Oblates: 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.

Our Lady of the Cenacle

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My dear Oblate family,

Praying Before Dawn

I arose very early this morning, before dawn while it was still dark , and made my way to our temporary Oratory (the future library) for Matins. These days, given the excessive amount of work during the day, it is not possible for all four of us -- two monks and two seekers -- to come to Matins. Consequently, I found myself alone in the presence of the Lord, with only the bird choirs to respond to my psalmody. There is an indescribable grace attached to prayer before dawn. Would this be because Our Lord Himself favoured this hour for His own prayer to the Father? The psalms, so often repeated as to be known almost by heart, have, at this hour, a freshness and an immediacy that I rarely experience later in the day.

Turn to Mary

The Invitatory for today's feast -- Our Lady of the Cenacle -- is drawn from the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles: Alleluia! Let us persevere in prayer * with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, alleluia. The presence of Mary makes perseverance in prayer possible. Without Mary, in our midst and at our side, we would grow weary and listless, and so lose the virile spirit of perseverance in prayer. So often prayer seems futile, or empty, or not worth the effort; at moments such as these we must turn to Mary, confident that she will pray in our stead and, gradually, almost imperceptibly, draw us into her own prayer until, as if by surprise, we find that we have persevered in praying after all.

Faith and Hope

Resolve never to pray apart from Mary. Her presence in the Cenacle was a living flame of love, a hearth of fire and of light in the midst of a community bewildered by the mysterious Ascension of the Lord. Absent, but present, and present, but absent, the Lord was, already, in these days before Pentecost, schooling His Church in the prayer of faith, a persevering prayer, that goes on hoping even when the object of her hope seems far removed from her.

Present in the Cenacle

Just how was Our Lord present in the Cenacle after His Ascension? He was present, first of all, in faithfulness to His promise that where two or three gather in His Name, there would He be, in the midst of them. He was present too in His words, repeated, remembered, and held in the heart. He was present in Peter, who in spite of all his weaknesses and failings, remained the rock chosen by Christ. He was present in John, the Beloved Disciple in whose heart burned an inextinguishable fire of love, the one enkindled at the Last Supper when, for the first time, Jesus fed Him with the mysteries of His Body and Blood. He was present in the silence, in the face, and in the voice of His Virgin Mother. She is the pillar of faith against whom every lie, every temptation, and every heresy is smashed to pieces. Finally, He was present in the bread become His Body, and in the chalice of wine mixed with water become His Blood.

The Lamb, the Altar, and the Holy of Holies

What must Our Lady have felt when, in the Cenacle, she beheld, lying before her on the table, the very Flesh of her her own flesh and the very Blood of her own blood? Her Maternal Heart leapt in recognition of the Lamb. The table had become her altar. The Cenacle itself had become her Holy of Holies.

Here was her Son, the very fruit of her womb: the Jesus whom she had carried, nourished, washed, clothed, and kissed. Here, veiled, was the Face that disappeared from her sight on the Mount of Olives, when He ascended. Here, beating with a passionate love His Bride, the Church, was the very Heart that she saw pierced by the soldier's lance on Calvary.

Perseverance in Prayer

There is but one way to persevere in prayer, and that is by remaining close to Mary. Distance from Mary is distance from the Church, and distance from the Church is distance from Christ. Moreover, where Mary is, there too is the Holy Ghost. To abide with Mary is to abide under the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost. To withdraw from Mary's presence and to withdraw from beneath the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost. It is to choose sterility over fecundity, self-assertion over obedience, and fleeting things over the imperishable treasures of the Kingdom of Heaven.

You Will Find Her in the Cenacle

More than anything else, my prayer for you today, asks that you may never depart from Mary. You will find her today in the Cenacle, all silent and absorbed in adoration. Approach her as closely as you can, and if you are too weak to make your way to her, ask her to make her way to you. This she will do, for hers is a Maternal Heart, and no weakness of our repels her. On the contrary, she has for the weakest and most unstable of her children, a tenderness that must be experienced in order to be understood. Blessed feast, then, of Our Lady of the Cenacle, our life, our sweetness, and our hope.

