Weaving Cathedral Prayer with Monastic Prayer-A Beautiful Seamed Garment

Living a life of prayer has been expressed in a variety of manners throughout history. Answering St. Paul’s enjoinder to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) is a high bar, and there are many ways to seek such a lofty goal. For example, should we pray in a manner that embraces the Bible holistically by incorporating all of it, or should we pray by emphasizing the passages or books of the Bible that speak most clearly to life? The breadth of unguided prayer is a blessing and curse, as the same openness can be both liberating and overwhelming. Conversely, a guided approach to prayer where we select some key passages may give a focus that is beneficial, but not uncover all of the facets of the faith lived out in the Scriptures. The various rules for communal liturgical services in the monastic and cathedral offices of the East brought unique strengths that have parallel potentials for weaknesses. By forming a hybrid office in the Byzantine rite, these complementary emphases can offer its blessings to the entire world.
In the monastic offices, the strictness and totality of devotion opened the door to truly seeking God by praying through all of the Scriptures throughout more of each day. Thus, we read that the monasteries of Mar Saba and those in the Egyptian world divided the Psalter into Kathismata, which allowed all of the Psalms to be chanted. All of the other books in the Bible were likewise read in their entirety, though the exact division of readings is not fully clear. Focusing upon the Psalter, the Sabaite or Palestinian office has 20 kathismata which are read weekly at a minimum, and twice a week in Lent.
In the cathedral office, using Constantinople as a role model, we can see that the practical realities of life guided the prayer services used in liturgical life. This more formally ritualized manner of prayer set the tone and context to the Psalms which were prayed by bringing certain Psalms to the forefront at the expense of reading all of the Psalter. For instance, we are brought to consider the morning in the first hour by praying Psalms 3 and 5 (respectively), which is fitting giving our arising from sleep. We pray Psalm 50 at Matins and at Compline outside of the Paschal season to ensure an attitude of repentance sets the tone for our day. Likewise, we consider the call to pray at noon and we meditate upon Christ’s betrayal at the 6th hour when He was crucified as we pray Psalm 54, and at Vespers we consider the setting of the sun and our deep need for God by praying Psalm 140. Thus, in specifying Psalms to meditate upon through the cathedral office, we are guided to a proper orientation towards the world, but we are admittedly not reading all of the Scriptures. If we only pray some of the Psalms, are we missing out? This limitation is something not required for those dedicated to ceaseless prayer in monasticism, but it does raise the question of whether the cathedral office is incomplete. The Bible may speak to non-monastics, even in less well known passages. How do we balance the goodness of openness and totality of prayer with a focused approach?
To respond to this tension, the Church formed a synthesis between these two offices. The Byzantine Typikon began to resemble both the Cathedral office and the Monastic approach by weaving them together. Kathismata were prayed during Matins and Vespers, and full services of the hours were taken in addition to Matins and Vespers. There were certain aspects kept and certain components discarded from each tradition. Nevertheless, certain practicalities and time constraints emerge, and some jurisdictions will tend to emphasize one over the other. For example, I do not know of parishes that read the Psalter during Matins, but the Kathismata are sometimes taken at Vespers. This is particularly detrimental when we look at the organization of the Kathismata, because at Vespers only Kathismata 18 and 1 are read outside of the summer system (from Thomas Sunday to September 21 and December 20 to January 14, plus Meatfare/Cheesefare weeks). Beyond this system, we would sing 4 other Kathismata beyond 18 and 1 At Vespers. By having the Psalter read only at Vespers, we only cover 6 of the 20 Kathismata assuming that we attend Vespers daily, which is quite the assumption.
In addition to practical failings which leave the Scriptures by the wayside, there are the realities of books that are lost because of the hybridization process. As mentioned above, it is not entirely clear how the Old Testament readings were parsed throughout the year beyond the Psalter. That there were readings in the Old Testament comes down to us today through the Vespers readings which are appropriate for certain feasts, but this lost a sense of contiguous reading. In contrast, New Testament readings not taken on feasts are largely covered in the Monday through Friday readings at weeks after Pentecost, with Revelation being a key exception. If “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” as alleged by St. Ambrose, there is potential for quite a bit of ignorance about the Old Testament with the Byzantine hybrid office.
What is the solution to this problem? I would argue that responding to this with a call for unguided prayer and reading of the Scriptures only perpetuates the possibility of ongoing randomness in readings. Instead, the faithful must be instructed in understanding where their favorite songs and hymns come from, and when we find gaps in what is covered in our current system, those gaps can be filled by reading and praying through all of the Scriptures. Because our faith which is lived out through the liturgical tradition is so Biblically rooted, people must be guided to know that this is the case conceptually and practically, so that a sense of ownership can be bestowed upon them and so the Bible will be prized more highly. So much can go “over our heads” if we do not see the rationale behind the liturgical life of prayer that we live out. Beyond that, I believe that as readings are understood, they must also be contextualized so that all of the Scriptures and their approachability may be made manifest to all. There may be many who have a different approach to solving this big problem, but if we work together to cherish all of the Scriptures, our life of prayer will come closer to the goal of praying without ceasing, as St. Paul challenges us to do.

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2 thoughts on “Weaving Cathedral Prayer with Monastic Prayer-A Beautiful Seamed Garment

  1. You have made some errors here. Many of the fixed Psalms are from the monastic tradition: The Proemial Psalm 103 at Vespers, The 6 Psalms ar Matins, and the fixed Psalms at the Little Hours. On the other hand the Cathedral Psalter had 72 “Glories” or Antiphons as its divisions and these were distributed between Matins and Vespers.

    • Glory to Jesus Christ! Thank you for your comment, Father Deacon. I altered the text on Matins and Vespers to emphasize the Psalms coming from the Cathedral office, as you advise. Regarding the Cathedral Psalter, I am not familiar with this development but believe what you’re saying. I guess I’m trying to make sense of the notes that I took on a liturgy course which stressed continuous reading vs. selected psalms as the distinguishing factor between the monastic and cathedral offices, respectively. Perhaps the Cathedral Psalter was less frequently cycled through? I’d be interested to know.

      Thanks!
      P.S. These are the notes that I was working from:
      “As Fr. Robert Taft affirms, the cathedral office had select psalms chosen for their appropriateness to the liturgical service (morning psalms chosen for matins; evening psalms chosen for vespers). Monastic office services, on the other hand, had the continuous reading of the psalms that followed their numerical order in the Psalter.”

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