Review: Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary, Second Edition (Liturgical Press, 2015).
The imposing modernist façade of St. John’s Abbey casts a long shadow over the Minnesota countryside, an emblem of the dramatic influence this religious community has exerted on Christian worship in the United States.
In 1925, Br. Virgil Michel, OSB, a young German-American monk, returned from Europe with the seeds of a new religious movement. In midst of a diffident perusal of scholastic philosophy, he had met Lambert Beauduin, a monk of Mont Cesar in Belgium. Beauduin spoke powerfully of the mystical body of Christ, the communion between the Redeemer and his beloved people, expressed most profoundly in the Church’s liturgical life. A liturgical renewal, encouraging the reverent, intelligent, and active participation of the people, would lead to evangelical renewal and social transformation.
When Michel visited Mont Cesar, it was a Benedictine community engaged in a rather avant-garde program of liturgical education and simplification. He saw the liturgy come to life and departed with a clear vocation: to bring the movement to American soil, where his community could help disseminate its ideas across American Roman Catholicism and eventually to the wider Christian community.
In a whirlwind of activity, Michel established a monthly journal, Orate Fratres (now Worship) and founded a publishing house, the still prolific Liturgical Press. He led retreats, edited parochial religion textbooks, and spoke widely on the movement’s ideals. His enthusiasm was received warmly by the community, and several monks of the community became noted liturgical scholars, including Br. Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, who would serve as a peritus for liturgy at the Second Vatican Council.
St. John’s Abbey became, in time, a showpiece of the movement, sought out by the curious and devout as a center for robust and engaging liturgical celebration. As the Liturgical Movement spread into Anglican and Lutheran churches in the 1940s, the abbey extended its hospitality to visitors from a wide spectrum of American Christianity. Fostering church unity through liturgical study and common worship is a central aim of its Collegeville Institute, a fellowship program whose alumni include Henri Nouwen, Joan Chittister, Parker Palmer, and Kathleen Norris.
Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary is a fitting contemporary expression of this community’s distinctive charism for liturgical renewal and ecumenical cooperation. The first edition in 2005 was a successor to A Short Breviary (1941), one of the first English-language editions of the Roman Catholic Divine Office. It is in a series of revisions that have sought to keep pace with the changing patterns of worship at St. John’s, gathering the fruit of newly written and translated material.
A simplified version of the abbey’s ordo, Benedictine Daily Prayer is patterned closely on the Rule of Saint Benedict, and is substantially different from the better-known secular breviary, The Liturgy of the Hours. A full round of seven offices is provided for each day, and in keeping with monastic tradition its robust office of Vigils contains some of its most valuable material.
While the book’s introduction notes that over 200 religious communities have adopted Benedictine Daily Prayer’s 2005 edition as their book for daily prayer, it is designed especially for oblates of St. John’s. The monks made one of the oblates — Maxwell Johnson, professor of liturgical studies at Notre Dame — the breviary’s editor. Johnson is one of America’s most influential liturgical scholars, and a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The first edition may well be the first Roman Catholic liturgical book written by a Christian of a different communion, a new step well within the trajectory blazed by this community’s long tradition of ecumenical engagement.
Because the book is specifically designed with an ecumenical audience in view, there are some welcome (and surprising) concessions to other Christians. Scripture readings are taken from the New Revised Standard Version and psalms are listed with both the Vulgate and Hebrew numeration. Rubrics note when the feasts of some saints, like Thomas the Apostle, are kept on different days, and alternative propers are suggested for Anglicans and Lutherans not quite prepared to commemorate August 15 as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. With a few exceptions, full sets of propers are provided only for pre-Reformation saints, who may be honored without equivocation by all in the greater St. John’s community.
The greatest treasure of the work may be the carefully selected homilies, mostly from patristic sources, that have been selected for the Vigil offices of Sundays and feasts. These illuminate the eucharistic Gospels assigned by the Lectionary for Mass, which is almost always paralleled by the Revised Common Lectionary, and meditative study of them can be excellent preparation for preaching. The prayer litanies assigned for Lauds and Vespers are also exceptionally good, with short but evocative petitions, a rare balance.
The selection of material strikes a great balance between variety and repetition. The Psalter follows a two-week cycle, with a separate Psalter for feasts. There are two sets of psalms for the Little Hours: Psalm 118 (119) on Sundays and feasts and a separate cycle for other ferias. The offices are relatively short, and permission is granted for further shortening (one nocturn at Vigils and abbreviation of the Laudate psalms at Lauds).
The book is carefully structured for easy usage, with plenty of directions and clear descriptions about where to place them. It may seem a misnomer to describe a volume of more than 2,000 pages as A Short Breviary, but the length is almost entirely to assist the worshiper (e.g., due to reprinted psalmody and readings on each of the days when they are used). Anyone who has endured the unedifying experience of not being able to determine what to pray (much less of having to join a Facebook group to figure it out) will bless good Dr. Johnson for adding 300 pages or so to make things easier. The book is attractively bound, and is well-sized and sufficiently sturdy for repeated usage.
A few months of usage have revealed some shortcomings to me. The nocturns at Vigil sometimes vary annoyingly in length. The translations of the Breviary hymns are uneven in quality, and sometimes outright unmetrical, which would make common recitation more challenging.
The Grail Psalter is the cross that must be borne by users of the book, perhaps out of the deep local loyalty that also makes Minnesota winters endearing to the good monks in Collegeville. The current Grail translation is the work of a native hero, Abbot Gregory Polan of Conception Abbey, Missouri, who is both a graduate of the seminary based at the abbey and the abbot primate of the Benedictine Order. The translation’s deliberate use of simple words and sprung rhythm are in keeping with the ethos of the Liturgical Movement. Roman Catholic worshipers will know the texts as the standard for liturgical use throughout English-speaking Roman Catholicism.
But worshipers whose prayers have been shaped by the evocative cadences of the Coverdale Psalter or its careful modernization in the Book of Common Prayer will surely find themselves wincing at the translation’s seeming knack for being both banal and convoluted. Yoda may not have been a Benedictine, but one must wonder if he didn’t serve on the Grail Psalter’s advisory committee, when stumbling to pray Psalm 120 (121):
May he never allow you to stumble!
Let him sleep not, your guard.
No, he sleeps not nor slumbers,
The translation, in fact, repeats the word guard six times in this short psalm. The recitation of this text five days a week at Terce surely did not leave me guarded from impatient and uncharitable thoughts.
Taken as a whole, the blessings of this prayer book far outweigh its unfortunate and inevitable choice of a Psalter. It will be especially helpful to Episcopalians who sense a special affinity for Benedictine models of prayer, or who wish to expand their use of the Daily Office beyond the very limited options available in the Book of Common Prayer. It sets forth a life of prayer that is robustly biblical, theologically rich, and ecclesially gracious. Brother Virgil would clearly see it as a worthy heir of his founding vision.