With my loving blessing to each one,
Father Prior


My very dear Novice Oblate,

This is only my second letter to you from Ireland. I am sure that you understand that it has been difficult for me to "put fingers to keyboard" and write you from what is, essentially, an ongoing construction site here in Stamullen. This time I am writing from Silverstream Priory, the name given here in Ireland to our monastery, which remains, of course, under the patronage of Our Lady of the Cenacle.

Ascension Thursday announces that it is time for us to enter the Upper Room, the Cenacle, with the Apostles and with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, in order to persevere with them in prayer, and to wait for the Promised Gift from on high: the Consoler, the Advocate, the Comforter.

On the Advent of the Holy Spirit

Consider, for a moment, this image of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament. She is also Our Lady of the Cenacle; her hand are raised in ceaseless prayer and in readiness for the outpouring of the Holy Ghost. You will notice two things. (1) The Infant Christ within His Most Pure Mother represents the nascent Church, the Church enclosed within the Immaculate and Maternal Heart of Mary during the days of retreat in the Cenacle. (2) The holy oblations depicted in this icon remind us that the Church, already in the Cenacle, was nourished and sustained by the mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist.

Enclosed in One Place

Beginning this evening with Second Vespers of the Ascension of the Lord, the Church prays intensely, urgently, insistently for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Obedient to the command of Our Lord, "not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father" (Ac 1:4), we remain quiet and still, enclosed in one place. We have entered upon a kind of Advent of the Holy Spirit.

Concrete Gestures

This Advent of the Holy Spirit renews us in the desire for silence and separation from the world. The Mother of Jesus and the Apostles sequestered themselves in the Cenacle. They withdrew to a place apart. Each of us is called, according to his state in life, to separation from the world. It is up to each one of you to discover how, given your family life and other obligations, you can withdraw during these nine days from the business and noise that threatens to drown out the still, small voice of the Holy Ghost who would prepare you for His coming.

No two of you will do this in exactly the same way. During these days preceding Pentecost, one must, in some way, find concrete gestures to make the retreat of the Cenacle real. It is useless to speak in vague and idealistic terms of silence and separation from the world, if our actions and choices belie our pious discourse. For one it will be a resolute "no" to the television, to videos, and to an inordinate use of the internet. For another it will be abstinence from reading those things in newspapers and magazines that excite curiosity and leave troubling impressions on the soul. For yet another it will be a more generous application to that costly outward silence that is the price of inward silence. Mothers at home with children may want to invite the little ones to a few moments of silence each day, and introduce them to prayer for the coming of the Holy Ghost by praying with them.

O Rex Gloriae

We are in the Advent of the Holy Spirit, the Advent of the Cenacle. It is no mere coincidence that the second mode melody of the Ascension Magnificat Antiphon, O Rex Gloriae is the very one used for the Great O Antiphons of Advent. The same climate of irrepressible and joyful expectation pervades the Church. "O King of glory, Thou Lord of Sabaoth, who on this day didst ascend with exceeding triumph far above all heavens: we pray Thee leave us not comfortless, but send on us the Promise of the Father, the Spirit of Truth, alleluia" (Magnificat Antiphon, Second Vespers of the Ascension).

The Springtime Advent

Last December, during our winter Advent, we cried out for the coming of Christ, the first Paraclete, the Advocate who is to us Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring from on high, King of Nations, and Emmanuel. "I will pray the Father," He said, "and He will give you another Paraclete to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; you know Him for he dwells with you, and will be in you" (Jn 14:16 17). In this springtime Advent of the Holy Spirit, made bold by the prayer of the risen and ascended Christ on our behalf, we cry out for the other Paraclete, the Comforter sent by the Father to plead our cause.


