The Simple Approach to Liturgy and Prayer

Like it or not, liturgy and prayer will always be under discussion by Church members. What and how we pray reflects what we believe, so it can never be a matter of indifference. Recently, however, I have detected a few rumblings that are worth thinking about because they go beyond the usual Ordinary versus Extraordinary Form polarisation that has characterised much public discussion in recent years.

First, there is Cardinal Sarah’s contention that to use an electronic device to pray the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours/Breviary is ‘unworthy’ and ‘desacralises’ prayer. As Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, whatever the cardinal says is of importance, but context is also important. For priests and religious, for whom the saying of the Office is of obligation, the use of printed books is usually no hardship. But for those who cannot afford them, especially the laity, or anyone on a journey or whose eyesight is impaired, or who is unfamiliar with the structure of the Office or the liturgical calendar, it strikes me as . . . unhelpful. Surely it is better to encourage people to pray with the Church than not? And if the intention is to unite oneself with all those praying throughout the world, the prayer one offers can never be ‘desacralised’, can it?

Here at Howton Grove we take the simple view: pray as you can, not as you can’t. St Benedict is much more concerned about reverence and the fulfilling of our duty of prayer throughout the day (and night) than he is about particular forms of prayer. It doesn’t mean we allow any slackness or shoddiness to creep in, but we do sometimes adapt things when we have visitors so that they can pray with us rather than just listen to us praying. An Office we usually sing in Latin may therefore be said in English; or if our visitors are unfamiliar with the complexities of the Monastic Office, we may use the Roman Office — even, tell it not in Gath, using an iPad ourselves if the alternative is to spend the whole Office navigating through a number of books on behalf of our bemused participants. Of course, we are a small community, but the principle is clear: being faithful to prayer and the times of prayer is more important that sticking to a particular form or the use of particular books, providing nothing is done that is contrary to Catholic faith or practice.

Another little straw in the wind was a recent article in the Catholic Herald by a millennial, pleading for reverence rather than liturgy wars. I don’t suppose the author will have any more success in achieving that than my generation had, but the point she makes is valid in every age. Reverence is the fundamental attitude we all need to cultivate. Everything else is secondary. Where the Mass is concerned, the church may be ugly or mean, the priest bumbling or inept, the congregation uninspiring at best, the language Latin, Greek or the vernacular, the music poor or non-existent, the whole experience uplifting or the reverse; but our devotion, our recognition of the Mystery we celebrate and our approaching it reverently and prayerfully is essential. Some will say that they find this or that form of Mass more reverent, mistaking an emotional reaction to a particular form for the inner disposition that makes us stand in awe of God. No doubt I would start a little liturgy war of my own were I to get onto the subject of liturgical history and the claims and counter-claims advanced by those who wish to argue for one form over another. Suffice it to say that the liturgy’s objective character cannot be judged by our subjective appreciation of its elements.

As nuns we have very little say in how Mass is celebrated and must sometimes grit our teeth when our personal susceptibilities are ‘offended’, but that doesn’t mean that the Mass is any less valid, any less important, any less wonderful. Indeed, paradoxical though it be, there have been times when a lacklustre liturgy and a weak homily have had the effect of highlighting the extraordinary nature of what we are about.

I should be sorry to end this post without some encouragement. I am heartened by the number of people who desire to pray with the Church and who devote time and effort to doing so. It has been a joy to me personally, and to our community generally,  to help some discover the riches of the Church’s tradition and to make a form of daily prayer an integral part of their lives. It has also been a joy to be able to share in Masses that were beautiful in every detail. But the greatest joy of all is knowing that prayer in the Church is unceasing, that at every hour somewhere in the world Mass is being celebrated, and that we are all part of that.


16 thoughts on “The Simple Approach to Liturgy and Prayer”

  1. I was blissfully unaware of the Cardinal’s comments about the use of an electronic device for praying the Office but I find it wrong in so many ways. Utter Tosh in fact!
    The Universalis App allowed me easily to pray Evening Prayer (or other offices depending on visiting time) at her bedside with my late mother in her nursing home. It continues to allow me to open the Mass Readings of the day on my phone at any point of the day, wherever I am and have the time and space to pray and meditate on them.

  2. The digital age has got to be the most effective form of evangelism since Christ.
    In many townships in Africa large screens are the only means to follow the Mass.
    Here in Italy many elderly priests use ipads due to poor sight.
    Sorry but here is another proof of the Vatican being out of touch with everyday life.

