Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Commentaries on the Psalms: St Hilary of Poitiers

Ordination of St Hilary, c14th

St Hilary of Poitiers (300-368) is one of the less known Western doctors of the Church, but like many of his near contemporaries, he seems to have written extensive commentaries on the psalms, only a few of which unfortunately, have survived, and fewer yet, as far as I can discover, are readily available either in Latin or in translation.

But first some background on the saint, from Pope Benedict XVI from a General Audience in 2007:

"Today, I would like to talk about a great Father of the Church of the West, St Hilary of Poitiers, one of the important Episcopal figures of the fourth century. In the controversy with the Arians, who considered Jesus the Son of God to be an excellent human creature but only human, Hilary devoted his whole life to defending faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ, Son of God and God as the Father who generated him from eternity.

We have no reliable information on most of Hilary's life. Ancient sources say that he was born in Poitiers, probably in about the year 310 A.D. From a wealthy family, he received a solid literary education, which is clearly recognizable in his writings. It does not seem that he grew up in a Christian environment. He himself tells us of a quest for the truth which led him little by little to recognize God the Creator and the incarnate God who died to give us eternal life. Baptized in about 345, he was elected Bishop of his native city around 353-354. In the years that followed, Hilary wrote his first work, Commentary on St Matthew's Gospel. It is the oldest extant commentary in Latin on this Gospel. In 356, Hilary took part as a Bishop in the Synod of Béziers in the South of France, the "synod of false apostles", as he himself called it since the assembly was in the control of Philo-Arian Bishops who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. "These false apostles" asked the Emperor Constantius to have the Bishop of Poitiers sentenced to exile. Thus, in the summer of 356, Hilary was forced to leave Gaul.

Banished to Phrygia in present-day Turkey, Hilary found himself in contact with a religious context totally dominated by Arianism. Here too, his concern as a Pastor impelled him to work strenuously to re-establish the unity of the Church on the basis of right faith as formulated by the Council of Nicea. To this end he began to draft his own best-known and most important dogmatic work: De Trinitate (On the Trinity). Hilary explained in it his personal journey towards knowledge of God and took pains to show that not only in the New Testament but also in many Old Testament passages, in which Christ's mystery already appears, Scripture clearly testifies to the divinity of the Son and his equality with the Father. To the Arians he insisted on the truth of the names of Father and Son, and developed his entire Trinitarian theology based on the formula of Baptism given to us by the Lord himself: "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit".

The Father and the Son are of the same nature. And although several passages in the New Testament might make one think that the Son was inferior to the Father, Hilary offers precise rules to avoid misleading interpretations: some Scriptural texts speak of Jesus as God, others highlight instead his humanity. Some refer to him in his pre-existence with the Father; others take into consideration his state of emptying of self (kenosis), his descent to death; others, finally, contemplate him in the glory of the Resurrection. In the years of his exile, Hilary also wrote the Book of Synods in which, for his brother Bishops of Gaul, he reproduced confessions of faith and commented on them and on other documents of synods which met in the East in about the middle of the fourth century. Ever adamant in opposing the radical Arians, St Hilary showed a conciliatory spirit to those who agreed to confess that the Son was essentially similar to the Father, seeking of course to lead them to the true faith, according to which there is not only a likeness but a true equality of the Father and of the Son in divinity. This too seems to me to be characteristic: the spirit of reconciliation that seeks to understand those who have not yet arrived and helps them with great theological intelligence to reach full faith in the true divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In 360 or 361, Hilary was finally able to return home from exile and immediately resumed pastoral activity in his Church, but the influence of his magisterium extended in fact far beyond its boundaries. A synod celebrated in Paris in 360 or 361 borrows the language of the Council of Nicea. Several ancient authors believe that this anti-Arian turning point of the Gaul episcopate was largely due to the fortitude and docility of the Bishop of Poitiers. This was precisely his gift: to combine strength in the faith and docility in interpersonal relations. In the last years of his life he also composed the Treatises on the Psalms, a commentary on 58 Psalms interpreted according to the principle highlighted in the introduction to the work: "There is no doubt that all the things that are said in the Psalms should be understood in accordance with Gospel proclamation, so that, whatever the voice with which the prophetic spirit has spoken, all may be referred nevertheless to the knowledge of the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Incarnation, Passion and Kingdom, and to the power and glory of our resurrection" (Instructio Psalmorum, 5). He saw in all the Psalms this transparency of the mystery of Christ and of his Body which is the Church. Hilary met St Martin on various occasions: the future Bishop of Tours founded a monastery right by Poitiers, which still exists today. Hilary died in 367. His liturgical Memorial is celebrated on 13 January. In 1851 Blessed Pius IX proclaimed him a Doctor of the universal Church.

