Beyond the Black and the Red – Cathedral & Monastic.02

obsculta illumination

James D. Crichton’s “A Theology of Worship” (in The Study of Liturgy, ed. Jones, et all, 11) observes that “in contrast to primitive worship, where the action is dominant and the word has little role at all,” both Judaism and Christianity accord words a very important role.  Gerhard Lohfink confirms the “crucial” importance of words in Christian worship: “[I]n every sacrament we … hear the crucial words” (Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was, 57).  In a passage on the gravitas of liturgical texts I posted earlier, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev makes the same point and does so eloquently.  According to this view, the black letters, so to speak, of the liturgical texts need no improvisation or ad libs to make them somehow relevant or interesting.

But even if there is agreement on “just saying the black” in liturgy, there is the question of the attitude one brings to speaking these words. Another earlier post mentioned the emphasis monastic spirituality places on listening in contrast to cathedral prayer’s proclaiming/singing.  Here is a distillation of that discussion in a simple table.

Monastic Cathedral
Emphasis on listening to the words.

(E.g., entire psalter, spoken/sung meditatively.)

Emphasis on saying and singing the words.

(E.g., only a few Psalms that are sung heartily.)

Listening is so important in the reflections that follow, that I develop the topic further here.

Crichton’s passage quoted above continues by describing two reasons words matter in Christianity and therefore in Christian liturgy. They matter “first because faith comes by hearing—the word must be proclaimed—and secondly because response in words is the specifically human way by which man makes known to himself and to others that he has received the word” (11-12).

Since Crichton’s focus was on Christian liturgy in general, it would be unfair to expect him to have addressed the cathedral/monastic distinction. When I read this passage, however, I couldn’t help providing a monkish glossation on it.  So here goes.

Crichton chose “hearing” rather than “listening.” The former refers merely to aural perception, the latter connotes not merely hearing but giving one’s attention to what is heard.  And to do that, one longs for silence the better to listen.  It is no accident that the opening word of the Rule is obsculta (or ausculta), listen.  The RB’s prologue give the reason for this listening: so that the disciple can attend to the master’s teaching.  But silence and listening are so multi-valent, and all aspects of monastic life are so integrated with each other, that the opening word of the RB also includes a listening attitude that characterizes monastic liturgy.

Another monastic gloss on Crichton’s statement is that monastic liturgical spirituality fosters not a two-step process of first listening then responding by means of proclamation but the paradox of both hearing and responding at the same time.

Lectio divina (meditative reading), when done by the ancients, was generally done while speaking the words out loud. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, is so struck by seeing St. Ambrose read without moving his lips that Augustine has to comment on this exceptional behavior.  And the RB has to remind monks who wish to read during the rest period to do so silently.  This act of listening-while-speaking is not as readily accessible in the modern world.

Because one speaks and hears the words at the same time, these words naturally have to be pleasant to listen to. When monasticism has flourished, it has delighted in literature.  Even the mostly semi-literate monks of the Egyptian desert delighted not only in the poetry of the Psalms but also the elegantly concise apothegmata of the Desert Fathers.  The Carolingian Renaissance, fueled in large part by monastic culture, was a great flowering in literature.  Etienne Gilson has pointed out that the Cistercian reformers of the 12th century sacrificed everything except the art of writing well.

Nor was it enough to make the spoken words of liturgy beautiful. The spoken words became the sung words.  The first systematic movements towards musical notation in all human history were largely because of monastic spirituality.  Even before the golden age of plainchant from around the ninth through the tenth centuries, the manner in which monastic choirs prayed the Psalms would have sounded more like singing than speaking to us moderns.  But that simple chanting developed into a very sophisticated form of musical commentary on the texts that allows one to sing and meditate all at once.

(To be continued.)

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