The Little Office Of Our Lady – On Attention, by E. L. Taunton

" IN order to perform the Office it is not necessary to have in mind the precise sense of the prayers we say. The texts are sometimes difficult, and the attention is not always under our control. Besides, the mind may legitimately exercise itself upon other suitable objects. Yet, speaking generally, we cannot pay too great attention to the sense of the words : Whoso readeth let him understand [Matth. xxiv. 15.]. This is most natural, and is conformable to the mind of the Church, and to the example of the saints. In fact, when we address ourself to God and bless Him, or when we utter certain forms of prayer, it is only natural to attend to the words we pronounce and join to the letter the thoughts and affections it expresses. To neglect this source of inspiration and seek elsewhere for ideas does a kind of violence to our mind by laying on it a double, needless labour, and making it well nigh impossible to do either in a proper manner. Again, by so doing we lower the dignity of the Office and misunderstand its aim. For the Church has only given us this book for some wise purpose ; and what end can she have in putting her words on our lips except to put her thoughts into our mind and her feelings into our hearts ? " [Bacquez, pp. 206-207.]
The example of the saints is clear upon this point; they do not seem to understand any meaning between strict mental application to the words and distraction. St. Bernard tells his monks : " During the psalmody think of nothing else but what the psalmody suggests " [Migne, P. L., vol. clxxxiii. p. ion.]. St. Bonaventure says :
"As far as possible say no word without attention and understanding it" [Reg. Novit.]. St. Theresa, always so practical and full of common-sense, gives the same advice : " When I say I believe, it is proper, methinks, that I should understand what I believe ; and when I say Our Father, love requires I should understand who this Our Father is " [Way Of Perfection (ed. 1852), pg. 118.].
Now attention may be verbal or mental : that is, directed to the words we pronounce or to the thoughts they express. On the point of verbal exactitude, then, let us hear the author of the Myroure: " And as it is so great peril to leave aught of this holy Service, as is before said, therefore all that are bound thereto ought not only to ascertain their heart to have their mind thereon, but also to use their tongue to say it, suitably and distinctly, without failing or over-skipping of word or syllable. For like as a good harper smiteth all the strings on his harp each in his own kind, and if he smote the first and the last, or if he smote recklessly over all at once, he should make no good melody, right so God's service is likened to the song of a harp as the prophet saith : Psallite Domino in cithara —that is, Sing to God on the harp [p s . xcvii. 5.]. And therefore in this harp of our Lord's service ye ought to smite all the strings, that is to say, all the words and syllables, each in his kind and in his place, and not hurry them out together as though you would say them all at once. For the praising of God in His Church ought to accord to His praising in heaven, whereof St. John in the Apocalypse after he had heard it, he said thus : Et vocem quam audivi sicut citharcedorum citharizantium in citharis suis —that is, The voice that I heard in heaven was (as) the voice of harpers harping on their harps [Apoc. xiv. 2.]. Therefore, when Aaron by our Lord's commandment offered a calf upon the altar, he cut it up into pieces and then offered it up with the head and with each member thereof. By this calf is understood the source of our Lord's praising which is more acceptable to Him than the offering of any calf, as the prophet saith : Laudabo nomen Dei cum cantico et magniftcabo Eum in laude. Et placebit Deo super vitulum novellum; that is, I will praise the name of God with song, and I will make much of Him in praising; and it will please God more than the offering of any young calf [Ps. Ixviii, 35.]. But when this calf of our Lord's praising is offered it must be cut into pieces; for all the words and syllables ought to be said distinctly from the beginning unto the end in each member and in each part thereof. For like as clippers or falsifiers of the king's money are punished by death, even so they that clip away from the money of God's service any word or letters or syllables, and so falsify it from the true sentence, or from the true manner of saying thereof, deserve to be grievously punished against God.
