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The Priest's Way To God

IT would be a mistake to make too sharp a distinction between the interior life of a priest and his external duties. All his priestly actions should flow from, and be animated by, his interior life. And his interior life can grow in depth and intensity through the proper performance of his priestly functions. In fact, any separation of the exterior work from the interior life is to be deplored; they are only two different aspects of the one same thing, the exterior work being but the expression of the interior life and love. This is especially true of the duty of reciting daily the diving office.

It is unfortunate that long prayers have become so associated in our minds with penance that we tend to look upon the recital of any vocal prayers of obligation merely as a penitential work, and to be concerned chiefly with the externals of its accomplishment. It is, of course, true that as far as the satisfaction of the particular obligation which is attached to the breviary is concerned, lip articulation is quite sufficient; and it is further true that, as far as fulfilment of the obligation is concerned, scruples must be ruthlessly avoided. But there is much more in the daily recitation of the office than a mere penance to be performed as a legal obligation under the penalty of serious sin. We priests tend to overlook, or at least to underestimate, the importance of one of the two aspects of our priesthood. As priests we stand between God and man. We speak to men and act on them in the name of God, but we also speak to God and worship him in the name of his people. It is this second aspect of our priestly vocation, an aspect which in many ways is its primary one, that we so often overlook. And even if we only consider the first-mentioned function—that of our duties to our flock—we still underestimate the importance of our breviary even in their regard. A priest seldom does so much for his flock as when he prays for them, and he seldom prays for them so effectively as when he recites the divine office.

Yet the primary importance of the divine office is its value as an act of divine worship. We know that when we as priests administer the sacraments, their principal effect is produced ex opere operatoindependently of our personal merits and fervour. We know too that when we offer to God the sacrifice of the Mass, we offer him something which has a value in his eyes quite independent of our own unworthiness, for in our offering he sees Christ both offering and being offered. But we often forget, or at least fail to realize fully, how much there is in the divine office that has a value and an importance of its own. It is of course true that there is no question here of the ex opere operato manner of acting that belongs to the sacraments. But for all that, our position in the eyes of God when we are reciting the breviary is so official, so representative, so ‘vicarious,’ that after the Mass and the sacraments there is hardly any other action which has a value—a great value—so independent of ourselves.

The very nature of the office itself suggests this.

The psalms and canticles which form the greater portion of it are the inspired work of the Holy Spirit. The rest is composed by the Church which has the aid of the Holy Spirit in all that concerns divine worship. So that in its content alone the breviary has a value—if one may so speak—in the eyes of God. To this there is added the fact that the priest reciting the breviary is not merely praying privately in his own name; he is an official representative of the whole Church speaking to God in her name and speaking with her claim to be heard. His own personal defects and demerits do not affect his official status and importance. He comes before God as a representative of the Church which Christ loved and for which he delivered himself. The voice of the priest is the voice of the spouse, and has all the claim to be heard and the power to please that such a divinely redeemed spouse has. For this reason alone we priests should attach a very great importance to our recitation of the office, both as a means of satisfying God’s claim to worship and praise, and also as a means of interceding with him for the needs of our people and of the whole Church.

But there is far more in it than that. For the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, and when she speaks to the Father, Christ the Son of the Father is one with the Church, and he speaks too with her and in her. This is no mere metaphor. St. Augustine is most insistent on this union of Christ with the Church in the Church’s prayer as is evident from the following quotations:

‘We pray to him in the form of God; he prays in the form of the slave (i.e. ourselves). There he is the Creator; here he is in the creature. He changes not, but he takes the creature and changes it into himself, making us one man, head and body with himself. We pray therefore to him, and through him and in him; we pray with him and he prays with us; we recite this prayer of the psalms in him and he recites it in us.’

St. Augustine, In Ps. 85

‘Let him rise up, this one chanter; let this Man sing from the heart of each of us, and let each of us be in this Man. When each one of you sings a verse, it is still this one Man that sings, since you are all one in Christ.’

In Ps. 122, 1

‘You should of course consider that each of you is speaking but that primarily this one Man is speaking who reaches to the ends of the earth.”

In Ps. 142

This is the great importance of the office: it is the prayer of Christ said by Christ to the Father of Christ, and when we recite the office, we enter into Christ, we put on Christ, we are one with Christ. In each of us the Father sees and hears Christ, his well-beloved Son in whom he is well pleased.