To sum up the essentials of his doctrine, I would like to say that Hilary found the starting point for his theological reflection in baptismal faith. In De Trinitate, Hilary writes: Jesus "has commanded us to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (cf. Mt 28: 19), that is, in the confession of the Author, of the Only-Begotten One and of the Gift. The Author of all things is one alone, for one alone is God the Father, from whom all things proceed. And one alone is Our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things exist (cf. I Cor 8: 6), and one alone is the Spirit (cf. Eph 4: 4), a gift in all.... In nothing can be found to be lacking so great a fullness, in which the immensity in the Eternal One, the revelation in the Image, joy in the Gift, converge in the Father, in the Son and in the Holy Spirit" (De Trinitate 2, 1). God the Father, being wholly love, is able to communicate his divinity to his Son in its fullness. I find particularly beautiful the following formula of St Hilary: "God knows not how to be anything other than love, he knows not how to be anyone other than the Father. Those who love are not envious and the one who is the Father is so in his totality. This name admits no compromise, as if God were father in some aspects and not in others" (ibid., 9, 61).

For this reason the Son is fully God without any gaps or diminishment. "The One who comes from the perfect is perfect because he has all, he has given all" (ibid., 2, 8). Humanity finds salvation in Christ alone, Son of God and Son of man. In assuming our human nature, he has united himself with every man, "he has become the flesh of us all" (Tractatus super Psalmos 54, 9); "he took on himself the nature of all flesh and through it became true life, he has in himself the root of every vine shoot" (ibid., 51, 16). For this very reason the way to Christ is open to all - because he has drawn all into his being as a man -, even if personal conversion is always required: "Through the relationship with his flesh, access to Christ is open to all, on condition that they divest themselves of their former self (cf. Eph 4: 22), nailing it to the Cross (cf. Col 2: 14); provided we give up our former way of life and convert in order to be buried with him in his baptism, in view of life (cf. Col 1: 12; Rom 6: 4)" (ibid., 91, 9).

Fidelity to God is a gift of his grace. Therefore, St Hilary asks, at the end of his Treatise on the Trinity, to be able to remain ever faithful to the baptismal faith. It is a feature of this book: reflection is transformed into prayer and prayer returns to reflection. The whole book is a dialogue with God.

I would like to end today's Catechesis with one of these prayers, which thus becomes our prayer:

"Obtain, O Lord", St Hilary recites with inspiration, "that I may keep ever faithful to what I have professed in the symbol of my regeneration, when I was baptized in the Father, in the Son and in the Holy Spirit. That I may worship you, our Father, and with you, your Son; that I may deserve your Holy Spirit, who proceeds from you through your Only Begotten Son... Amen" (De Trinitate 12, 57)."

Friday, September 9, 2011

Comparing Offices/5 - Vespers and Compline

Today I want to finish off this set of notes on the structure of each of the hours in the various forms of the Office with a look at the last two hours of the day, Vespers and Compline.  The main issue with these hours in the different forms of the Office goes to the spread of the workload over the day.

Vespers in the Benedictine and Roman Offices

In particular, the traditional Benedictine Office, for example, is heavily 'front-end loaded' - most of the work is done in the early morning, with both Vespers and Compline shorter than the Roman models St Benedict seems to have started from.  This makes sense given the emphasis on the monastic nature of the Vigil hour.

Vespers in the Benedictine schema uses basically the same set of psalms as the original Roman hour (109-150 skipping over one or two), save for the first nine gradual psalms (119-127) shifted to be said during the day.  But it has only four psalms each night (technically five on Monday, but one is the two verse Psalm 116, and it is said under the same Gloria Patri as Psalm 115) compared to five in the Roman version. St Benedict also split three psalms (Psalms 138, 143 and 144), further shortening the hour compared to the Roman Vespers of his time. In total, the Benedictine schema set 26 psalms for Vespers each week.

By contrast, the Roman Office traditionally spread the workload of the psalms much more evenly through the day.  In the oldest version of the Roman Office, Vespers had five psalms, taken in order from Psalm 109, and skipping over only a few psalms said at other hours (Psalms 117, 118, 133 and 142). All of the psalms were said in whole, thus 34 psalms were said at Vespers each week.

It might have been logical, given the shift in the pattern of human activity over the last few centuries to the evening over the morning, courtesy of the invention of electricity, to beef up the evening hours at the expense of the morning ones.

