Welcome to Saturday Book Review time! On most of the Saturdays this year we’re looking at a liturgy-related book noting (as applicable) its accessibility, devotional usefulness, and reference value. Or, how easy it is to read, the prayer life it engenders, and how much it can teach you.
My first exposure to liturgical worship was when I played piano for Mass at a Roman Catholic church during my undergraduate years. The beauty and purpose of liturgy didn’t really strike me until after I graduated, but during that time I did gradually get used to the different “style” of prayer involved and got curious enough to join a brief service of Vespers, which is akin to our Evening Prayer service except that it’s all psalmody and prayer with only one few-verse Scripture reading. We did this ten-minute liturgy from a little red book called Shorter Christian Prayer, which is a compact and simplified version of the four-volume Liturgy of the Hours that forms the full current Roman Breviary (Daily Office). When I graduated, I bought my own copy and used it sporadically during the summer and into my first year of seminary.
Shorter Christian Prayer was for me a gentle introduction to the discipline of daily prayer. The Anglican Daily Office is much longer and more robust – definitely a healthier spiritual diet, but there’s a lot more to bite off. This Roman book was like a stepping-stone on the path toward the real deal. It features a four-week rotation of psalms, which is close to our Prayer Book period of time, except this doesn’t manage to include all 150 psalms, even with a separate Night Office included.
Functionally, this book is tricky to use; you need to use it with someone who knows what they’re doing with it first, before forging off on your own. It’s very compact, abbreviating things as much as possible, printing the “Ordinary” (unchanging) elements in one place, the four-week-rotating elements in another section, and the seasonal “propers” in a third section. The Morning & Evening Gospel Canticles (Benedictus and Magnificat) are printed on the inside front & back covers, respectively, for ease of access. It all makes sense once you understand the system, but the learning curve is unpleasant. I don’t think I ever quite used this book right when I actually used it, ca. 2008.
Look at the Evening Prayer service start here. Those opening sentences are short for: “God, come to my assistance.” “Lord, make haste to help me.” “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” “As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Alleluia.”
A hymn follows, and there’s an appendix of hymns in the back (lyrics only). Then you get the psalms. To decipher what you see there on pages 208-209, there is an antiphon, followed by the Psalm (123), the “Glory to the Father,” then a psalm-prayer, then you repeat the antiphon. Then you repeat that sequence with the next psalm (124).
There is often a third psalm or canticle from elsewhere in Scripture, followed by a reading (which is barely ever more than 5 verses long). A brief responsory follows, which is sort of like an antiphonal prayer, then the Gospel Canticle (of Mary, in Evening Prayer here), with its own antiphon again. Then follow intercessions which are like our suffrages, wrapped up with the Lord’s Prayer, a concluding prayer, and the concluding blessing. You can get through all this in ten minutes or less, where the Anglican Daily Office is typically twice that length at least. And yet, the Roman office manages to be more complicated in a shorter amount of time.
Visibly, this book is attractively bound and its use of red ink for rubrics and black ink for text-to-be-read-aloud is very helpful. The typeface and artistry smack of 1980’s weirdness, but (being largely unfamiliar with liturgy at the time) I just took it as part of its charm.
On the whole, the daily office that this book gives you is one that is complex but short, varied in its content but frequent in its repetition of said content. You don’t get all 150 psalms but you do get a nice array of other canticles mixed in. The liturgical seasons have a much larger impact on the office than we experience in the Anglican tradition.
The ratings in short:
Unless you really know your way around liturgy in general, this book is probably too complicated to figure out how to use on your own. I think it’s meant either 1, for priests who don’t want to have to carry the full Liturgy of the Hours volume with them, or 2, for laymen who are following along the Office in the pews and are being guided through the service. Or perhaps, 3, for enthusiastic laymen who have already learned the Office and want to pray it on their own.
Devotional Usefulness: 2/5
It’s just the Daily Office, which is only part of your spiritual life. And given how anemic its treatment of the Scriptures is, you’re not going to get much meat here. The antiphons and psalm-prayers can really bring the experience of praying the psalms to life, though – it’s what woke me up to the joy and virtue of praying psalms.
Reference Value: 2/5
This is a modern version of what probably used to be a much richer and more complex liturgy in the Roman tradition. Looking at this book probably won’t give you significant insight into the depths of Papist liturgy, so its reference value is likely pretty low. That said, its rubrics are pretty specific (once you find them), and comparative study between this and our Prayer Books can be pretty interesting.
As a last word, I should add that apart from the Liturgy of the Hours, Roman liturgy also has an “Office of Readings” which includes more substantial readings from the Bible as well as certain Church Fathers and theologians. I doubt it still measures up to our Daily Office Lectionary, and the post-biblical readings are undoubtedly going to be unabashedly Papist in doctrine, so we’re not going to have much use for that. Though the idea of devotional readings from the divines of our tradition is one worth considering, albeit not in our Daily Office itself.
I am thankful for this book. Once in a blue moon I pick it up and pray the appropriate Office from it, mostly out of nostalgia and gratitude for the role that Roman Catholic chapel played in my Christian growth. But that’s not reason enough for me to recommend anyone else get a copy. Only do so if you plan on some comparative-liturgical study.