This view of the divine office will do much to correct the many mistakes we make in our attitude to it. First of all, we frequently complain that we find more devotion in other prayers and that the divine office does not arouse our fervour. No priest needs to be reminded that feelings of devotion are secondary and that their absence does not lessen the value of our prayer; such a ‘dry’ prayer, in fact, may be most valuable. But that is not really the point. It is not so much a question of replacing dryness by devotion or coldness by fervour. It is a question of replacing ourselves, of getting rid of ourselves, and of substituting for ourselves the person and the prayer of Christ.

Here we may note the importance of true humility which has occupied us so much in previous chapters. The truly humble man is never surprised at his own failure in prayer, nor does he presume to pray in his own name. Knowing what he is, and remembering what God is, he recognizes immediately his own complete inadequacy to pray to God as he should be prayed to, and he instinctively abandons himself and goes in search of Christ, who alone can pray to God and praise him adequately. And the man of faith and humility knows with complete certainty that Christ is only too willing to be found and to co-operate in such prayer and praise. Did he not tell us himself that he must be about his Father’s business? And the man of faith, thus led by humility to seek Christ, takes up the breviary and, opening it, calls on God to come to his aid and then, united to Christ, allows him to use the lips of his creature to pray to the Father and to praise him in the name of his Son. If we but knew the gift of God! If we could only realize how completely Christ supplies for all our deficiencies when we say the office united to him by faith! The role of faith here is of essential importance. The just man lives by faith and it is by faith that Christ lives in our hearts. Faith must animate and rule our use of the breviary. It requires faith to realize all that the breviary should mean in a priest’s life.

For in actual fact there is but one Priest, Christ himself, and we are only participators in his priesthood. And there is one great prayer of that Priest who, as the Word of God, is the only adequate praise of God; and, after the Mass, we have no more effective way of making that prayer and that praise our own than by reciting the divine office.

But it is important that we do not make the mistake of expecting to find a personal application for all the words of that office. Their full application is to be found in some member of that Mystical Body of Christ in whose name we are praying. We praise God on behalf of all creation; we thank him, we beg his grace and mercy, not merely for ourselves, but for all mankind. Many of the texts that the Church puts on our lips could refer to some soul under persecution, being tortured for his faith. Many texts, too, find their full application in the case of sinners who, having lost the grace of God, cannot come back to him unless he gives them grace. This, in fact, is a most important aspect of our official prayer as priests. There is no soul so helpless as the soul in mortal sin. No temporal privation or need, however urgent, can constitute such a claim on our charity as the supernatural needs of the soul in sin. It was particularly for such souls that our Lord came on earth and suffered and died. We must try to partake of his compassion for such souls. And apart from the Mass, there is no more effective way of helping these souls than by the recitation of the divine office. It is unfortunate that this apostolic aspect of the divine office is so often overlooked. It is true that many priests do realize that prayer is their primary task in the work of converting souls, though the realization is by no means so widespread or so complete as it should be. But even when the need of prayer in the apostolate is duly recognized, the supremacy of the divine office is overlooked and we have recourse to other prayer, personal prayer, much more dependent on our own dispositions than the official prayer which we say in the name of the Mystical Body of Christ. It is true that such personal prayers have their place and their importance; but they should not be allowed to supplant the divine office in our estimation or in our choice. There is no prayer more effiacious in drawing down the graces we need for our own souls or for those in whom we are interested.