Cry out for the coming of the Father of the Poor, the Giver of Gifts, the Light of hearts, the best of all Consolers, the soul's sweet Guest and gentle refreshment (cf., Pentecost Sequence, Veni, Sancte Spiritus). The Veni Creator repeated every evening at Vespers from Ascension to Pentecost, swells with intensity as the Fiftieth Day, The Pentecost fulfilled, approaches. The whole prayer of the Church during this Advent of the Holy Spirit is, as it were, condensed in a single aspiration rising "out of the depths" (Ps 129:1), Veni!

In the Midst of Chaos

The struggle to find and preserve silence, amidst the invasive noise that threatens the soul's ability to listen, is a much of a challenge for us monks as it is for you, Oblates living in the world. Our little monastery -- Silverstream Priory -- is, at the moment, a construction site. Call it creative chaos. People come and go all day. Guests arrive, and must be welcomed as Christ Himself. (In Ireland that means the ever-ready cup of tea.) Everywhere I turn, I see dust and dirt, things unsorted, boxes yet to be emptied, and unfinished projects. There is the constant pressure of precarious finances and the urgency of finding funds. It would be easy, in the midst of all of this, to give in to a ceaseless mental buzz that foments anxiety and robs the soul of peace. Instead, I am trying, calmly and joyfully, to live in the present moment, and to give that present moment its value of silence, and of attention to The One Thing Necessary.

The Work of the Holy Ghost

During these days of preparation for Pentecost, I would invite you to recite (or sing!) and meditate each day the so-called Golden Sequence, the Veni Sancte Spiritus that precedes the Gospel in the Mass of Pentecost Day. The Holy Spirit comes to help us in our weakness (Rom 8:26). The Advent of the Holy Spirit is our rest in labour; it is coolness in the heat, and solace in our tears. The Holy Spirit comes to wash what is soiled within us, to irrigate what is arid, to heal what is sickly. The Holy Spirit comes to make supple all that is rigid and unbending. The Holy Spirit comes to warm what is cold, and to straighten what is crooked.

When He Comes

True prayer begins when we admit that "we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26), and so, all our prayer during these last days before the Pentecost is to remain enclosed in one place, in the Cenacle of the heart, waiting for the Promise of the Father (Ac 1:4). When the Holy Ghost comes, His power will overshadow us; then, filling the innermost secrets of the soul, he will intercede for us with sighs too deep for words (Rom 8:26). We will have begun -- anew -- to pray as we ought.

The Beginning of All Prayer

During this Advent of the Holy Spirit, make the Veni of the Church your own. Open your hearts to the urgency of the Church's prayer for the descent of the Holy Ghost. It is always urgent to pray for the coming of the Holy Ghost. Prayer for the advent of the Holy Spirit --invocation of the Holy Spirit, or epiclesis-- is always pressing, for the Advent of the Holy Spirit is the beginning of all prayer, and apart from the Holy Spirit, "we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26).

The Descent of Fire

If, during the coming nine days, we remain enclosed in the Cenacle with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, and the apostles, if we persevere in the humble prayer of waiting and of beseeching, we will not be disappointed in our hope. When we go to Holy Mass, it is for this: for the Advent of the Holy Spirit over humble gifts of bread and wine, and over ourselves. The consuming Fire descends invisibly over the altar. Holy Mass is the action of the Holy Ghost making us the Body of Christ, the Body in which the whole Mystery of the Head is renewed. Eucharistic adoration intensifies and prolongs the action of the Holy Ghost that is concentrated in the Mass.

Our Lady of the Cenacle

Of one thing I am certain: if I turn to Our Lady of the Cenacle and take refuge in her Maternal Heart, she will share with me the secret of a silence that loves, that listens, that adores, and that praises even in the midst of a hundred different things competing for my attention, my time, and my energy. I would invite you to do the same. Recourse to Our Lady is not complicated: it can be a glance, a movement of the heart, an aspiration in her direction. There is, I think, no better preparation for the outpouring of the Holy Ghost that will be renewed in the Church and in our souls on Pentecost.

In lumine vultus Iesu,
Father Prior

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.

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