Saturday, October 29, 2016

The festal Office of Lauds - a case of organic development of the liturgy or not?

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So far in this series we have looked at the psalms that St Benedict assigned to Lauds, and the logic he used to selected them.

Over time, however, a 'festal' Office has developed involving the substitution of Psalm 92 for Psalm 50; Psalm 99 for the first variable psalm of the day; Psalm 62 for the second variable psalm of the day; and the use of a 'festal' canticle in place of the traditional ferial one.

To what extent should this festal Office be regarded as a valid and/or desirable development?  Is there a case for reverting to the ancient practice specified by St Benedict (particularly given that the modern Liturgy of the Hours largely moves away from festal Offices, with the exception of Vespers)?

Organic development of the liturgy

The Benedictine Rule specifies exactly which psalms should be said at each hour and day.  Nonetheless, though the Rule is always the guide for Benedictines, nothing in it is set in stone: St Benedict regularly encourages the abbot to adapt its provisions to the needs of his particular monastery, and this applies to the Office as much as any other part of the Rule.

St Benedict explicitly provides, for example, for a less onerous method of saying the Office in smaller monasteries, and offers a permission to order the psalm cursus differently (notwithstanding some later opinions to the effect that this was just a humility formula).

Nor is the liturgy something that is pickled in amber; rather it is a living entity that grows and develops over time.

That 'development' process, though, is not always entirely linear: the entire repertoire of Gregorian chant that is now the norm for the traditional form of the Office, for example, was largely a reconstruction of medieval practice effected by the Solesmes Congregation centuries after it had been abandoned in practice.

Accordingly, by better understanding the reasons for St Benedict's original specifications, we are better placed to consider whether particular developments in the Office are consistent with what came before and a logical outgrowth of them ('organic') or not; and whether such developments remain desirable now.

The festal Office of Lauds and its origins

The Rule itself mentions a festal Office only for Matins (Vigils): St Benedict instructs that the psalms of the day are to be used, but in the framework of the Sunday Office structure.  That is, three Nocturns with twelve readings is to be used on major feast days.

It is easy how to see,though, how this logic could be applied to the other hours: all that was necessary was to change the antiphons to ones appropriate to the feast.

The priority St Benedict placed on his psalm cursus probably reflects both the particular character with which he invests in each of the hours through his selection of psalms (such as the references to morning prayer at Lauds, and the repeated motifs or memes we have been discussing in this series) and to the weekly thematic program I think he has designed into his Office around the life of Christ (that flows from the Old Testament canticles of Lauds).

The desire to give a greater prominence to the great feasts of the liturgical year in the Office though, and to the feasts of the saints, seems to have led to modifications of the Benedictine Office very early indeed. 

A letter of Abbot Theodore of Monte Cassino (held office 777-796), for example, explains that the monks there used psalms and responsories of the Roman, rather than the Benedictine (getting to twelve psalms by the expedient of dividing three of them), for the major feasts such as Christmas, Epiphany, Ascension and the major saints (viz SS Peter, Martin and Benedict).

And a document from 836 (between the monasteries of St Denis and Fleury) provides the first record of fully developed monastic festal Offices, for the feasts of St Denis and the Transitus of St Benedict.

The substitution of Psalm 92 for Psalm 50 at Lauds on major feasts in imitation of the Roman Office seems to have been one of these very early innovations, though the addition of the other two 'festal' psalms of Lauds doesn't seem to have occurred until the fourteenth century, and then only in selected locations.

There are also purely practical reasons for the development of sets of festal psalms, namely limiting the number of different psalm tones that have to be learnt, given that antiphons can require any of ten different psalm tones (ie the 8 standard tones plus the tonus peregrinus and the tonus irregulariter) to be used.  As the Office chants became more elaborate, and the number of feasts proliferated, this was perhaps increasingly important.

Personally though, I have to admit a strong attachment to the ferial psalm cursus, given the careful selection process that clearly went into it, and would prefer to see it restored.

Nonetheless, the last few posts in this series look at each of the festal psalms.

You can find notes on the first of them, Psalm 92, here.

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