Wednesday, May 9, 2012

From the Office

I am a huge fan of the Liturgy of the Hours and recommend it for all. It is worth doing just to go through the Psalter regularly. The LOH is an obligation for some but for lay people it is an option. You can say any part you want and not say any part. You can do it regularly or irregularly.

There is a real pleasure and joy, however, in following the rules. Choosing one part,, three parts, five parts (five is what I do) or eight parts and saying them every day according to the rules.

For a lot of people, the real gem of the LOH is the Office of Readings, also known as Matins. This is surprising. Under the old rules—back when, as a friend of mine joked, ships were made of wood and men of iron—it was said between midnight and dawn. Nowadays, you are allowed to say it at any time of the day. But I keep meeting people who tell me that they like to say it as soon as they get out of bed and that it is their favourite part of the LOH.

It is also one of the parts that was most heavily reformed. Under the old rules, it was more devotional and now it has been made, as the name suggests, an office built around reading of and thinking about texts. It shouldn't have caught on because it has something to offend everyone. For traditionalists, it is clearly reformed in a way that takes it away from the spirit they cherish and for reformers it is clearly the part of the office that requires the most discipline and also the part that is most closely tied with the tradition of the church because of the nature of the readings featured. And yet, despite being set up as if to put off both sides of the Catholic culture wars, this office is surprisingly popular among lay Catholic.

The big reason for its appeal is the readings. You get to go through sections of the old testament that otherwise never appear in liturgy and you get to go through them at length. This season we have been going through Revelation. (I say "we" because even if, like me, you usually have to say the office alone, you do so knowing that others all over the world are saying it with you.) Along with the old testament reading, there are readings ranging from the early church fathers to Vatican II.

These second readings are magnificent. We Catholics are poorly catechized nowadays and most of us wouldn't otherwise get a chance to read this stuff.

This morning's second reading is a real gem from the letter to Diognetus. Here is how it starts:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based on reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living, whether it is Greek or foreign.
Confronted with a text like that, I think we need to start with the strangeness of it. Think of "whatever city ... whether Greek or foreign". There were "Greek" cities all over the know world when this letter was written but no Greek empire. That's a hard thing for us to imagine. Imagine world in which you might find a city following English customs with pubs and double decker buses in Mexico and in Syria and in India but with no political ties to England. Imagine what it would be like if all Syrians had the choice of remaining in their own cities and living one set of customs or moving to this English city and living a more cosmopolitan life inspired by 1920s London. Something like that was true of the soil that Christianity sprung from.

And who are these other people the writer is after? At least one of the things that is going on in this reading is that the writer is distinguishing Christians from Gnostics. You see it here:
Like others, they marry and have children ...
This was something the Gnostics tended not to do.  On the other hand, there is clearly a dualism at work in this reading. It is not the hard dualism of the Gnostics but it is dualism.

There is other puzzling and yet familiar stuff.
They share their meals but not their wives.
And you think, Who did share their wives? Probably, not the Gnostics because they were misogynists who regarded female sensuality with disgust. Not the Romans for whom female adultery was punishable by death. The Greeks perhaps? Or is this a refutation of some criticism that was hurled at early Christians because wives were very much part of their communal social gatherings?

The main message is about the knife edge balance of living as an alien (metic) in the world but not of it. The knife edge of enjoying the pleasures this world offers but not being ruled by them.
They live in their own countries as though they were passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh.
This is not a lament like a blues song—"wherever I lay my hat, that is my home"—nor is it an excuse for licentiousness as , again, in a modern blues song. This life is presented as a blessing. There is no pleasure a Christian has to forgo to be a Christian: you can have sex, eat good food, believe in Darwin but you do all this conscious that your real purpose, your real life, lies elsewhere.

Does that speak to you?

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