Kwasniewski on Vocal and Mental Prayer

Peter Kwasniewski, writing over at New Liturgical Movement, has an interesting piece up: “The Denigration of Vocal Prayer in the Name of ‘Mental Prayer’: A Recipe for Disaster.” Written primarily from a Latin perspective, Kwasniewski contrasts devotio antiqua and devotio moderna, not so much to denigrate the latter but rather vindicate the former. Without trying to repeat the author’s findings, let me say that I agree with Kwasniewski’s assessment that the Divine Office in the contemporary Roman Church “has fallen on hard times” and this despite the fact that the Liturgy of the Hours (the preferred post-Vatican II name) has been available in the vernacular in decades and is far more accessible from a cost standpoint than Breviarium Romanum ever was. It stands to reason that more lay Catholics recite at least some of the approved Office now more than at any other point in history, though typically in private. Few parishes celebrate any of the Liturgy of the Hours publicly and the 1962 office is a rara avis even in traditionalist circles. Those traditional Catholics I know who recite at least some of the old breviary do so at home.

In Byzantine circles, whether Orthodox or Greek Catholic, communal liturgical prayer is more common, but probably not as common as some profess. For Orthodox following the “Slavic tradition,” Saturday Vespers before the Sunday Divine Liturgy is commonplace; larger parishes or those attached to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) often celebrate Vigil (Vespers, Matins, and First Hour) with varying degrees of completeness. Orthodox following the “Greek tradition” typically find Sunday Matins celebrated in truncated form prior to the Divine Liturgy; many Arab Orthodox parishes follow this route as well. Greek Catholics, at least in the United States, have some catching-up to do. Thankfully, the situation has improved in recent years. (For what it is worth, when I was growing up in the 1980s and 90s, Vespers was almost unheard of, and Matins was often reduced to a few hymns such as the Great Doxology.)

Of course, the offering of these services does not mean they are well attended. In Russian parishes, Vigil is also the time for hearing confessions, which means people will be moving in and out of church throughout the service. In those parishes I frequented that offered Saturday Vespers, it was a “good night” when 20% of those who would be at the next morning’s liturgy were there; often the percentage was between 5-10. Many Slavic parishes will also have the Third and Sixth hours recited before the Divine Liturgy, but often they are “background noise” as people arrive.

Reciting the Byzantine Office privately is a chore, but less so now than 10-20 years ago. For Greek Catholics, the Eparchy of Stamford and Eastern Christian Publications have published English-language editions of the Horologion (Chasoslov) that include as much material as practicable for reciting the daily office without additional books. For the Orthodox, Saint Ignatius Orthodox Press has done the same. Those with more ambitious budgets, whether Catholic or Orthodox, can now find a variety of translations of the Horologion, Octoechos, Menaion, Triodion, Penetcostarion, and Psalter available. However, the complexity of Byzantine rubrics and the length of the services themselves make reciting the office a daunting task for any except the most hardened liturgical nerds.

An open question, I suppose, is what (if any) impact the preference for mental over vocal prayer has had in Eastern Christianity. While the tradition of monastics reciting the Jesus Prayer repeatedly in private (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) is ancient, opinions differ on its contemporary prevalence among the laity. Various rules, such as those printed in old Slavonic Psalters still used by Russian Old Ritualists, indicate how many Jesus Prayers can be recited in place of the liturgical hours, though it is unclear how many ever followed these prescriptions. Moreover, some Eastern Christians, particularly Orthodox, take a low view of Western devotio moderna and mental prayer in general, seeing it as little more than a gateway to prelest (spiritual delusion/deception). Often ignored in these polemics is the extent to which modern Western devotional works such as Thomas Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ and Lorenzo Scupoli’s The Spiritual Combat influenced post-medieval Orthodox spirituality. That’s a quagmire to be waded into at another time, I suppose.