Friday, September 20, 2013

A Dialogue of Forms

Almost a month ago now, I was blest to visit Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in the Tulsa Diocese. They are a Benedictine community using the extra-ordinary form of the liturgy. Descendants of the famous Solesmes monks in France, their spirituality is thoroughly liturgical with much attention given to the chant, which they sing with much grace and beauty. During my short time there, just two days, observing and praying with the monks, there were several aspects of their liturgical life in the extra-ordinary form that struck me, and after some thought shed light upon certain aspects of the ordinary form.

The first of these observations has to do with a distinction within the monastery that the Clear Creek monks have kept. The distinction is between choir monks and lay brothers. The choir monks are obligated to be in choir for all nine hours of the divine office. While not a strange expectation particularly within the Benedictine tradition, this obligation struck me when during the day time hours only half of the monks showed up! Indeed, only the choir monks attended. The lay brothers, who are not required to be in choir for all nine hours, were still outside working hard to sustain the life of the monastery. This seemed quite odd to me at first, but after some inquiry it began to make sense to me.

In fact, this distinction made within the monastic community is old, ancient even. It goes back to the first communities that Benedict started. While St. Benedict always required work and prayer (ora et labora) from his monks, there remained a certain amount of work that just could not be accomplished within the short breaks between prayer. Work such as building, harvesting, etc…required a great deal of time which would in the end pull a choir monk away from his duties in chapel. Yet this work was all too necessary for the self-sufficiency of the monastery, something very dear to the Benedictine tradition in the way they live out the vow of poverty. Thus the distinction was made, the choir monks receiving smaller odd jobs around the monastery and the lay brothers spending long hours in the fields returning only for hinge hours (laudes and vesperae) and meals. It is this distinction and tradition that the Clear Creek monks have kept.

Upon further reflection, this observation shed some light on a practice that I have always had a hard time understanding, that is, the reduction of hours a cleric is obligated to keep. Part of the reform of the Breviary included the reduction of the obligated hours from seven to five. Now a cleric is only required to say the Office, Morning Prayer, one of three midday hours, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer. As it turns out this is precisely the same requirement that those lay brothers have. After their morning prayers (matins, laudes, and low mass) they head out to work only to return for lunch and midday prayer (sext). After another long stint working through the afternoon, the lay brothers return for Evening prayer (vesperae) and dinner finished off with Night prayer (completorium). Indeed, the secular or diocesan priest is now given the same obligation as that of a lay brother. I felt that this was a helpful connection since, 1) it gives some sort of precedent for the development, and 2) it puts into perspective the demands placed on the modern diocesan priest. Indeed, many days the diocesan priest like the lay brother is called away to tend to things that are all too necessary to keep up the Church. While this might be lamented, it is simply the reality. The structures of a Catholic culture and society are all but gone. This lack of infrastructure along with the shortage of priests places this demand upon the diocesan.

The second observation I made hit me while preparing for high mass late the first morning. The high mass was to follow Mid Morning Prayer (terce). After completing the last chant, I kneeled to get ready for the prayers at the foot of the altar, prayers which are said by the priest, server, and faithful before ascending to the altar for the initiation of the mass. But to my surprise there were none. Indeed, they began the entrance chant (introit) and incensing the altar. I was shocked and a little disappointed. I loved those prayers and looked forward to preparing by way of them, but they were…skipped?


As the mass progressed, I tried to think of why this might be. I recalled (with some lamenting) the practice in the ordinary form which in cases of combining an hour of the liturgy of the hours uses the psalms to replace the penitential rite. While I admittedly struggled to understand this practice, it dawned on me how much it mirrored what had just happened. Yes, the very penitential (although not a rite) prayers at the foot of the altar repeating the act of contrition twice for the priest and the server were skipped or omitted in favor of the preceding hour of prayer. Again, as with the obligation on clerics, I was relieved to find a sort of precedent within the tradition for this development in the ordinary form, as well as more appreciative of the logic in the practice. In fact many of the psalms are penitential and the prayers at the foot of the altar do include a psalm, psalm 43.