But in fact, the 1911 revamp of the Office retained the five psalms concept, but split three psalms in parts (more or less following the practice of the Benedictine Office, see below).  The biggest substantive change resulted from the need to accommodate the psalm divisions: instead of Saturday Vespers ending on Psalm 147, it stops at Psalm 144, with several of the psalms traditionally said at Vespers (Psalms 116, 134, 145, 146 and 147) reassigned to Lauds.  The end result was a reduction in the number of psalms said to 31 a week.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the modern Liturgy of the Hours, rather than seeking to rebalance the workload towards the evening, is shorter again, with only two psalms said each night, many of them actually one psalm split in two.  Nor does the Liturgy of the Hours restrict itself to the traditional 'Vespers' psalms, instead drawing on psalms from all books of the psalter.


The most radical differences between the Offices though relate to Compline.

In the older Roman Office and the Benedictine, Compline was the same every night.  The Benedictine Office always uses Psalms 4, 90 and 133; the pre-1911 Office also added Psalm 30 (which St Benedict assigned to Matins instead).  In many monasteries, the Compline was memorized and said in darkness, the familiarity of the verses providing a gentle wind-down towards sleep.

Pope St Pius X's revisions of the breviary instead made the three psalms of Compline variable each day, with Sunday mirroring the Benedictine schema.  The psalms selected are all thematically appropriate to the hour, expressing similar sentiments perhaps to those of the traditional version of the hour.  Still, there is clearly much more effort involved in saying a different set of psalms each night, particularly given that unlike the Benedictine version of Compline, the psalms come with antiphons, and thus can vary psalm tones depending on feasts and the liturgical season.

And the Liturgy of the Hours of course reduces the length of the hour again, to one or two psalms a night depending on their length.

Intellectual workload and time involved

In summation, the differences in these hours goes primarily to the level of intellectual effort required and time to say them. 

The oldest form of the Roman Office was the longest at both Vespers and Compline by a significant margin, and got through around 25% of the 150 psalms at these hours. 

The Pius X reforms shortened the hours somewhat, but increased the intellectual workload required at Compline in particular, with these hours now getting through 46 of the week's psalms, nearly a third of the 150 psalms. 

By contrast, the traditional Benedictine schema uses only 29 different psalms for the evening hours, or 19% of the total, and both hours are significantly shorter than either the pre or post 1911 Roman forms.  Not as light a load as the modern Liturgy of the Hours of course, which only manages to get through 21 psalms a week or less at these hours.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

St Basil the Great/3 - The psalm commentaries

c15th from Mt Athos
In the last two posts on St Basil the Great, I've included some material on the saint's life and theology.  Now to his psalm commentaries!

The surviving commentaries take the form of sermons on Psalms 1, 7, 14, 28, 29, 32, 33, 44, 45, 48, 59, 61 and 114, and are available online in English (see the link below, or in the sidebar at the right).

On the value of the psalms

To give you a flavour of them, here is an extract from Homily 10, on the value of the psalms in the context of Psalm 1:

"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.

When, indeed, the Holy Spirit saw that the human race was 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 For, never has any one of the many indifferent persons gone away easily holding in mind either an apostolic or prophetic message, but they do chant the words of the psalms, even in the home, and they spread them around in the market place, and, if perchance, someone becomes exceedingly wrathful, when he begins to be soothed by the psalm, he departs with the wrath of his soul immediately lulled to sleep by means of the melody.

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. 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 sorrow which is in accordance with God. For, a psalm calls forth a tear even from a heart of stone. A psalm is the work of angels, a heavenly institution, the spiritual incense.

Oh! the wise invention of the teacher who contrived that while we were singing we should at the same time learn something useful; by this means, too, the teachings are in a certain way impressed more deeply on our minds. Even a forceful lesson does not always endure, but what enters the mind with joy and pleasure somehow becomes more firmly impressed upon it. 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. To it, although there are many musical instruments, the prophet adapted the so-called harp, showing, as it seems to me, that the gift from the Spirit resounded in his ears from above. With the cithara and the lyre the bronze from beneath responds with sound to the plucking, but the harp has the source of its harmonic rhythms from above, in order that we may be careful to seek the things above and not be borne down by the sweetness of the melody to the passions of the flesh. And I believe this, namely, that the words of prophecy are made clear to us in a profound and wise manner through the structure of the instrument, because those who are orderly and harmonious in soul possess an easy path to the things above.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

St Basil the Great/2 - theology

St Basil dictating his doctrine
de Herrera, 1639
Continuing on from yesterday's post on the life of St Basil the Great, today some background on his theological approach, from a second General Audience on the saint by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007:

"...The life and works of this great Saint are full of ideas for reflection and teachings that are also relevant for us today.

First of all is the reference to God's mystery, which is still the most meaningful and vital reference for human beings. The Father is "the principal of all things and the cause of being of all that exists, the root of the living" (Hom. 15, 2 de fide: PG 31, 465c); above all, he is "the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ" (Anaphora Sancti Basilii). Ascending to God through his creatures, we "become aware of his goodness and wisdom" (Basil, Adversus Eunomium 1, 14: PG 29, 544b).

