Monday, September 19, 2022

Bulgakov on the Benefits of a “Tedious” Liturgical Prayer

Not long ago I was reading a fascinating book, Sergius Bulgakov’s Spiritual Diary—newly translated and published for the first time in English by Angelico Press—and found myself frequently nodding in agreeing with various points he had to make about life, the world, politics, and ecclesiastical matters. Written in 1924–25 in Prague, after Bulgakov had been exiled from Soviet Russia along with many other intellectuals, the diary offers a fascinating window on the interior struggles of a man who was longing for his fatherland and continually suffering from feelings of discouragement and confusion at the direction in which the world was going. (Sound familiar?)

In the midst of worldly troubles and personal woes, Fr. Bulgakov found a constant source of strength and peace in the Divine Liturgy, about which he speaks with glowing eloquence. I am reminded in this regard of Fr. Bryan Houghton, who closes his moving autobiography Unwanted Priest with the words: “You have in front of you a priest rejected because of the old Mass, but whom the old Mass alone keeps going.”

It was highly edifying to read Bulgakov’s defense of the need for commitment, persistence, and a certain ascetical violence to self when it comes to the rigors of prayer, including liturgical prayer. He says we will often be cold in soul and the only way we will ever warm up is by forcing ourselves to “go through the motions,” as if trying to let the body, the tongue, rule the soul, or steer the soul into its proper course. The presupposition, needless to say, is a rigorous course of prayer to follow, so that it becomes possible for the soul to awaken as it should.

Here are his words, written on May 6, 1924:

We must love the work of prayer and never slacken in it. People seek spiritual pleasures, and if grace ever shows its face to them, when it is taken away from them they languish and their soul grows cold. But the work of prayer—persistent, never slackening, tenacious—is the expression of our active love for God that strives to bind our sinful being and bring it to the altar. The Kingdom of God is taken by force [Matt. 11:12]. And this work never remains unjustified [cf. Matt. 11:19].
       At times you pray but the heart remains cold and callous, the tongue wooden. And yet, if you force yourself and make absolutely no concessions nor grant any indulgence to your laziness, after prayer the soul feels itself renewed, resilient, and strengthened.
       The same thing also happens when you attend church services and the experience is accompanied by a certain coldness; after this too do you feel yourself strengthened. Therefore, work, brothers, and even you, wicked servant [Matt. 25:26], work. For work is love, and the one who does not work and is lazy in love—his heart is cold. (58)
How different is this from the attitude of the liturgical reformers! They would solve the “problem” of modern man’s difficulty with prayer by shortening, simplifying, easing up the prayer, making it less painful, less demanding, less “worky,” to use a favorite expression of a dear college student I once knew. How foolish and myopic. One must make “absolutely no concessions nor grant any indulgence to laziness.” This is the ascetic way that leads through dryness and lack of desire to the warmth of love, tears, and contemplation. The Eastern tradition has never forgotten this. Why has the Western? Although traditional Latin enclaves are certainly many steps ahead in this regard, one still notices some cutting of corners. There are some who avoid the High Mass because it is too long and demanding; others who never pray part of the Divine Office (e.g., Vespers, which was once nearly as common as Mass). In traditional circles, rather than priding ourselves on the great good we have in the Tridentine liturgy, we should be finding ways to live still more fully a life of prayer centered on it but not limited to it.
The same book contains an appendix called Remembering Fr. Sergius, written by his long-time friend Sr. Joanna Reitlinger. In a wonderful passage she shares her recollections of Bulgakov’s attitudes about the Lenten Tridion and repetitious prayer.
Having been brought up in the church from childhood, Fr. S. grew up organically together with its life. While still a little boy—as he used to tell the story—he anxiously awaited when they would sing the canon, “Beneath the waves of the sea” and was afraid to miss it. This sacred and almost childlike attitude towards all the services of Holy Week remained with him for his entire life. While there was much that he criticized about the archaisms and rhetoric of our canons (especially those for the commemoration of certain saints, which were written without any inspiration), the services of Holy Week he singled out and considered particularly inspired. Not long before his final illness he once again recalled with enthusiasm: “‘O Lord, the woman fallen into many sins perceived your Divinity’—Exactly so!”
Note: he criticized these things in private, but he never sought to change them. He accepted them as part of the cycle of public prayer, with its peaks and troughs, its moments of sublime inspiration and its more humdrum business. Sr. Reitlinger continues:

He likewise highlighted not so much the intrinsically tedious content of our services’ interminable repetitions as much as the atmosphere they would create—especially our services at the St. Sergius Representation Church—during the first week of the fast [Great Lent]. Although these services greatly wore him down, he would return from church as if from a long journey in unknown lands, having scaled the great heights of the spirit, and would say that the soul in this season breathes the particularly rarified air of these heights. And thus even this private critique of these services in their particulars, which was entirely justified, became somewhat discordant, especially later in his life, with these feelings of his. He recommended treating these Holy Week services with even some superstitious fear: “do not skip them.”
       But many of our prayers seemed to him burdensome, archaic, unmodern. This was especially true of the rule of prayer for preparation for Holy Communion. We often spoke about this, how burdensome it was and how it did not correspond to our feelings and thoughts before the holy mystery of Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ. Despite this, he never allowed himself any sloppiness or nihilism toward the “rule” and recited it strictly. At the end of his life, when he was very weak, he almost always read them while sitting at his writing desk.
       As for the archaic canon of Andrew of Crete, he liked to poke fun at it; but as I mentioned earlier, he valued the atmosphere it created, as he valued the entire atmosphere of the first week of the fast. He even tried to define what the “magic” of this rhythm consisted of, locating it in the mysterious repetition of “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me,” in the mysterious sighs of repentance. (175–76)

Here, then, we see a man of immense learning who totally dedicated himself to liturgical prayer as it concretely existed, not as he might have privately wished it could be. Not for him a Consilium to turn everything inside-out and upside-down. Rather, he valued the spiritual fruit derived from even what seemed, to the flesh, wearisome repetition. The idea that there is “useless repetition” in the liturgy—a view that could be held with far greater reason of the Greek and Slavic liturgical rites!—would have struck him as verging on blasphemy. He knew that the Church’s prayer was too sacred, too strong, too far beyond the realm of the individual, to dare allow oneself “any sloppiness or nihilism.” He did what was written as to be done, even to his final days.

Such reflections could likewise be of benefit to those who pray the (traditional Latin) Divine Office (or any other lengthy liturgical ceremony) and who may find that its repetitions may sometimes feel “tedious or interminable.” There is a way to deal with such thoughts and feelings. It is the way we see in Bulgakov, not the way we see in Bugnini. In fact, I have no hesitation in saying the former was far more Catholic in mentality than the latter.

Prostration during the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

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