  3. Thinking of those communities in Asia that you drew our attention to yesterday. They may be without any books at all. Give a nun an iPad , perhaps?

  4. Thank you! I wasn’t aware either of the Cardinal’s remark. It was my first priest who introduced me to Universalis. I’d be lost without it.

  5. I too value having Universalis to avail of when travelling. That was my primary reason in acquiring a Kindle then an iPad. I can think of one occasion when I agree with Cardinal Sarah: in a catechetical session at the Madrid World Youth Day when a Bishop used his device from which to preach. It didn’t come across well because it appeared to be a means of capturing young people’s attention and trying to be up-to-date. That may not have been his intention at all, I hasten to add. But he was clearly not comfortable with it and his fussing about was truly a distraction. And on occasion when an iPad has been used to replace a Missal, I use ‘custody of the eyes’ as the best means of coping!

  6. I have used my iPhone for years for the Mass readings. It is lightweight and convenient. However, the device is also used for other, more secular, purposes. I suppose it could, therefore, be considered ‘unworthy’ but I personally love the combination of sacred and secular, divine and human elements of life.

  7. So balanced.
    Often the debates seem to articulate more a sort of prissy, High-Culture, snobbery, or dare I say, Ritual Epicureanism…

    The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended,
    The darkness falls at Thy behest;
    To Thee our morning hymns ascended,
    Thy praise shall sanctify our rest.

    We thank Thee that Thy church, unsleeping,
    While earth rolls onward into light,
    Through all the world her watch is keeping,
    And rests not now by day or night.

    As o’er each continent and island
    The dawn leads on another day,
    The voice of prayer is never silent,
    Nor dies the strain of praise away.

    The sun that bids us rest is waking
    Our brethren ’neath the western sky,
    And hour by hour fresh lips are making
    Thy wondrous doings heard on high.

    So be it, Lord; Thy throne shall never,
    Like earth’s proud empires, pass away:
    Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,
    Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.

  8. I usually use my printed Breviary at home, but if it was available as a download, I would probably use that. There is one problem with an electronic version – there is no pocket for the prayer cards or my diary of prayer intentions which is a vital part of my prayer time.

    However, I love the electronic versions for feast days as everything is there and in order, so we can concentrate on the prayer and not on page turning or swopping between many books for psalms, readings and hymns especially when it is in Latin and I can’t follow where everyone else is reading from.

    At church I use my phone to check the readings which is not easy on a feast day when there are alternative readings and Father Kevin uses yet another!

    Sometimes I love the simplicity of St Feria!

  9. I never regularly ‘did’ liturgy based prayer until I downloaded the CoE app for Common Worship. Like most in my generation, I’ve never encountered a prayer book in actual use, let alone become familiar with navigating one – printed service books have become so common. Perhaps this is where the cardinal in question (sorry, I haven’t done the background reading) sees some risk. An appreciation of structure in liturgy, or knowledge of how to put a service together, might be lost as we all start lazily following what we find digitally?

    • As I said, I think Cardinal Sarah was addressing his remark principally to clergy and religious, who have an obligation to pray the Divine Office; and if we are not familiar with liturgical principles, heaven help us! More seriously, I think regarding an electronic device as somehow unworthy of liturgical prayer is putting up an unnecessary barrier to participation by the laity or those with disabilities — but that is an interpretation put on his remark by clergy and others which the cardinal himself may not have intended. I just rejoice that praying the liturgy has become so easier for everyone.

  10. A very brave post today. It does threaten to be a divisive issue. Thanks in particular for your comments on reverence. Some Masses are more “appealing” or rewarding but like all prayer/worship the intention is not to make one feel good (it isn’t therapy or mindfulness). Rather it is to give praise and glory to God – let Him be the judge. I am sure reverent prayer in whatever form would be smiled upon. There are certainly too many people seemingly eager to side with a faction, while claiming to be part of the Catholic Church. They might do well to look at the meaning of the original Greek word which gives the Church the name.

  11. Since Iuse the 4volume version of the Breviary, I find the IBreviary app very helpful when I am traveling, and also when celebrating the feasts off saints not listed in the older version of the 4 volumes. As a Benedictine oblate, I say the office daily, so being able to use my phone or Kindle is very helpful.

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