The Byzantine prayer tradition can be overwhelming, so much so that many despair following any part of it. There is such a richness to it that one can view this tradition as being too full of options. This conundrum is particularly true of our modern day and age, where technology has allowed us to have a nearly endless amount of information at our fingertips. In romance, for example, one’s options are not limited to one’s ancestral village. Social networking can facilitate international matchmaking with nearly effortless execution. However, this abundance of options can lead one to conclude that it is difficult to decide. Marriage, for example, is quite postponed compared to other generations. One factor underlying this is the fact that there are far more potential spouses to consider when this is the case as compared to life in the village. Some social psychologists have referred to this challenge of too many options leading to nothing really being chosen or enjoyed as the “poverty of choice” (e.g., the TED talk of Barry Schwartz found at this link: https://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice). From a liturgical perspective, there is a real concern in which we can look at the Divine office and appreciate the real sense in that there are so many options that no option ever is truly celebrated. This is practically the case with many liturgical calendars of our Byzantine parishes, and poses a very poignant question: How can we escape the poverty of choice that seems to paralyze so many Byzantine Christians where the options overwhelm and lead to fewer celebrations? This reflection will try to make the Byzantine way less ‘Byzantine’ and instead show the divine office to be a symphony of all-encompassing invitation to see God’s love in all things.
How does one look at how we pass through time in this life? There is an emphasis on time as it relates to events like anniversaries, special weeks and months, or how many years have passed since a particular milestone in history. Perhaps we think from a very seasonal perspective. When is it going to be summer? When will winter end? All of these considerations and perspectives are very real, even if one lives in a Mediterranean climate as is the case in Palestine and (thankfully) California. But there is also an emphasis on how one structures one’s day. What kind of routine do you have for each day? Do you start each morning with a hearty breakfast, with prayer, or with both? How will you resolve to make this the best year possible? All of this division and remembering is very human and very complicated. The Divine Office addresses every perspective of how we look at life, if we have the eyes to see it as an invitation to enter into its deep view of the world in the various perspectives that we have towards it. Before describing this symphony, it is important to understand that many people have looked at the Byzantine tradition with confusion, trepidation and even apathy. To understand why it may be overwhelming or confusing is to consider an analogy. If we look to the tradition of prayer as though we had one musical instrument that we wanted to hear in a symphony concert, we would be hearing other instruments and assuming that every other instrument in the symphony was out of place. At first the sounds would be foreign and unexpected. Our instrument may have its time to play a solo and at other times it may play with other instruments. At other times we may not hear our favorite instrument at all. With time, a mix of angles and perspectives comes together akin to a symphony. Over time, the broader symphony would emerge and the role of each instrument could be seen to play a broader role in the orchestra. What are those instruments in the symphony of the divine office? Let us move into understanding the calendar and the offices of the Byzantine Church to then grasp what are these different instruments.
At the heart of the Byzantine view of the year is the moveable calendar. From the broadest perspective, Christ being risen from the dead is the joy and triumph of our life in Christ. The liturgical life of the Church revolves around the Resurrection of Christ via the moveable calendar in that Pascha is the anchor of many other Feasts. Prior to the celebration of Pascha, the pre-Lenten services beginning with the Sunday of Zacchaeus prepare us for the Lenten journey to Pascha. Lent as well, in its penitential and special liturgical observances like the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, along with its accompanying services such as the All-Souls Saturdays, find their way into our calendar via a knowledge of when Pascha will be. The text which instructs our celebration of the divine office in this season is known as the Lention Triodion. The moveable calendar continues in full force at Pascha through the celebration of Pentecost and the feast of All Saints one week later, and is celebrated in the Pentecostarion. These two texts are over 1000 pages of prayers and hymns leading us through these special holy days based on the moveable calendar. Even beyond these seasons of praying these rich books of hymnography, the divine office is still guided by the moveable calendar in two ways. For one, we often refer to Sundays as being a particular number of Sundays after Pentecost. Our weeks are relatively closer or nearer to a feast day which is 7 Sundays after Pascha, and that feast of the Holy Trinity is yet another reference point for our liturgical life in terms of how many Sundays we are from Pentecost. The life of salvation is expressed liturgically through a cyclical rhythm that comes after the Pentecost season via the Octoechos. Instead of simply being in one mode of chant and hymns along the moveable calendar, the Octoechos brings us through the 8 tones of the week that are based on how far we are from Pascha and Pentecost. These 8 tones are based on the moveable calendar where the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost is Tone 1, and the tones continue through Tone 8, and the cycle continues through the 8 tones cyclically. Thus, with the Octoechos the movable calendar is more or less focused on the Resurrection of Christ and the Descent of the Holy Spirit as reference points for the whole year with a cycle through the different lenses and melodies of the 8 tones from the Octoechos. Our heart longs to celebrate these moments of salvation history, and they occur at different times with Pascha being more or less the focal point of understanding where one is on the moveable calendar. Since the council of Nicaea, the Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox dictates when Pascha is. As that is not a fixed day on the calendar, the calendar moves and Pascha is on a different day between most years. What about the calendar where we consider fixed days? That is where the immovable calendar enters into our equation.