We have mentioned the need for faith, and we should like to emphasize it, for its importance is not confined to the divine office. Sooner or later, all real progress in the spiritual life leads to a state where one must live and walk and work by faith. God hides himself and we can only believe in him. He hides his grace from us and even his readiness to grant it to us, and we must believe in his goodness and mercy. He hides from us the fruits of our labours in his vineyard, and yet we must continue to work by faith. It is true most priests have experienced obvious answers to prayer; but the time comes sooner or later when our prayers seem to lose their efficacy. This is particularly true of the divine office. Its generality, its vagueness of application, its extensive reference, conspire to hide from us its value. The fruit of our recitation of the psalms may be found in some other vineyard far from the scene of our own labours and may remain quite unknown to us. In fact the whole of the spiritual life may come to share in this apparent futility. St. Francis de Sales uses the comparison of a musician who has become deaf and who has no means of knowing whether he pleases those for whom he plays. The comparison can often find an application in the case of a priest reciting his office. For the moment, it has no appeal for himself; it seems dry, difficult, hard to understand, and incapable of exciting any devotion. Yet the priest must believe. He has the authority of the Church to rely upon, and he should always remember the insistence with which our Lord instructed his apostles about the essential principle of fruitfulness in the apostolate, which is to abide in him. How can we better abide in him than by entering into his prayer and making it our own? And in that very same instruction of our Lord, we should find an explanation for the aridity and difficulty that the divine office often assumes; for did he not warn us that when we had begun to bring forth fruit by abiding in him, his Father, the good husbandman, would purge and prune us so that we might bring forth more fruit? We have to be careful that, when God thus begins to lead us on to better things and to a more fruitful apostolate, we do not oppose his good work by throwing ourselves into activities where at least some meagre fruit is apparent and where our natural energies find some satisfaction in their activity. It is this very tendency and satisfaction that God wishes to ‘purge.’ The apostolate is, in all its branches, a supernatural work. It must be done by supernatural means, and one of the primary supernatural means is prayer, especially the prayer of Christ which we make our own in the divine office.

To appreciate properly the significance of the divine office one must have faith, and that faith must include not merely the prayer of Christ but Christ himself. We know that the merits of Christ are infinite and that these merits are shared with his Mystical Body, the Church. When, then, we pray in the name of Christ, we have these infinite merits of Christ pleading in our favour and outweighing all human demerits which could lessen the appeal of our prayer or obstruct its efficacy. This confident trust in the merits of Christ is one of the most important dispositions which must be ours when we come to say the office. The acts of faith and of hope which are required must be deliberately produced as a prelude to our prayer. We should not forget the part played by our will in these acts and we must decide to believe in God, and decide to hope in God, because he is God.

When it comes to the actual recitation of the office, many practical problems arise. They vary so much from one man to another that it would be hopeless to attempt their solution here. There is of course the general difficulty of sustaining one’s attention and avoiding distraction. St. Thomas’ doctrine on attention at prayer is well known: we may attend to the saying of our prayer, we may attend to the words we say, or we may attend to him to whom they are said. The special nature of the office adds a further possibility, for we may also attend to the Person who is saying the office with us, the Person who is really saying the office.

This possibility should open a way for many priests to approach the breviary with renewed zeal and courage. Experience has taught most of us something of our own limitations and of the inadequacy of our own prayers. An increasing realization of the nature of God, of his infinite perfection and goodness, adds a further motive for us to seek competent aid in praying to him and praising him. True zeal for his glory makes us seek union with Christ, who alone can give his Father adequate glory. True zeal for souls makes us cleave to the divine Saviour who came on earth to save souls, and who alone can properly intercede with his Father on their behalf. Turning then in this spirit to the divine office, we find there by faith our divine Saviour to whom we can ‘attend’ while we are reciting the words dictated by his Holy Spirit or provided by his spouse. The very commencement of the office is an appeal for such help: ‘Deus in adjutorium meum intende: Domine ad adjuvandum me festina.’ If we make the petition with sincerity and humble confidence we have already gone far to say our office properly.

But even to go so far on our way implies a fair degree of the interior life. Too often the life of a priest is directed towards souls instead of towards God. For that reason, he overlooks the importance of his own interior life and tends to resent, or at least to neglect, exercises and prescriptions that seem to take up time and energy which could, apparently, be employed more profitably for souls. To do this is to forget the first commandment. God requires the first fruits and the best of the flock. His claim on our direct worship is a primary one, and this includes his claim on the time necessary for the recitation of the divine office in praise of his name and glory. His glory is his own, he will not and cannot give it to another. For that reason it is of capital importance that we priests give him due honour by direct worship. And even our work for souls must be primarily work for God and must be done in a spirit which recognizes our complete dependence on him. Such a spirit will, inevitably prompt us to give first place even in our apostolic work to prayer for his grace and help. And if we obey that prompting, we shall run no risk of depriving him of the glory of his mercy.

First things must come first. He has a first claim on our direct service. All other service—even the service of souls—must have him not only for its final end, but also for its first principle. The divine office plays a great part in ensuring the preservation of this perspective, and we must convince and frequently remind ourselves of the importance of the divine office not only in the direct worship of God but also in the apostolic care of souls. We repeat that after the Mass a priest can hardly find a more efficient way of serving God and saving souls than by the devout recitation of the divine office.

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