The Son is the "image of the Father's goodness and seal in the same form" (cf. Anaphora Sancti Basilii). With his obedience and his Passion, the Incarnate Word carried out his mission as Redeemer of man (cf. Basil, In Psalmum 48, 8; PG 29, 452ab; cf. also De Baptismo 1, 2: SC 357, 158).

Lastly, he spoke fully of the Holy Spirit, to whom he dedicated a whole book. He reveals to us that the Spirit enlivens the Church, fills her with his gifts and sanctifies her.

The resplendent light of the divine mystery is reflected in man, the image of God, and exalts his dignity. Looking at Christ, one fully understands human dignity.

Basil exclaims: "[Man], be mindful of your greatness, remembering the price paid for you: look at the price of your redemption and comprehend your dignity!" (In Psalmum 48, 8: PG 29, 452b).

Christians in particular, conforming their lives to the Gospel, recognize that all people are brothers and sisters; that life is a stewardship of the goods received from God, which is why each one is responsible for the other, and whoever is rich must be as it were an "executor of the orders of God the Benefactor" (Hom 6 de avaritia: PG 32, 1181-1196). We must all help one another and cooperate as members of one body (Ep 203, 3).

And on this point, he used courageous, strong words in his homilies. Indeed, anyone who desires to love his neighbour as himself, in accordance with God's commandment, "must possess no more than his neighbour" (Hom. in divites: PG 31, 281b).

In times of famine and disaster, the holy Bishop exhorted the faithful with passionate words "not to be more cruel than beasts... by taking over what people possess in common or by grabbing what belongs to all (Hom. tempore famis: PG 31, 325a).

Basil's profound thought stands out in this evocative sentence: "All the destitute look to our hands just as we look to those of God when we are in need".

Therefore, Gregory of Nazianzus' praise after Basil's death was well-deserved. He said: "Basil convinces us that since we are human beings, we must neither despise men nor offend Christ, the common Head of all, with our inhuman behaviour towards people; rather, we ourselves must benefit by learning from the misfortunes of others and must lend God our compassion, for we are in need of mercy" (Gregory Nazianzus, Orationes 43, 63; PG 36, 580b).

These words are very timely. We see that St Basil is truly one of the Fathers of the Church's social doctrine.

Furthermore, Basil reminds us that to keep alive our love for God and for men, we need the Eucharist, the appropriate food for the baptized, which can nourish the new energies that derive from Baptism (cf. De Baptismo 1, 3: SC 357, 192).

It is a cause of immense joy to be able to take part in the Eucharist (cf. Moralia 21, 3: PG 31, 741a), instituted "to preserve unceasingly the memory of the One who died and rose for us" (Moralia 80, 22: PG 31, 869b).

The Eucharist, an immense gift of God, preserves in each one of us the memory of the baptismal seal and makes it possible to live the grace of Baptism to the full and in fidelity.

For this reason, the holy Bishop recommended frequent, even daily, Communion: "Communicating even daily, receiving the Holy Body and Blood of Christ, is good and useful; for he said clearly: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life' (Jn 6: 54). So who would doubt that communicating continuously with life were not living in fullness?" (Ep. 93: PG 32, 484b).

The Eucharist, in a word, is necessary for us if we are to welcome within us true life, eternal life (cf. Moralia 21, 1: PG 31, 737c).

Finally, Basil was of course also concerned with that chosen portion of the People of God, the youth, society's future. He addressed a Discourse to them on how to benefit from the pagan culture of that time.

He recognized with great balance and openness that examples of virtue can be found in classical Greek and Latin literature. Such examples of upright living can be helpful to young Christians in search of the truth and the correct way of living (cf. Ad Adolescentes 3).

Therefore, one must take from the texts by classical authors what is suitable and conforms with the truth: thus, with a critical and open approach - it is a question of true and proper "discernment"- young people grow in freedom.

With the famous image of bees that gather from flowers only what they need to make honey, Basil recommends: "Just as bees can take nectar from flowers, unlike other animals which limit themselves to enjoying their scent and colour, so also from these writings... one can draw some benefit for the spirit. We must use these books, following in all things the example of bees. They do not visit every flower without distinction, nor seek to remove all the nectar from the flowers on which they alight, but only draw from them what they need to make honey, and leave the rest. And if we are wise, we will take from those writings what is appropriate for us, and conforms to the truth, ignoring the rest" (Ad Adolescentes 4).

Basil recommended above all that young people grow in virtue, in the right way of living: "While the other goods... pass from one to the other as in playing dice, virtue alone is an inalienable good and endures throughout life and after death" (Ad Adolescentes 5).

Dear brothers and sisters, I think one can say that this Father from long ago also speaks to us and tells us important things.