The immoveable calendar is a bit more intuitive in the sense that its celebrations are more or less guided simply by what day of the year it is. For example, the Nativity of Our Lord is based on the immovable calendar. The Pre-Feast, Feast, and Post-Feast are calculated in accordance with one’s measurement of when it is December 25th. To rightly understand the liturgical celebration of a saint or feast on the immovable calendar, all that is really needed is a knowledge of the day and month as it relates to the month. Etymologically, the liturgical guide for the immoveable calendar is therefore linked to the Greek word for month. The Menaion encompasses the immoveable calendar celebrations. It guides us through the days of each month to understand which saint or feast is being commemorated on a particular day. In their entirety, this can be 12 volumes of roughly 300 pages each. Each day has its own commemoration which more or less guides us through the immoveable calendar.
It should be immediately noted that in the description above, the phrase “more or less” was used several times. This is because that there are complications intrinsic and extrinsic to celebrating what is in the moveable and immovable calendars. For the moveable calendar, the intrinsic question that is more a matter of Christian unity is answering the question of when the vernal equinox is. Because there is a difference in the calendars after the Gregorian Calendar was introduced, certain full moons in certain years are considered to be pre-vernal equinox to those on the Julian Calendar and post-vernal equinox on the Gregorian Calendar. The whole timing as to when Pascha occurs is called into question when one’s reckoning of when spring begins is inconsistent, throwing the whole moveable calendar out of alignment. Thus we have many Christians who celebrate Pascha on different dates, and if they are Byzantine this will mean that even beyond the Pascha and Pentecost seasons, the “tone of the week” can be celebrated out of unison, making the symphony less consistent.
The intrinsic complications to the immovable calendar come from the question of when December 25th (or any other day) is which is a matter of Christian unity akin to the movable calendar consideration above. Thus we have some Christians celebrating the Nativity on January 7th according to the civil calendar, because the religious calendar has remained Julian. There is even the mixed Julian calendar where movable feasts like Pascha follow the Julian calendar and immovable feasts follow the Gregorian/civil calendar.
However, there is even more to factor in when we consider the immovable calendar. In addition to a saint of a day, there also are prefestive and postfestive days which may overlap with other commemorations in the menaion. This may lead one person to prefer another saint or commemoration over another. At other times, there may be saints whose celebrations are always moved or omitted. One example of this would be January 14th, which is both the leave taking of the feast of the Theophany and is also the commemoration of the Fathers of Sinai and Raitho. Those fathers are subsequently moved to be commemorated on the 13th of January which may seem like a simple solution. However, there is also the matter of the saints of the day on January 13th, which includes the Holy Martyrs Hermylaus and Stratonicus, as well as our venerable father Hilary Bishop of Poitiers. We thus end up having three distinct commemorations on January 13th, one for the saints on the 14th as well as the two already commemorated on the 13th. This is only what one can find in the Byzantine Catholic Typikon. If, however one went to the website of the Orthodox Church in America (as one example), the same structure is found but there are also another 6 saints listed for January 13th! Thus, while the immovable calendar is a bit easier to discern than things like vernal equinoxes, it can become complicated in its own way.
Extrinsically, the two main calendars have challenges to understand when they are integrated and factored together. For example, in 2018 the Gregorian moveable calendar’s second Saturday of Lent falls on February 24. This calls for a commemoration of All Souls on that Saturday. However, the immoveable calendar looks to the day of the year and February 24th commemorates the first and second findings of the head of John the Baptist. What is this Saturday about then? Are both celebrated? This question and inevitable conflict as well as the whole framework of understanding the divine office is answered by the Typikon. In this case, the Typikon guides us to skip over the second All Souls Saturday and focus on the feast of John the Baptist. Thus, the Typikon is our guide to understanding the year. Ultimately, the understanding of the year is an intersection of two yearly calendars, the movable and the immovable calendars. The navigation of this intersection comes to us by following the Typikon.
