grant unto us Thy servants
that we may attain to the grace of His Resurrection.
Through the same Christ our Lord.

The Feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross

Although the Feast of the Finding (or Invention) of the Holy Cross on 3 May was removed from more recent liturgical books, it remains in the 1934 edition of the Benedictine Antiphonale that is still widely used, and continues to be celebrated in not a few Benedictine monasteries. While the Office is substantially the same as on 14 September (The Exaltation of the Holy Cross), on 3 May it is shot through and through with alleluias. It presents a vision of the Passion and Cross of the Lord in the light of the Resurrection. Theologically, mystically, and catechetically the Feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross on 3 May is a liturgical piece of genius.

The feast commemorates Saint Helena's finding of the Cross in Jerusalem, and the signs and wonders that accompanied it and verified its authenticity. Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, carried part of the Cross back to Rome, where it was enshrined in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, on the site of the Sessorian palace.

The entire Mass and Office of the Finding of the Holy Cross deserve to be meditated and held in the heart. The liturgical texts of the feast demonstrate and support that, far from being inappropriate during Paschaltide, the contemplation and celebration of the mysteries of the Lord's Passion and Cross emerge, in the light of these fifty days of jubilation, as an inexhaustible wellspring of healing and of hope.

With joy we keep the feast
of the Finding of the Cross,
whose light shineth over all the world, alleluia.
(Antiphon at Matins)

In Personal Devotion

Blessed Abbot Columba Marmion, whose knowledge and love of Sacred Scripture and of the Church's liturgy transformed the piety of generations of priests and layfolk in the last century, made the Way of the Cross every day of his life, including all through Paschaltide. While some would object that the Way of the Cross has no place in a "Resurrection Spirituality", Blessed Marmion and countless other saints demonstrate that there is, in fact, no better time during which to return to the loving consideration of the Passion of the Lord than Paschaltide, for it is only in the light of the Paschal Candle that one can begin to read rightly the Verbum Crucis, the Word of the Cross.

There are other Passion-centred practices of devotion that harmonize fully with the liturgy of Paschaltide. Among them are the Chaplet of Divine Mercy made known by Saint Faustina Maria Kowalska, the Chaplet of the Five Wounds prayed by Sister Marie-Marthe Chambon, and devotions to the Precious Blood, the Holy Face, and the Sacred Heart.

A personal piety that is directed and nourished by the Sacred Liturgy will never become unbalanced or bizarre. The liturgy of Mother Church is broader and deeper than some proponents of a shortsighted and shallow "liturgical renewal" would want us to believe.

Christ, the Crucified King,
O come, let us adore, alleluia.
(Invitatory at Matins of the Finding of the Holy Cross, 3 May)

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

Donations for Silverstream Priory