In the first place, attentive, critical and creative participation in today's culture.

Then, social responsibility: this is an age in which, in a globalized world, even people who are physically distant are really our neighbours; therefore, friendship with Christ, the God with the human face.

And, lastly, knowledge and recognition of God the Creator, the Father of us all: only if we are open to this God, the common Father, can we build a more just and fraternal world."

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Commentaries on the psalms: St Basil the Great

Another of the Fathers who wrote some helpful commentaries on the psalms is St Basil the Great.

St Basil made important contributions to the development of monasticism, and his rules are mentioned by St Benedict as suggested reading for his monks.

Here is some background on his life from Pope Benedict XVI in July 2007:

"Let us remember today one of the great Fathers of the Church, St Basil, described by Byzantine liturgical texts as "a luminary of the Church".

He was an important Bishop in the fourth century to whom the entire Church of the East, and likewise the Church of the West, looks with admiration because of the holiness of his life, the excellence of his teaching and the harmonious synthesis of his speculative and practical gifts.

He was born in about 330 A.D. into a family of saints, "a true domestic Church", immersed in an atmosphere of deep faith. He studied with the best teachers in Athens and Constantinople.

Unsatisfied with his worldly success and realizing that he had frivolously wasted much time on vanities, he himself confessed: "One day, like a man roused from deep sleep, I turned my eyes to the marvellous light of the truth of the Gospel..., and I wept many tears over my miserable life" (cf. Letter 223: PG 32, 824a).

Attracted by Christ, Basil began to look and listen to him alone (cf. Moralia, 80, 1: PG 31, 860bc). He devoted himself with determination to the monastic life through prayer, meditation on the Sacred Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers of the Church, and the practice of charity (cf. Letters 2, 22), also following the example of his sister, St Macrina, who was already living the ascetic life of a nun. He was then ordained a priest and finally, in the year 370, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia in present-day Turkey.

Through his preaching and writings, he carried out immensely busy pastoral, theological and literary activities.

With a wise balance, he was able to combine service to souls with dedication to prayer and meditation in solitude. Availing himself of his personal experience, he encouraged the foundation of numerous "fraternities", in other words, communities of Christians consecrated to God, which he visited frequently (cf. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 43, 29, in laudem Basilii: PG 36, 536b).

He urged them with his words and his writings, many of which have come down to us (cf. Regulae brevius tractatae, Proemio: PG 31, 1080ab), to live and to advance in perfection.

Various legislators of ancient monasticism drew on his works, including St Benedict, who considered Basil his teacher (cf. Rule 73, 5).

Indeed, Basil created a very special monasticism: it was not closed to the community of the local Church but instead was open to it. His monks belonged to the particular Church; they were her life-giving nucleus and, going before the other faithful in the following of Christ and not only in faith, showed a strong attachment to him - love for him - especially through charitable acts. These monks, who ran schools and hospitals, were at the service of the poor and thus demonstrated the integrity of Christian life.

In speaking of monasticism, the Servant of God John Paul II wrote: "For this reason many people think that the essential structure of the life of the Church, monasticism, was established, for all time, mainly by St Basil; or that, at least, it was not defined in its more specific nature without his decisive contribution" (Apostolic Letter Patres Ecclesiae, n. 2, January 1980; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 25 February, p. 6).

As the Bishop and Pastor of his vast Diocese Basil was constantly concerned with the difficult material conditions in which his faithful lived; he firmly denounced the evils; he did all he could on behalf of the poorest and most marginalized people; he also intervened with rulers to alleviate the sufferings of the population, especially in times of disaster; he watched over the Church's freedom, opposing even the powerful in order to defend the right to profess the true faith (cf. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 43, 48-51 in laudem Basilii: PG 36, 557c-561c).

Basil bore an effective witness to God, who is love and charity, by building for the needy various institutions (cf. Basil, Letter 94: PG 32, 488bc), virtually a "city" of mercy, called "Basiliade" after him (cf. Sozomeno, Historia Eccl. 6, 34: PG 67, 1397a). This was the origin of the modern hospital structures where the sick are admitted for treatment.

Aware that "the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed", and "also the fount from which all her power flows" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10), and in spite of his constant concern to do charitable acts which is the hallmark of faith, Basil was also a wise "liturgical reformer" (cf. Gregory Nazianzus, Oratio 43, 34 in laudem Basilii: PG 36, 541c).

Indeed, he has bequeathed to us a great Eucharistic Prayer [or anaphora] which takes its name from him and has given a fundamental order to prayer and psalmody: at his prompting, the people learned to know and love the Psalms and even went to pray them during the night (cf. Basil, In Psalmum 1, 1-2: PG 29, 212a-213c). And we thus see how liturgy, worship, prayer with the Church and charity go hand in hand and condition one another.

