Saturday, February 03, 2007

Divine Office Prayer Books: The Divine Praises: What They Are and How to Keep Them (part three)

The discussion of the Divine Office in the Byzantine Tradition naturally leads to the question of where we, in the English speaking world, can find the volumes necessary to pray the Hours. For Byzantine Catholics, I am familiar with only two basic options. Both have benefits and drawbacks. One is more complete than the other but unwieldy, the other is handy but needing a reworking for ease of use.

For handiness, the Ukrainian Church wins hand down. The Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Stamford published a one volume edition of the Divine Office in 2003. This book is a step forward from earlier attempts at an English language one volume Byzantine Divine Office, such as the monumental Byzantine Daily Worship by Archbishop Raya and Barn de Vinck, originally published in 1969.

My deacon and I have started using this volume to fulfill our obligations to pray the offices on a daily basis. I recommend it, with qualifications. At 1373 pages, it contains a sufficient number of selections from the Ochtoechos, the Menaia, the Triodion and Pentecostarion to allow keeping the offices, with the convenience of all being contained in one fairly handy and handsome volume. The text is of a comfortable font and size. Rubrics are in red and each page features a nice red border. Six coloured ribbons allow one to mark the necessary pages to pray the offices.

There are drawbacks and shortcomings, however. These do not disqualify the volume, but should be considered by anyone pondering whether to spend $100 plus shipping.

The first shortcoming is the arrangement of the material. The common texts of the services are placed at the beginning of the book. As these pages get used most frequently, wear on them is inevitable. Placing them at the beginning of the volume immediately leads to a weakening of the spine. A better option would have been to follow the custom of the Roman Hours (proven through experience) and locate this section somewhere in the middle of the volume. While this may seem counter-intuitive, a service book so arranged is much easier to use.

Mirroring this shortcoming, the volume places the Troparia, Kontakia, Theotokia and other common hymns just before the calendar at the very end of the volume. This typically leads to several ribbons marking the Troparia, Theotokia and calendar, all bunched together. At the cost of a few extra pages, the Troparia, Kontakia and Hypacoe could have been distributed appropriately in the Ochtoechos section, leaving the Theotokia and common Troparia to share a single ribbon. The calendar might have been better placed just before the Menaia section.

The layout of the services themselves could benefit from a slight revision. A highlighter aids clarity in keeping Vespers and Orthros (Matins in this edition) as the order of the service printed is that of Sundays and Feast Days. That said, the only real complaint here is that the ending of the services requires that one refer back to the conclusion of Vespers. These 'variations on a theme' might have been printed on the fly leaves, similar to a popular French language edition of the Roman Hours. Not being very familiar with the Ukrainian usage, I'm not sure whether what appears to be several 'mis-locations' are errors or simply a different practice than that with which I am familiar.

An almost to-be-expected shortcoming is the presence of a considerable number of misprints, typos, if you will. Given the size of the project it is understandable that this would happen.

As to the texts used in this volume, the Psalms are from the Grail Psalter (second edition, I think; with jarringly silly "inclusive language"). The Scripture passages are seemingly taken from the New American Bible (don't get me started). The text of the services themselves would seem to be the approved English version used by the Ukrainian Archeparchy. Personally, I don't have a problem with this, although it is not the text familiar to Melkite Catholics.

Not perfect by any means; but as I said at the outset, worth a recommendation, if only a qualified one.

For a more complete option, the Melkites win the day. The Melkite Eparchy has translated and published the entire collection of Byzantine Christian hymn books. These are printed in superb, dignified contemporary English. The existence of this important wealth of spiritual wisdom (for hymns always have the double purpose of praise and pedagogy) has contributed much to my own personal spiritual growth and appreciation of the importance of the Divine Office in the Byzantine Tradition.

These books are designed for "church use"; that is, they are primarily for the chanter to use during a public communal celebration. The chanter's stand typically has a rotating top allowing several books to be laid out so that the seasonal, daily, and weekly hymns can be quickly located for a given service. With this use in mind, the volumes of this series are nicely formatted. However, for personal or individual recitation of the offices, these books, combined either with Byzantine Daily Worship or the recent Melkite Horologion (more on this momentarily), lead to the unwieldy reality of a minimum of three books in hand for each recitation. Not very handy if you're "on the go".

A word must be said about the Horologion, published last year. This is a beautiful book. Each 'variation' of the offices is printed in full, in a clear fairly large font. Rubrics are in red and a sufficient number of ribbons allows for easy marking of pages before the celebration. It is bound in black leather with gilded edges. It is handy yet designed for church use. However, it has none of the proper hymns and depends on other volumes for a complete celebration.

That said, the real drawbacks with this volume are: a) it is already out of print (although this could be a good thing; especially if a revised second edition were planned); b) in a slavish following of Byzantine Daily Worship (itself hard to find), one of the Vespers priestly prayers is missing and the Orthros priestly prayers includes an extra prayer apparently taken from the Liturgy just before the Gospel is read; c) there are slight translation inconsistencies and examples of poor grammar.

That said, naturally, as a Melkite priest, I prefer the Melkite books. Given the slow deliberate pace of their publication history, typos and other infelicities are generally avoided. If one intends to pray the offices at home, the several volumes necessary for Orthros and Vespers is not necessarily problematic; most of the books are published in a spiral-bound format making them easy to lay out and keep 'up to date'. For the whole set, one needs about $600, with shipping; but on the other hand, individual volumes can be purchased separately, taking the sting out of the larger overall expense.

As noted with the Ukrainian book, the Melkite option also is not perfect, but also worthy of a qualified recommendation.

An ideal solution would be a multi-volume set of Divine Offices books, similar to the Roman Hours. Each volume would have the basic texts of each office in full, placed near the center of the volume. The entire Psalter would be printed in each volume, divided into the traditional Kathismata. (The first edition of the Grail Psalter with a few grammatical corrections would work nicely in this capacity.) The basic hymns of the Ochtoechos, Menaia and Triodion-Pentecostarion would be included in seasonally appropriate increments. Similarly, Scripture passages important for particular celebrations would be included as well. (The second edition of the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition would be ideal for this purpose.)

I envision that the project would require five to six volumes, similar in size to the above mentioned Ukrainian volume. It would be costly, but well worth the investment. To achieve the goal of producing such a resource, I suspect several, if not all, of the English speaking (or English-using) Eparchies would need to pool the funds necessary. This would, in turn, require some compromise on a common text for the 'ordinary' portions of the services.

The benefit would be the availability of a practical and sorely needed collection that would soon become a standard resource, not only for the clergy charged to keep the hours, but for many of the laity as well. If carefully designed and caringly produced, a treasure of spirituality would be put in the hands of all English speaking Byzantine Christians that would be in demand for generations to come.

Is such project possible?


Is it likely to become a reality?

Insha'allah! ("God willing!")

Until then, the options noted above are the best we have. (If you know of others, please let us know!)

1 comment:

Eric said...


I've been searching high and low for either the Ukranian Divine Office and Byzantine Daily Worship for a reasonable price, e.g. the latter can be found on Amazon for close to $500.

Do you know where I should look?