Friday, October 16, 2015

Songs of Praise and Petition: A Closer Look at Lauds

“Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized” (Acts 9:18 NIV). As the Lord opened Saul’s eyes through the hand of Ananias, I feel that Mary has opened my mind to an aspect of faith that I never considered seriously before: the recitation of the Office, the cycling of the Hours, the avenue by which millions of Catholic adherents offer their service to God the Father and the Mother of Christ. To be honest, one of the greatest challenges with this week’s discussion was understanding what the purpose of the Little Office of the Virgin was – Peter Damian’s Letters suggest it is an act of service and a way of refreshing and guarding one’s soul; but how can merely reciting Scripture be of any use to the Almighty? Or Mary, for that matter?

The thick sheaf of the collected Hours, plus its endless variations through different feast days, seemed archaic and impenetrable. But ultimately, it is the Psalms themselves and how they are presented that I think may hold some clue to unraveling the meaning of the Office. In class, we rushed quite quickly through the Psalms of the Matins; here, I will attempt to examine the Psalms and canticles of Lauds and the Little Hours in closer detail. I apologize in advance, but I will be skipping from part to part, commenting on details I find particularly interesting. All text comes from the Little Office version posted on the course website.

Psalm 92: Here I find the references to the Lord “clothed with Beauty…with strength…He has established the world which shall not be moved” to resonate with past imagery of Mary as the “wrapping” of God, the immovable world of His creation. The “throne prepared from of old” seems to refer to Isaiah’s prophecy that “the virgin will conceive” as a sign from God.

Peter Damian considers Lauds to be the Hour in which “the sun of justice dawns in our hearts…the whole Church celebrates with joy as she goes to meet her approaching bridegroom” (Letter 17, 147). This seems to be supported by Psalm 92, which emphasizes the immutable connection between God and the City of God. As a side note, note how Peter Damian personifies the Church as “she?” Recall Baltzer’s argument of Mary as a type of Church, one that provides the bridge between the mortal and heavenly realms? Could it be that such a belief was held by Peter D? He later describes the Church as “speeding toward the heavenly kingdom…pursuing her journey by night and by day, joined now in the praise of God…Later, she will see him face to face…” (154). I may be jumping the gun, but this line actually seems to dispel the idea that Peter equated Mary with the Church in the manner put forth by Baltzer – if Mary is the Mother of Christ, why should she be trying to reach Him in heaven? Is she not already there? Perhaps this characterization is representative of how Mary intercedes on our behalf and carries us to salvation?

The Little Chapter (Canticle of Canticles): This canticle is incredible! It contains so much of the imagery and symbolism we have discussed in the past, which I will attempt to capture here –
“O Queen of all the virgin choir, enthroned above the starry sky” – Perhaps a reference to Mary as the Queen of Heaven in Barker’s argument, in which she sits alongside Yahweh and the “starry host” associated with the ancient pantheon.

“What man had lost in hapless Eve Your sacred womb to man restores; You to the wretched here beneath Hast opened Heaven’s eternal doors.” – Again we see the completion of the cycle begun with Eve’s Sin, ending with Mary’s Redemption. Mary is the great Intercessor, the one who guides sinners to Heaven and pleas for mercy from her Son’s divine judgment of those who honor her.

“Hail, O refulgent Hall of light, Hail, Gate august of Heaven’s high King” – Mary is frequently compared to marvelous structures or impenetrable fortifications (see the Akathistos Hymn for a really long list of them), which is also seen in her title as the “City of God,” perhaps indicating how she provides refuge for her faithful, as well as how she acts as a temple and container for the Creator (“Hall of light”).

The Little Chapter (Isaiah 2:1-2): “There shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root, and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” This passage from Isaiah seems to refer to Mary, as the Antiphon assures her that “The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, Mary; fear not.” However, in Numbers 17:8 we see Moses’ witnessing of “Aaron’s staff, which represented the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed, and produced almonds.” Thus through the same sign of the budding staff did God bestow authority upon Aaron as the high priest of Israel, giving him the honor of serving His tabernacle. In class, we also discussed the close connection between Miriam and Mary, so I don’t think this reference is a coincidence – as Aaron received priestly authority from God, Mary receives the redemption of humankind – but does that make her the highest servant, or the tabernacle through which the rest of us can serve the Lord?

I will not go too in-depth in the Little Hours, but note that many of the Psalms, specifically 119, 120, 121 all seem to be appeals to God for help, e.g. “In my trouble I cried to the Lord and he heard me. O Lord, deliver my soul from wicked lips, and a deceitful tongue.” (Psalm 119). This is in contrast to the Psalms in Lauds, which were much more joyful and full of praise for God. It aligns quite closely, actually, with Peter Damian’s characterization of the nighttime Hours as defensive measures for the soul. His descriptions of the Hours could thus be more than just a mnemonic device for laymen, but actually summarize the purpose of each Hour.

All that, and we’ve only just reached Vespers? Let me pause here and reflect on what we have seen. Numerous references to Blessed Mary in her vast characterizations, praises and prayers to God for aid, and underneath it all, a sense that the Little Office is a lifestyle, a method of honoring the Theotokos and the Savior while simultaneously offering prayers and seeking blessings.

So how does this all fit in with my initial tension? It’s simple: what I considered once so foreign turns out to be quite similar to the songs of praise in contemporary Protestant churches. Every service opens with song, and the congregation continues to sing during Offering, and after the sermon. Praise is pleasing in its familiarity, but more importantly, represents the honoring of God and the bolstering of one’s own relationship with Him. We know God is great, so why sing it again and again? For the same reason that a king’s callers will announce his coming – we are His servants, incapable of matching His perfect deeds, and thus offer the only thing we have of value: praise.

Name above all names
You’re worthy of all praise
And my heart will sing
How great
How great is our God



  1. I like the idea of diving into the specifics of the specific Psalms read at the different hours. The Psalms were so integral to medieval religious sensibilities that it's almost impossible to unpack the incredible diversity of associations built into each one (perhaps an understandable result of thousands of people reciting these songs every single day for their entire lives, and then heading back to their cells to meditate on what they've just sung). I also liked your characterization of the Little Office as a lifestyle, the specific rhythm of the Psalms and readings (defenses, as you note, in the evening, rejoicing at Lauds) couldn't help but shape the lives of the singer and it might be very interesting to consider how singing the Little Office would shape someone differently than the other forms of the Divine Office. What does adding in such a focus on Mary do to the Divine Office, how are we changed as a result?

  2. You have captured beautifully the sense of the Office as a service! This is what medieval monks and nuns thought they were doing in singing the psalms day after day: singing the praises of God as God himself wanted to be praised. You also understood exactly the kind of reading I was trying to suggest we need to do of the Marian Office in order to understand why it was so popular: these are texts that (as dyingst says above) thousands of people recited day after day, every phrase becoming full of meaning for them. To read the psalms as they speak of Mary, my argument is that we need also to pay attention to their framing antiphons--the antiphons themselves function as frames for the psalms much as Mary frames God by becoming his mother. RLFB