With zeal and courage Basil opposed the heretics who denied that Jesus Christ was God as Father (cf. Basil, Letter 9, 3: PG 32, 272a; Letter 52, 1-3: PG 32, 392b-396a; Adv. Eunomium 1, 20: PG 29, 556c). Likewise, against those who would not accept the divinity of the Holy Spirit, he maintained that the Spirit is also God and "must be equated and glorified with the Father and with the Son (cf. De Spiritu Sancto: SC 17ff., 348). For this reason Basil was one of the great Fathers who formulated the doctrine on the Trinity: the one God, precisely because he is love, is a God in three Persons who form the most profound unity that exists: divine unity.

In his love for Christ and for his Gospel, the great Cappadocian also strove to mend divisions within the Church (cf. Letters, 70, 243), doing his utmost to bring all to convert to Christ and to his word (cf. De Iudicio 4: PG 31, 660b-661a), a unifying force which all believers were bound to obey (cf. ibid. 1-3: PG 31, 653a-656c).

To conclude, Basil spent himself without reserve in faithful service to the Church and in the multiform exercise of the episcopal ministry. In accordance with the programme that he himself drafted, he became an "apostle and minister of Christ, steward of God's mysteries, herald of the Kingdom, a model and rule of piety, an eye of the Body of the Church, a Pastor of Christ's sheep, a loving doctor, father and nurse, a cooperator of God, a farmer of God, a builder of God's temple" (cf. Moralia 80, 11-20: PG 31, 864b-868b).

This is the programme which the holy Bishop consigns to preachers of the Word - in the past as in the present -, a programme which he himself was generously committed to putting into practice. In 379 A.D. Basil, who was not yet 50, returned to God "in the hope of eternal life, through Jesus Christ Our Lord" (De Baptismo, 1, 2, 9).

He was a man who truly lived with his gaze fixed on Christ. He was a man of love for his neighbour. Full of the hope and joy of faith, Basil shows us how to be true Christians."

Monday, September 5, 2011

Comparing the Offices/4 - The structure of the hours from Prime to None

Continuing my series comparing the major variants of the Roman and Benedictine Offices, I want to look now at the day hours of Prime to None.  These day hours are key to the differences in the varying spiritualities implicit in the forms of the Divine Office.   

The first major issue I want to look at is the number of 'hours' to be said each day, which goes to the underlying philosophy of the Divine Office in general.  The second dimension over which the hours vary is their length.  But the third, and perhaps the most important, difference between the various versions of the Office is the nature of the psalms assigned to these hours.

How many hours - on praying ceaselessly

The first major difference is of course in the number of hours.

Traditionally of course, there are four 'little hours': Prime (at first light); Terce (mid-morning); Sext (midday); and None (mid-afternoon).  Terce, Sext and None have the most ancient origin - there are references to praying at these times in the New Testament itself , as well as in early Christian documents such as Didache. 

Prime was a rather later addition, with origins probably in the late fourth century.  One storyline is that it was added to prevent monks from going back to bed after Lauds.  That may be true.  But there are deeper, more important reasons, as we shall see, going to the very nature of the Divine Office. 

Laus perennis (continuous praise)

There have long been competing positions on the idea of the Office as a means of fulfilling the Scriptural injunction to 'pray ceaselessly'.

One idea is to take the idea of praying ceaselessly literally, as some of the Desert Fathers did, praying the Office even as they wove baskets or did other tasks.  At the height of the middle ages, in some medieval monasteries the monks worked in shifts over the day and night in order to ensure that liturgy was always being said.  Perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is another variant on this idea.

At the other extreme, some (including some prominent modern Benedictines, hence the rhetoric in the 1979 Thesaurus for the Order, and the decision to abolish Prime by many modern Benedictine Congregations, even those retaining a one week psalter) argue that it is possible to make our work and relaxation a continual prayer, so that work becomes liturgy.  In this theory, it doesn't really matter how often one gets together at all for formal prayer - hence the decision to abolish Prime in the Roman Office mandated in Sacrosanctum Concilium in Vatican II, and the subsequent decision in the 1971 Office (without any Vatican II mandate whatsoever) to say only one of Terce, Sext or None each day.

The Western Tradition

St Benedict and the mainstream Western tradition, I would argue, strikes a healthy balance between these two extremes. 

First, St Benedict, following the direction set by St Martin of Tours, does not anywhere in his Rule pretend that work and liturgy are the same thing, and that we can therefore abandon one for the other.  Rather, he insists on a sharp differentiation between the two, instructing that the chapel not be used for any other purposes.  Secondly, St Benedict talks about the Divine Office as the monk's service, their 'sacred service', the 'Work of God'.   Liturgy, in this view, is performed not just for our own improvement, not just as a spur to contemplation, but as a duty we owe to God.  As such, it is not something that can be shirked: put nothing before the work of God, he instructs his monks.

