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.