"And therefore the fiend sendeth readily his messengers to gather all such negligences together and to keep them in accusation of the soul, as we read of a holy abbat of the order of the Cistercians, the while he stood in the choir at matins he saw a fiend that had a long and a great bag hanging about his neck, and [who] went about the choir from one to another, and waited busily after all letters and syllables and words and failings that any made, and them he gathered diligently and put them into his bag. And when he came before the abbat, waiting if aught had escaped him, that he might have gotten and put into his bag, the abbat was astonished and afeard of the foulness and misshape of him, and said unto him : ' What art thou ?' and he answered and said : ' I am a poor devil and my name is Titivillus and I do mine office that is committed unto me.' ' And what is thine office ?' said the abbat; he answered, ' I must each day,' he said, ' bring my master a thousand bags full of failings, and of negligences in syllables and words that are done in your order in reading and singing, or else I must be sore beaten '" [Myroure, pp. 52-54.].
This quaint story of the " poor devil Titivillus " at any rate will serve to remind us that, if at the Last Day we shall have to give an account of every idle word we have said, we surely shall have to account for, as worse than idle words, all careless recitation of the Office. We must be on our guard against " clipping the money of God's service." This, again, need not generate scruples. All that is required is that we should give to the verbal recitation that ordinary amount of care and exactness we use in any important matter of our daily life. St. Francis of Assisi used to punish himself very rigorously for the least voluntary distractions ; and St. Joseph of Cupertino, whenever he found himself drifting into carelessness, repeated the verse. These were not cases of scruple ; but of a stern purpose which aimed at bringing the mind into obedience according to the words of the Apostle : Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ [2 Cor. x. 5.].
It is useful to recognise the cause of our faults from the beginning ; the remedy then is easy. Now the faults that beset us come chiefly from a desire to hurry over the Office. " Dissipation of mind, routine, the desire for liberty, preoccupation, and above all that restless activity which hinders us from fixing our thoughts upon anything whatever and makes us always long after some new object, all these go to make the ' Office' time inconvenient and to shorten it. To recite the Office with suitable gravity and attention we must love it and know its attractions ; and to love and relish it we must have the spirit of prayer, of self-recollection and fervour. Anything which tends to weaken this spirit tends also to lessen our love for the Office and makes us hurry over it. ... There is no fault more common and none more fatal, nor in its effects more difficult to cure than hurry. ' Haste is the destroyer of devotion ' says St. Francis de Sales. If we allow ourselves to get into the habit, the interior spirit, which is the source of all merit, becomes dried up ; and instead of the highest use of our intellect, there is only a lip-worship, and holy thoughts and noble feelings are replaced by a blind and mechanical repetition. Once a slave to this habit, it is vain to multiply words of prayer. . . . The words that rise to our lips mean nothing to our heart and leave no impression on our soul. They are nothing but a useless set of words like those for which our Lord blamed the heathen : When ye pray, speak not much as do the heathen, for they think in their much speaking they may be heard [St. Matth. vi. 7.]. . . . To reduce the highest function to a purely mechanical exercise, to turn to harm what was meant to preserve and develop both prayer and piety, cannot be indifferent and without reproach in God's eyes. Let the awful imprecation of God warn us : Let his prayer become sin; and let us heed the woeful punishment foretold by the psalmist: Let the labour of their own lips cover them, let burning coals fall upon them " [Ps. cviii. 7 ; cxxxix. 10 ; Bacquez, 230.].
If the cause of hurry is the whirl of many kinds of occupations which nowadays is heaped up upon us (as though our salvation depended upon the amount we do, and not how we do it !) the remedy is very easy. The Office is of obligation, private prayers and special devotions are not. Rather than say the Office badly, for hurried saying is bad saying, omit or shorten every other private devotion and give the time thus gained to the Office. It is most important that we should realise that the devout saying of the public prayer is much more useful to the Church than all the rosaries, meditations, litanies, and novenas of private devotions. St. Bonaventure tells us it is an illusion to think that we can compensate by our private devotions for voluntary defects in the prayer the Church imposes on us. If we say our Office properly we have mental prayer in a most perfect form and a vocal prayer we can apply to every intention.
