Monday, February 25, 2019

Useful Repetition in the Divine Office

On Thursday, February 14, I gave a lecture at St Mary’s parish, Norwalk, Connecticut, on “Poets, Lovers, Children, Madmen—and Worshipers: Why We Repeat Ourselves in the Liturgy.” (The full text of the lecture may be found here.)

Ever since I first read the words of Sacrosanctum Concilium §34 about how “useless repetitions” (repetitiones inutiles) needed to be removed from the traditional Roman liturgy, I have been on the lookout for instances of repetition as I pray the old Divine Office — or to be more precise, the monastic office as it stood in the 1940s — and as I attend Mass in the usus antiquior, and receive or observe other sacraments in the older use. After over twenty years of observation and reflection, I have still not been able to find a single example of a repetitio inutilis.

Yes, yes, I know the examples that people like to toss out, and in my foolish youth, I would do the same thing. It sounds sophisticated to be able to criticize liturgical practices that have endured for centuries: “You know, those poor Catholics were so conservative that they just kept these irrational customs in place, even though we now see clearly that they make no sense. Far better to streamline the rite, make it more logical.”

That juvenile point of view was replaced by a growing appreciation for the subtlety of the elements of the liturgy, small and large — even those that seem to have come about “by accident.” As Padre Pio once said: “With God, there’s no such thing as chance.” Such appreciation requires both the patience to await meaning and the imagination to see it, neither of which seem to be widespread in our times.

Examples from the Divine Office

After the hour of Prime [1] the Martyrology is read, and then prayers before the day’s work. These prayers commence with a triple “V. Deus, in adjutorium meum intende. R. Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina,” followed by a Gloria Patri, a Kyrie/Christe/Kyrie, a Pater Noster, versicles, another Gloria Patri, and an oration.

There is a lot of repetition here. I have no elaborate rationale to offer, but my experience, having prayed it for a long time, is that this arrangement has a steadying effect and is well suited to begging God’s help at the start of the day's work. The one who begs asks for what he needs more than once, indeed insistently. This is the origin of the Jesus Prayer and of every litany that has ever existed. Praying the Lord’s Prayer a second time, only a few moments after having said it at the end of Prime, typically alerts me to the fact that I had not prayed it the first time with due attention, which prompts me to make my second go at it more earnest. The same is true of the doxology: resisting the temptation to rush through it, one enters more deeply into the origin and goal of all of our actions, the supreme actuality of the Blessed Trinity.

A second example, and one of the most familiar: the Benedicite. Talk about a repetitious prayer! But once one is familiar with it and realizes that we are standing in for the whole of creation, transforming its mute necessities into voluntary praise, there is a special privilege in uttering the verses and a comfort in their lilting succession, like the rolling of waves: “Benedicite omnia opera Domini, Domino: laudate et superexaltate eum in saecula. Benedicite, Angeli Domini, Domino: benedicite caeli, Domino.”

The interruptions of the pattern prompt a reawakening of attention. After saying “Benedicite” 17 times, we say: “Benedicat terra Dominum.” After 8 more iterations of “Benedicite,” we say: “Benedicat Israël Dominum.” Then “Benedicite” is said 5 more times, until we reach “Benedicamus Patrem et Filium cum Sancto Spiritu” and “Benedictus es, Domine.” 30 times we say “Bless” as an imperative; 3 times we say “Let this or that bless” in the subjunctive; and 1 time we say “Blessed art Thou” in the indicative. A pronounced Trinitarian and Christological numerology undergirds this hymn, which is placed on our lips as a kind of litany of blessing admirably suited to Sundays and Holy Days.

A third example, also from Lauds, is the daily repetition of Psalms 148 to 150, which was done by everyone in the West for at least 15 centuries but now remains alive only among the monks and nuns who retain their ancient cursus. This trio of psalms puts on our lips some form of laus or laudare 23 times, giving Lauds its very name, and emphatically stamping it the principal office of pure praise in the Church. There is something captivatingly beautiful in a prayer that has no obvious “use value,” one that is not directed to obtaining a benefit or ridding oneself of an evil. The “gratuitous” repetition, as one might call it, both symbolizes that for-itselfness and serves as a vehicle for inculcating it in us impatient beings who are too often preoccupied with ulterior motives.

