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A Special Delight for Catholic Parents: The Family Breviary

I am husband and father of two, still shy of 30, whose most interesting quality is probably that I’m a Scottish immigrant in the midwestern United States. I’ve been in America for almost three years, having married into the family, as it were. I would like to share an experience and an invitation.

The Experience

As had became my custom, I began the routine torture of my poor wife and children as I attempted to chant the breviary hymn for Compline, the Te lucis ante terminum. We had fairly well established the office of Compline as a feature of our life together. My wife and I have memorized the Office in English and have begun making forays into the Latin. Learning the hymn seemed the easiest step to take in that direction.

There was a difference that evening. It was not the wince of my wife, a common occurrence. It was that a subdued and mumbled voice sang out with me in garbled Latin, but due credit being given: it was a two-year old’s.

I looked up mid-lyric as this little voice accompanied me from its den among the toys and clothes on the floor of its bedroom. When we began including the Office in our family’s prayer life, or better yet, when we decided to ground our family’s prayer life in the Church’s liturgy, we had both agreed that we wouldn’t strain the young children too hard. We were content to let our son wander around his room with his toys as long as he was quiet. Our hope was that he would begin to “pick it up” — and here he was. It was exciting and endearing, and a not-so-little part of me—the part that’s still very much “new parent”—was jumping for joy: “Yes! I’m finally doing something right!”

That evening, it was as if a floodgate had burst. My son has begun engaging more and more with the liturgy. He’ll mutter along with the hymn, and he holds a tone better than his father, and he is bowing for the Gloria Patri at the end of psalms, frequently making the sign of the cross at appropriate moments. He is most insistent that he have a book like Daddy and Mommy, and will set about a Bible half his size in the most officious manner as we begin the Hour on our knees: Jube, Domine, benedicere…

The breviary has been a tremendous discovery for our marital and familial life. My wife and I have rather different sentiments and tastes in our approach to religion but are thankfully within the same broad parameters of the traditional Mass and orthodox doctrine. In the Office we have found a common delight in the psalms, antiphons, and canticles of the Church. It is a bond that has proven to be of great comfort, for at the time of writing, we have been apart for several weeks as I try to establish a home in a new city close to a traditional parish. With no immediate end in sight, we have this prayer together. Father and son, mother and daughter, each evening, can unite together in the liturgical homage of the Church, regardless of time and place.

That doesn’t mean we’re always perfect in our observance. There have been times when it’s an hour past the children’s bedtimes and we’ve had a long day and we’ll settle with an abbreviation consisting of the hymn, the Pater noster, and the blessing. Our attempts at establishing Prime have been somewhat woeful! We’re far from a model liturgical family, but it’s an ideal worth striving for.

I encountered an article last year, hosted by Scribd, from a priest writing in c. 1940–50 about his hopes for the Liturgical Movement and what he wants to see happen in parishes across the United States. He paints a grand vision of the parish as Jerusalem, wherein the bells will ring, and the people surrounding will ascend to the church and there offer due worship to God in Christ Jesus. The parish will accompany the citizens of this Jerusalem throughout the year, blessing their harvests, their cattle, and their children, assisting them throughout their lives with the sacraments, and especially assisting them at their last agonies with the prayers of the Church.

Although more often a type applied to the Church as a whole, it’s not a foreign concept to speak of smaller locations as being types and figures of Jerusalem. St. Bernard had spoken of his Clairvaux as such, though he went farther than the parish priest above, who contented himself with an earthly Jerusalem. St. Bernard’s monks had already anticipated heaven!

What can be said of the Church universal can be said of the Church particular. The families that make up the nucleus of the particular Church in a given place are often spoken of as the “domestic church.” This isn’t a quaint platitude. The family should seek to imitate the divinely instituted society proposed as our model.

The Divine Office being the prayer of that divine society — the Church — should then take a pre-eminent place in the lives of the faithful. It can be a daunting prospect to take on some small measure of the Church’s duty, but I can assure you, it really is not as complicated as it can appear at first, and we can always start small and slowly build up over time. Family Compline takes approximately 15 minutes, and we don’t always have to get it perfect. I struggle settling for what I consider less than the ideal, but the temptation to let the perfect be the enemy of the good should not be indulged. It’ll take a few more years and a few more children until I can arguably justify constructing a full choir stall in the family oratory to chant Matins and Lauds at four in the morning!

The Invitation

I leave the readers with this: a call to take up some part of the Church’s prayer and incorporate it into the lives of your families. I especially appeal to fathers. Let your children see you pray, and see you pray often, because you are the one they will follow most. Our sons learn the art of manhood at our knees, and our daughters learn what to expect of a man by the example we set them. We won’t be found negligent in teaching them the natural skillset they will need to thrive in life. We cannot be found negligent in providing them the skillset necessary to thrive in the supernatural life.

As one who is particular with his books, I am often reluctant to allow others the privilege and grace of even looking at my precious volumes. My monastic diurnal published by St. Michael’s Abbey Press is another matter, because, it’s not mine alone. It has become the common fount for my family to draw strength and nourishment. When I left, we were in the conundrum of how my wife and children would maintain their prayers without it. The solution was to purchase another just for their use!

I strongly recommend the traditional monastic office as being most suitable for family life because it is the most stable. There is no variation in Compline, and Prime has only a small cycle of psalms. The minor Hours throughout the week also have an invariable psalm cursus. American readers would do well to purchase copies from Clear Creek, the traditional Benedictine monastery in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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