The Divine Office: The Lyrical Song of Christ

In the southern woods of Austria there lies a little town called Heiligenkreuz. In the center of this quaint and pleasant village rises a beautiful, ancient Monastery called Stift Heiligenkreuz, the Abbey of the Holy Cross. I had my first glimpse of this beauty while poring over its photos in a book. I was utterly enchanted, for I am a hopeless Medieval and embrace with wholehearted enthusiasm the gifts this wondrous age offered the world and offers still. Its jeweled tomes and Illuminations fill me with a swift and sudden warmth I cannot explain, the ancient chants of its son Gregory stir my soul to praise like no other music can, and the much worn and weathered stone Churches reveal exquisite glass windows as you open their heavy doors like the covers of a gorgeous picture book. They tell me the story of my salvation as I wander slowly from window to window.

But it is the monks I love best. Bernard, Aelred, Benedict.

This enthusiasm for Medieval things compels me to haunt Monasteries wherever I may find them in my own age – whether in person or in the pages of a book. I am especially drawn to one, particular, quiet space deep within the walls, where grace hangs as thick in the air as incense: it is the choir, the place of singing. It is here where the highest work of the Church is accomplished: the chanting of the Divine Office.

The Divine Office is the prayer of the whole Church and it is offered seven times throughout the day by monks the world over, monks who make a solemn promise that they will be there in their stalls with voices ready to sing psalmody for and with each member of the Church of Christ. It is an ancient prayer emerging from the mists of the past.

I have grown to love it because I can immerse myself in its steady rhythm and beauty. Whenever the monks are singing around me, I feel one with the Church; one with a Church that understands the drama of salvation. For praying the Divine Office is not unlike David dancing solemnly before the ark of the Covenant. Each of its books has ribbons that swing back and forth in a graceful nod to pageantry. The monks’ voices swell high and low, from one side of the choir to another, like waves on a sea of peace.

It is a great, solemn drama, this work of monks.

The Austrian Abbey of the Holy Cross has been enacting that drama uninterrupted since 1133. It is the oldest “working”, continuously occupied Cistercian abbey in the world; meaning that since that date, there have been monks singing the Divine Office continuously, without interruption up to this very day.

The Turks tried to burn it to the ground in 1529, but the monks, unperturbed, sang on day after day, even as they rebuilt it.   Emperor Joseph II could not dissolve it though he tried his hardest. And even Hitler’scommand that it be shut down was mysteriously never carried out. Imagine, the Divine Office being lifted up faithfully without any pause or break for 891 years!

This is a Medieval sort of romance that could be sung by a Bard – the faithful song of Lovers one to the other – God and His Church. Because of all this fascination with monks experienced early on in my life, I eventually took to praying the Divine Office as my own daily prayer. It has kept me near the monks in spirit and when I pray it, I feel I am there within the Medieval walls with them.

It is a place I feel at home.

As a result, I have been praying the hours on and off for many years now. However, I find that familiarity can sometimes dull the sharper, more focused meanings of things. I assumed I knew what I was “doing” as I prayed the office each day, but I discovered just recently that perhaps I knew, but didn’t know-if that makes sense.

My husband and I were invited to attend a talk given by a wonderful English Benedictine named Father Laurence. It ended up being a delightful surprise, for it was a talk on none other than the Divine Office. Father Laurence was lucid, deeply knowledgeable, quite witty and obviously quite taken with his subject as only a monk could be.

I experienced many an “aha” moment as he spoke. He started with a quote from the Instruction pages at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Hours, volume one.  As he read, it made me think of the wonderful scene in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew when the magnificent Lion sings the world of Narnia not only into existence but sings it also into fruitfulness.

“When He came to give men and women a share in God’s life, the Word proceeding from the Father as the splendor of his glory, Christ Jesus, the high priest of the new and eternal Covenant, took our human nature and introduced into the world of our exile that hymn of praise which is sung in the heavenly places throughout all ages. From then on the praise of God wells up from the heart of Christ in human words of adoration, propitiation and intercession, presented to the Father by the head of the new humanity, the mediator between God and mankind, in the name of all and for the good of all”.

The Divine Office, then,  is ” that hymn of praise” introduced by Christ to us from Heaven. It is His own prayer to the Father and He invites us to pray it along with Him. The very Psalter we are singing is actually Christ singing and simply allowing us to join in with our own voice. Father Laurence also added these luminous, reassuring words: “We are always heard because the prayer is His”.

So, even if we are tired, even if we get distracted, even if we feel nothing; if we persevere and pray the hours faithfully, the Father always hears us, because He is ever attentive to the lyrical voice of His Divine Son in whom He is well pleased and He accepts our own voices because they sing the very words and thoughts of Christ.

 There are proofs that this is so, even as we pray. How many times have we sung the hours of the Divine office and the tone of the psalms did not at all match up with our personal mood at the time? We might be very happy and joyous and be praying one of the lamentation psalms, or we might be sad and suffering and the psalm is full of joy.  This is a definite sign for us to fully realize that it is not our personal prayer.  It is the prayer of Christ for his Church and all the things that He wants to be praying about to the Father.  He is the primary speaker.

For me, this thought was such a revelation and a comfort.  It assures me that Christ is there beside me as I pray. We are sharing the same book. As I sing the words, He sings through me. I can almost feel him there physically now telling me what He wants to say to the Father through my voice.  We are praying His words together, He and I, so even when I am alone with my book, I am never alone. He sits quietly beside me.

This mystery revealed through the erudite words of Father Laurence filled me with a joy I have never lost since. I consider it a little gift of God laid gently in my hands as I turn the pages of my psalmody.

What will Christ be praying for today, I wonder with anticipation?

I share this gleaning of grace I received from Father Laurence in order to encourage you to seek out and learn to pray the Divine Office. You will be praying the ancient prayer of the Church. You will be lending your voice to the prayer of Christ. Each hour of the office is a Divine tryst that you, a mere mortal, will be privy to by some miracle of grace. What love the Father has for us to allow us to sing so intimately with His Son.

We must take up that song with as much faithfulness and attention as we can, even though we may seem to fall short so often in our weakness. No matter. Even when we are weak, the eternal song goes on and on – for 891 long years at the Abbey of Holy Cross all the way down to us alone in our living room turning the ancient pages for the very first time.

Christ will help us sing. He longs for us to sing, for this is the great drama of our salvation. Praise Him!


Image courtesy of Unsplash.

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