But looking at the question from the point of time, what is gained by a haste so unbecoming ? " Some short moments in an hour ; ten minutes at most on the day's Office. Does it compensate—I do not say for the fault we commit, for the merit of which we deprive ourself, for the scandal we cause, or for the punishment we incur—but for the happiness we can feel in so sweet and consoling an exercise ? Is it reasonable for so small a gain to dry up in our heart the fountain head of grace and make the most precious hour of the day unfruitful, wearisome and painful ? " [Bacquez, p. 234.]
The example of the saints is to the point. St. Alphonsus made a special vow never to lose time ; yet he never hurried over his Office. He carried out what he recommended to others, viz., to say it with calmness, attention, and respect.
St. Francis Xavier, too, although a whole world lay before him to convert, never hurried over the Office; he even added special prayers to obtain the grace to say it well.
The Office should not be made a burthen. I do not advocate the slow and measured recitation used by some of the contemplative orders. This would not sort well with the active life. The recitation should be grave, and so justly measured, that the sense of the verse and the meaning of the words can have a chance to penetrate our heart. When the Office is made, as St. Benedict calls it, "the Work of God," and nothing is preferred before it, then the times of Choir are the happiest hours in the day. They are all too short for the sweetness we can gain in the sacred psalmody. And shall we sacrifice this by wasting our time upon other works which are not so necessary or profitable ?
One remedy against hurrying is that followed by such great saints of God, and such busy men, as St. Charles Borromeo, St. Philip Neri, and St. Vincent de Paul. They never said any part of the Office by heart, but read line by line even the psalms and prayers they knew best. This practice, although it may not suit all persons, is useful to those who are overburthened with exterior work; " For by this means the words, striking the eye and the ear at the same time, are less exposed to pass unperceived, and the care taken to discover the word we pronounce is one more safeguard against the tendency to routine " [Bacquez, p. 239.].
But attention is not confined to mere verbal accuracy. Words are only the outward clothing of the thought. A machine, such as the phonograph, can produce the mechanical effect of words, but it cannot think. We are not machines ; our mind has to go with our voice. St. Benedict says : " Let the mind concord with the voice" [Migne, P. L., vol. Ixvi. p. 476.] ; and the Psalmist adds : To Thee hath my heart said [Ps. xxvi. 8]. Our heart must speak to God if we would be heard. Therefore let the Psalmist lead you : " If he pray, pray with him, if he sigh, sigh ye also ; and if he rejoice, joy ye too ; should he express hope, fill your heart with trust; or if fear pervades him, tremble.
For all things what are written here are as a miroir for us " [Migne, P. L., vol. xxxvi. p. 248.]. Thus says St. Augustine :—
"Let it not be objected that the words of the Office are not our own, that the Psalms were not composed for us, that they suppose thoughts, circumstances, and dispositions that are not ours. For the Office has been compiled for us. The Psalms (we repeat it again) have Jesus, the Incarnate God, not David, as their first and principal object. What they express is not the mind of any one man in particular, but the mind of all Christians considered in Him Who is their divine Head. The feelings contained in the Psalms are those which were wrought first in the soul of our Lord by the Holy Ghost, and then through Him in all those who are members of His Mystical Body. Therefore they are ours as well as David's, or any of the saints. So it was for us the Psalms were written. The Holy Ghost had us in view when He inspired them. He speaks of our perils, of our warfare; He mourns over our sins; and in true and touching words, He speaks of our repentance, our hope, our zeal, our gratitude and our love. For, according to St. Paul : All things are yours; but ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's" [I Cor. iii. 22.] [Bacquez, pp. 209-210.].

From - The Little Office of Our Lady; a treatise theoretical, practical, and exegetical - Taunton, Ethelred L. (Ethelred Luke), 1857-1907