Secondly, the traditional ordering of the hours recognises that it is only too easy for us to become caught up in our own work, and forget about God entirely.  Spacing the hours at regular times through the day serves as a practical psychological tool to keep God top of mind and keep an appropriate balance in our lives (there are good reasons why even in secular life we have historically at least mimicked this pattern with breakfast, morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea breaks!) .

Most importantly though, is the rationale for seven day hours in particular.  St Benedict justifies the number of hours in his schema with a quote from Psalm 118: 'seven times a day will I praise you', and 'At midnight I rose to give you praise'.  Seven, as St Benedict points out in his Rule, is a sacred number, symbolising fullness or completeness.   St Augustine, for example, gave long expositions on its significance in terms of the number of petitions in the Lord's Prayer, in the Beatitudes (with a little creative interpretation) and so forth.  The bottom line was that by praying seven times a day, monks could indeed claim to be fulfilling the injunction to 'pray ceaselessly' without the need for interestingly creative rationalisations such as 'quality over quantity' or 'work is liturgy' for abandoning the Office.

The length and content of the little hours

The Benedictine, pre-1911 Roman Office and Pius X Office all featured these four key hours of the day.  Nonetheless, the character of these hours is quite different in each of these forms of the Office.

In the oldest form of the Roman Office, these four hours were the essentially same every day, and centred on the saying of the longest of the psalms, Psalm 118, an extended meditation on the importance of keeping the law.  Prime also included Psalm 117 on Sunday and Psalm 53 the rest of the week. 

Prime in the Benedictine Office

St Benedict made significant changes to all of these hours in his schema.  St Benedict first cut the length of these hours more or less by half.  On Sunday, he shifted Psalm 117 to Lauds, and cut the number of verses of Psalm 118 in half. Sunday Prime in the pre-1911 Office consisted of 68 verses in total: in the Benedictine Office it is only 32 verses of psalm. 

The remaining verses of Psalm 118 are said, in the traditional Benedictine Office, on Sunday and Monday Terce to None, with each hour consisting of 24 verses instead of the Roman 48.

St Benedict also gave Prime during the week much more substantive content, fitting with its character as preparation for the day's work.  Instead of a repeated psalm each day, he allocated psalms 1-2 and 6-19 to the hour, all of which contain important catechetical content. 

The post-Tridentine version of Prime made a move in this direction by adding one of Psalms 21-25 to each day's roster, but at a cost of further lengthening the hour.  On average, the pre-1911 Prime averaged 58 verses of psalms a day; by contrast the Benedictine Office averages only 40.

Terce to Sext

St Benedict's biggest change to the Roman Office though, was to dump Psalm 118 out of the weekday Office, and instead have his monks say the first nine of the Gradual, or Psalms of Ascent, at Terce to None.  These psalms are very short, so that Benedictine Terce to None average only around 22 verses each (compared to the old Roman 48).  They are easily memorized and so could be said in the fields or workplace if necessary, as St Benedict specifically allows. 

Like Psalm 118, their repetition serves to constantly reinforce fairly straight forward messages, about the necessary virtues to be cultivated in the course of our daily life.  But they also set down a key challenge: it is not enough to merely keep the commandments, St Benedict seems to be telling us; we must also work to ascend the spiritual ladder towards heaven.

The Pius X reforms

The driving concern of the reforms to the Roman Breviary made under Pope St Pius X was length: making the breviary more 'doable' to priests overloaded with pastoral pressures.  As a result, it made a conscious effort to shorten the day hours substantially.  The end result is that the 1960 hours of Prime to None average around 30 verses of psalm each on weekdays (but with some variation over the week, and a much longer Office on Sundays).

The approachability of these hours however suffered drastically, in my view, from the decision to reallocate the psalms of Matins to the day hours.  The old Roman (and Benedictine) Office featured the repetition of familiar verses with relatively straightforward messages during the day; the new day hours required those who say the Office to grapple with psalms full of difficult concepts and ideas.  Instead of being a gentle prod to keep the priest or religious on track during the day, they confront the person praying the Office with the cursing psalms and other difficult to grapple concepts. 

In short, the Pius X reforms completely destroyed the character of the Little Hours.

And the reforms ultimately provoked a reaction, in the form of simply cutting all those difficult passages out of the psalter altogether, and all but abolishing the little hours, in the 1971 Liturgy of the Hours....

