Bring back The Office

No, not this one. Or that. The original.

Because repetition is the mother of all learning.

I am frequently struck by the extent and depth of the biblical knowledge of the fathers—the apostles, the fathers of the early church, the Mediæval doctors, the Reformers and the great theologians of the late-16th and 17th centuries. How did they manage to absorb the Scriptures so thoroughly?

This facility with the Bible is most obviously demonstrated in two features of their writing. First, there are the frequent minor errors in quotations and references, which show that the author is quoting from memory. Secondly, it’s frequently difficult to tell where the Scripture reference begins and ends, because the author’s language is so thoroughly suffused with biblical language as to blur the edges. (In NT scholarship, there is talk of “echoes” of Old Testament in the language of the apostles.)

Nor is this biblical facility restricted to professional theologians. I remember being struck, when preparing a performance of Heinrich Schütz’s Seven Last Words, to see that the composer grossly misquotes John’s reference to the hyssop branch used to offer a vinegar-filled sponge to Jesus. It’s obvious that (a) he had forgotten what hyssop was and, therefore, (b) he can’t have been copying the words down from a book, but rather from memory. He got all the other words verbatim.

How did they manage to learn so much, so well—all without Navigators flash cards?

The answer (at least part of it): the Office. The Liturgy of the Hours.

From time immemorial, the Christian Church has marked each day, and different parts of the day, with the Word of God and prayer. The form of these services has varied from time to time, from one place to another, and from one setting to another. But it has always been there.

When the Lutheran reformers, or the later Lutheran theologians, were little lads at school, they participated in the Daily Office. At the very least, each day began and closed with a service where they sang the Psalms and heard readings from the Old and New Testaments (as well as the Apocrypha). Day in, day out. Year after year.

Then they went to university (or the monastery), and carried on doing the same, or in the case of the monastery, an awful lot more of the same.

And then they were ordained, so they continued to do so as part of their vocation in the church.

A whole lifetime of singing, hearing, reading the Scriptures, twice-daily or more. Repetition upon repetition.

And so they learned.

Looking back at the brief history of my church, there is much that is good, worthy of gratitude. Some things I wish hadn’t happened, and some things I wish that had happened.

I do wish that from the very start, all pastors would have been encouraged—nay, instructed—to observe the Daily Office in their churches, and to encourage all members of their congregations to attend these services as much as possible, so that priest and people alike grow in the Scriptures.

As of this autumn, that is what has started to happen in my congregation (see details here and here). I have been saying Matins privately for years, mostly silently in my study. A few months of public recitation of the Psalter and the reading of Scripture has already made a significant difference.

I started at 40. God willing, if I’m as average as I appear in other respects, I may have another 40 years to go. If in those 40 years I absorb a small part of what Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Gerhard, Schütz or Bach absorbed, I will consider myself blessed.

P.S. I am increasingly convinced also that assigning the same melodies to the same Psalms is an important tool in the learning. If I ever edit a Psalter, each Psalm will have its appointed chant. But that’s really another topic for another post.

What’s with all the Psalm chanting

From last Sunday’s service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church

Where do we have Psalms in the service?

The Introit, the Gradual and (often) the Alleluia Verse are portions of Psalms. Sometimes, a whole Psalm takes the place of the Gradual. Also, some of the hymns we sing are paraphrases of Psalms (such as The Mighty Fortress and Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven).

Why do we have Psalms in the service?

The Psalms are the hymn book of the Bible. They are the only hymns Jesus would have sung (e.g. Matt 26:30), and they have always been the chief songs of the church (Col. 3:16). When we sing the Psalms, we are singing the same songs that the people of God have sung since the second millennium bc! And when we sing the Psalms, we are singing words that God has given for us to sing. So why wouldn’t we sing the Psalms?!

Why do we sing the Psalms?
Psalms are songs. They were written to be sung. In fact, there are still some musical instructions left in the book of Psalms in the Bible—although unfortunately we no longer know what they mean.

So singing the Psalms is like singing the hymns. They are meant to be sung. And speaking the Psalms are like speaking hymns: not wrong, but not the full experience.

But why do we chant?

The Psalms are ancient poems, written with a very different idea of what singing is from our own. Unlike in the hymns in our hymnal, there’s no regular meter. Therefore, it’s almost impossible to set them to a regular, repeated tune.

As a result, the way Psalms have been sung for at least 1,500 years (and possibly much longer) is by chanting, where most of the words are sung to a repeated note, with other notes only at the ends of phrases. This way, it’s possible for the congregation to sing together with a simple melody. The only alternatives are speaking (but see the previous question), or writing an enormously long melody that covered the whole Psalm—but that would be very hard to learn!

But since the word ‘chant’ just means ‘song’, you can just say that we ‘sing’ the Psalms if that sounds better to you, and it would be just as true.

Prayer: Learning by imitation

So prayer is something we have to learn. A child learns to speak because his father speaks to him. He learns his father’s own language. That is how we learn to speak to God, for God has spoken and still speaks to us. His children learn to speak to him in the language of their Father in heaven. We begin to pray by repeating to God his own words.We are to speak to him not in the false and confused language of our own hearts but in the clear, pure language in which God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ, and in that language he will hear us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible (Oxford: SLG Press, 1982), 2