A fourth example is the refrain quoniam in aeternum misericordia ejus, repeated 27 times in the recitation or chanting of Psalm 135. A psalm praising the eternity of God’s mercy distantly echoes eternity in its unchanging refrain, like an anchor holding a ship in place, despite the churning waves. It may be hard at times to keep our minds from wandering as we repeat the phrase, but obviously the divine Teacher designed this psalm, as He did all the others down to their last letter, with the spiritual needs of each and every disciple in view.

A final example, and of a rather different character, is the indirect repetitiousness found in Psalm 118, recited daily in the Roman Breviary and once a week in the monastic (namely, divided over the little hours of Sunday and Monday). It takes no great intimacy with Psalm 118 to see that it is conceptually highly repetitive, weaving as many variations with “law, testimonies, commandments, statutes, precepts, judgments, justifications, and sayings” as the psalmist can devise. The Church puts this psalm consistently before us in order to fix our meandering minds and rebellious hearts on the unchanging law of the Lord, which is ultimately His eternal law, His very self, His mercy expressed to us as a rule of life in which we will find life. The layout of the psalm implies that in all the variety we see, in all the vicissitudes we suffer, and even in the seeming pointlessness of the neverending cycle to which Ecclesiastes bears witness, there is a single order of wisdom, a single manifestation of the mystery of God’s love.

So far I have spoken only of textual repetition, but a thorough treatment of our subject would have to include repetitions and seeming redundancies in personnel, ceremonial, gestures, and chant.

The Fate of Repetition

Some of these elements of repetition in the Divine Office were retained in St. Pius X’s breviary and later on in Paul VI’s Liturgy of the Hours, but sadly, many of them were lessened or abandoned. As the Mass was simplified by the reformers to make it briefer and self-explanatory, transparent and accessible, so too was the Office simplified and abbreviated for busy clergy — and this, in spite of the fact that a majority of the Council Fathers, judging from their speeches in the aula, supported neither major changes in the Mass nor a major reduction of the breviary.

Nevertheless, after decades of the new liturgy running alongside the somewhat unexpected survival of the old, it has been possible not only to conceptualize but to experience how the trend toward simplification, the abandonment of formalities, and the rude dismissal of aesthetic principles has brought about a damping of spiritual impact and a lessening of spiritual discipline.

Even the late Fr. Robert Taft, outspokenly anti-Tridentine though he was, admitted this point:
The West might learn from the East to recapture a sense of tradition, and stop getting tripped up in its own clichés. Liturgy should avoid repetition? Repetition is of the essence of ritual behavior. Liturgy should offer variety? Too much variety is the enemy of popular participation. Liturgy should be creative? But whose creativity? It is presumptuous of those who have never manifested the least creativity in any other aspect of their lives to think they are Beethoven and Shakespeare when it comes to liturgy. [2]
What he failed to note, however, is that the liturgy as it came down to us is already the equivalent, albeit on a far greater scale, of a symphony by Beethoven or a romance by Shakespeare. Like the cycles of medieval mystery plays, traditional Catholic worship has a depth, variety, color, and subtlety that defies simple explanation and resists simplification. Patterns of intelligent repetition are one of its most common and effective means for achieving a formal expression of earnestness and a mounting intensification of desire.

Whether, in practice, repetition always retains this value is a subject for the examination of conscience, but it is surely not difficult to see why it is a feature of every historic Christian liturgy, indeed of every religion known to man. From this perspective, the rather ruthless purge of repetitions from the Divine Office, the Mass, and many other rites is yet another angle from which to demonstrate the essentially unhistorical, unliturgical, and irreligious drive behind the liturgical reforms of the last century.


[1] It may be noted in passing that the suppression of the very ancient office of Prime, in and of itself, is sufficient to prompt serious doubts about the entire campaign of revision announced in Sacrosanctum Concilium, and allows us to bury once and for all the lie that the liturgical reform was about “restoring ancient worship.” See Wolfram Schrems, “The Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy: Reform or revolution?,” published online at Rorate Caeli on May 3, 2018.

[2] “Return to Our Roots: Recovering Western Liturgical Traditions,” published online at America, May 26, 2008.

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