26 Jun 2011

Chanting the psalms, daily prayer

An acquaintance recently called to my attention two paragraphs from the Second Helvetic Confession, one of the confessional standards of the Swiss and Hungarian Reformed Churches, as well as of the Presbyterian Church (USA):

CHAPTER XXIII
Of the Prayers of the Church, of Singing, and of Canonical Hours



SINGING. Likewise moderation is to be exercised where singing is used in a meeting for worship. That song which they call the Gregorian Chant has many foolish things in it; hence it is rightly rejected by many of our churches. If there are churches which have a true and proper sermon but no singing, they ought not to be condemned. For all churches do not have the advantage of singing. And it is well known from testimonies of antiquity that the custom of singing is very old in the Eastern Churches whereas it was late when it was at length accepted in the West.

CANONICAL HOURS. Antiquity knew nothing of canonical hours, that is, prayers arranged for certain hours of the day, and sung or recited by the Papists, as can be proved from their breviaries and by many arguments. But they also have not a few absurdities, of which I say nothing else; accordingly they are rightly omitted by churches which substitute in their place things that are beneficial for the whole Church of God.

There are a number of things erroneously rejected by many of the Reformers, whose knowledge of antiquity was not always accurate, including the sursum corda in the Lord's Supper and the sign of the cross. In this case the authors of the Confession appear to have been unaware that chanting the Psalms in the course of daily prayer has ancient roots in the church, extending back into biblical times. See, for example, Psalm 119:164: "Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances." Also Daniel 6:10: "[Daniel] got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God. . . ." And Acts 10:9: "Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour." Following scripture, the Rule of St. Benedict prescribed (or, perhaps better, codified) seven daily prayer offices for use in the monasteries:

As the Prophet saith: "Seven times a day I have given praise to Thee" (Ps 118[119]:164), this sacred sevenfold number will be fulfilled by us in this wise if we perform the duties of our service at the time of Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Complin; because it was of these day hours that he hath said: "Seven times a day I have given praise to Thee" (Ps 118[119]:164). For the same Prophet saith of the night watches: "At midnight I arose to confess to Thee" (Ps 118[119]:62). At these times, therefore, let us offer praise to our Creator "for the judgments of His justice;" namely, at Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Complin; and let us rise at night to praise Him (cf Ps 118[119]:164, 62).

Although St. Benedict intended these daily prayer offices for monastic communities, it seems evident that they were much more widespread in the early church. The Muslim practice of praying five times daily, which many westerners regard as strange, obviously has roots in earlier Jewish and Christian usage.

The Reformers recovered so many ancient things lost to the mediaeval church, especially the doctrines of grace. Yet, given what we know now of the ancient church and its liturgical practices, it is difficult not to conclude that in some instances they were too quick to discard usages that ought to have been retained.

1 comment:

epeuthutebetes said...

Sursum Corda link correction:

http://209.200.121.40/magazine/article.cfm?article_id=891