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A psalm for Sunday...Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Conti (c18th), The parable of the Good Samaritan

Today's (Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost) Introit in the Extraordinary Form is verses from Psalm 69, but the sentiments and phrases are actually ones used in several other psalms as well.  Psalm 69 actually more or less duplicates the second half of Psalm 39, and its sentiments appear in several other places as well:

Deus, in adjutórium meum inténde: Dómine, ad adjuvándum me festína: confundántur et revereántur inimíci mei, qui quærunt ánimam meam. Avertántur retrórsum et erubéscant: qui cógitant mihi mala.


Incline unto my aid, O God: O Lord, make haste to help me: let my enemies be confounded and ashamed, who seek my soul.  Let them be turned backward and blush for shame, who desire evils to me.

Let my enemies be confounded and ashamed!

The first verse of the Introit here is the familiar call for God's aid, a call that expresses our dependence on God in all circumstances.  It is used at the start of each hour of the Office and in the Mass as a constant reminder that we can do nothing without God, and that nothing happens without God willing it or allowing it.

But the next sets of words are equally important to the Christian, for they are restatements of the prophecies of the Incarnation and of God's promises to us included especially in the Benedictus and Magnificat: of God's help to us in times of temptation, and his commitment that we will never be tempted beyond our ability to resist; of the final victory over the devil; and of the ultimate triumph of the poor in spirit over the proud and powerful.

On the one hand they are a restatement of Our Lord's victory over death and ultimate triumph over the devil; on the other hand they are an invitation to us: to be confounded but the realization of our sinful state, and thus to be ashamed; and to be converted.  Only once we have come to this realization can we truly be said to be putting our trust in God's help.

In the Benedictine Office, these sentiments feature heavily in the psalms set for Monday (with Psalm 39), with similar phrases turning up not only at several psalms of Matins, but also closing off Prime (in Psalm 6) and Vespers (in Psalm 128).

But the sentiments are also a good fit to the themes of Wednesday Matins, where this version of the psalm appears, since that day deals with man's betrayal of God, and the election of the gentiles, for in the Gospel for this twelfth Sunday, with the story of the Good Samaritan.   The Jews who would have walked past the man who had been robbed and beaten without helping him; but we are invited to be ashamed, repent, and help.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

St Alphonse Liguori on the psalms/2

Yesterday I provided some background on the saint himself.  Today a quick look at his commentaries.

A practical aid

St Alphonse Ligouri's psalm commentaries are very much directed at providing practical assistance to those saying the Divine Office.  They are not, too my mind at least, particularly original, but rather provide notes to aid translation, drawing where relevant on the views of other mostly near contemporary commentators (few of which remain influential or even readily available today).  That said, the summations are often pithy and to the point.

The work is ordered around (pre-1911) Roman Office.  Unfortunately of course, the Roman Office has been completely reordered twice since he wrote!

All the same, the commentary is still useful, and is readily available for download online (see the sidebar on psalm commentaries).  For each psalm (and canticle), St Alphonse provides a short paragraph summarising what it is about, and then short notes on selected verses.

A sample summary

You can get a feel for the style of summaries St Alphonsus provides from ths note on Psalm 75, said at Thursday Matins in the pre-1911 Roman Breviary, Thursday None in the 1962 Roman Breviary, and Friday Lauds in the traditional Benedictine Office:

"This psalm is a canticle of praise and thanksgiving which the Jews address to God for having aided them to be victorious over their enemies. Some Fathers believe that it was composed after the victory gained over the Assyrians and the defeat of the army of Sennacherib (4 Kings, xix. 35), the title of it being according to the Vulgate: Canticum ad Assyrios. But Grotius and Xavier Mattei think that David composed it after his victory over the Ammonites (2 Kings, x.), and that afterward Ezechias recited it after the defeat of the Assyrians. It may be used by Christians to thank God for having delivered them
from their enemies."

These summaries are extremely useful as quick overviews to refresh the memory.

Verse by verse notes

The verse notes, I would suggest, are often less useful to the modern reader.  St Alphonse provides notes on all but two verses of this particularly important psalm. 

Many of the notes simply provide information on Masoretic Text and/or St Jerome's  from the Hebrew translation, which may or may not be helpful depending on your view of those versions of the psalms.  Much of this has arguably been overtaken by editions drawing on the dead sea scrolls and other sources, and modern scholarship on the texts.  Nonetheless, where verses are obscure, St Alphonse generally summarises the competing views that he is aware of (generally focusing on his near contemporaries amongst commentators), and states his preferred reading.

Other notes, though, are paraphrases of the verse into less poetic language, a useful contribution indeed: understanding meaning of the individual Latin or English words of the psalms is one thing; understanding what the sentence is actually trying to say is often quite another! 

And occasionally, St Alphonsus distills out a gem of wisdom for our consideration. 

All in all, this is a work that, though dated in some respects, is still worth a look at for the serious student of the psalms.