Another fundamental structure to understanding time is to consider the days of the week. Basic to this is understanding that a week has a seven day structure, and as such the Byzantine tradition honors the week by ascribing particular themes to the days of the week. Sunday is the day of the resurrection, while Monday commemorates the holy bodiless angelic powers. Tuesday remembers John the Baptist, while Wednesday commemorates the Theotokos and the Holy Cross, and Thursday is focused on both the Apostles and Nicholas of Myra. Friday commemorates the Holy Cross and the Sabbath of rest falls on Saturday, fittingly commemorating the faithful departed and all saints. How does this layer of celebration overlap with the yearly celebration? First, the texts from the calendars follow these themes subtly in the texts of the service books. Within Lent, for example, the matins and vespers prayed in the Triodion have their Lenten focus, but the fact that it may be a Tuesday evening (which begins Wednesday liturgically) will often mean that hymns on that evening will speak of the Cross and the Mother of God a bit more than other days such as Monday. Second, as we come to the hours of the day, certain sections use the commemoration of the day of the week, which leads to particular troparia and kontakia to be sung based on the day of the week.
To turn now to the day just as with the year, there are two basic perspectives or offices that follow the structure of the day. In the Roman civil calendar, the day began at the morning with an hour linked to the sunrise. Hence the first service linked to the civil calendar would be the first hour, beginning roughly at 7 a.m.. The third, sixth and ninth hours would follow suit a few hours later, which would correspond to 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. Bedtime would complete the day with the service of compline. Among monastics, waking up in the middle of night would have a midnight service known as the mesonyktikon. The hours allow for one to pray throughout all the day and evening following the Roman perspective, and yet their origin is monastic in nature.
The other basic perspective to the day is the other strong culture linked to the Christian Church, which is of course found in its roots in the Jewish Faith. As Genesis 1 states in the creation narrative, days are described as being evening and morning. Thus, the cathedral office of daily prayer is comprised chiefly of Vespers in the evening which starts a particular day and then Matins in the morning. As mentioned above, that means that Tuesday evening Vespers (for example) provides the liturgical start to Wednesday. Holy Week offers an interesting topsy-turvy counterexample, but overall the day is both based on the Roman reckoning of its beginning in the morning and the Jewish reckoning of its beginning at sunset. As we discussed the overlap of moveable and immovable calendars, the Typikon would guide us to understand which commemoration to celebrate or omit in a given year. In the case of the daily cycle of vespers, matins and hours, the question of what to celebrate is perhaps more maximalistic. As can be seen in monastic tradition, these services are all prayed because they all have their own angles and perspectives. In vespers and matins, the commemoration of the day is interwoven with hymns and psalms that point us to the evening and morning. There is also the practice of ceaseless prayer from the monastic tradition, and with these cathedral services we have the practice of praying the kathismata, 20 sections of the Psalter that are numbered and sung during vespers and matins. In the hours, there are subtle hints linking us to the day itself, as well as troparia and kontakia which may be for the saint of the day, the saint of the day of the week, or may be the feast that is currently pre-festive, the day of or post-festive. With regard to the hours and themes, the first hour speaks of light coming to us because it is the first prayer of the morning. The third hour focuses on the Holy Spirit who descended on the apostles at the third hour (Acts 2:15), the sixth hour considers the Cross because the Lord was crucified at that time, and the 9th hour draws our attention to our Lord giving up his spirit at that hour (Matthew 27:45).
Overall, the structure of the year, week and day all provide insight as to which books are to be used and which commemorations are to be had. The divine office would flow beginning with Vespers to compline to the first hour, matins, third hour, sixth hour, ninth hour, compline and midnight office, not to mention the Divine Liturgy, Akathists, Molebens, the Paraklesis, the Jesus Prayer and more. With the extra services not listed before there is even more flexibility to pray a particular devotion based on one’s interest or need. To pray just all of the prescribed services is only really seen in the monastic practice. How do the monks choose what to pray? Again, the typikon is the guide to knowing how the movable calendar, immoveable calendar, their associated books are then integrated alongside the weekly commemoration. The last component to consider is the Patron of the parish or community celebrating a given service. This does not speak to the year or the time but does speak to the particularities of a group of faithful, as a particular parish or monastery will have a unique patron who can be commemorated liturgically in various ways.
At this point it is fitting to return to the symphony analogy. The instruments of the symphony or angles to the divine office that have been laid out in this reflection could be summarized as follows: commemoration of the moveable calendar, commemoration of the immovable calendar, commemoration of the day of the week, commemoration of evening or morning (vespers and matins) commemoration of the hour of the day, commemoration of the patron of a parish, and personal devotion (molebens, akathists, Jesus Prayer, etc). Because we operate on so many levels as human beings, the different levels of commemoration are truly like distinct instruments in an orchestra that plays in symphony to speak to us in an all-encompassing way. Therefore, when one hears of the tone of the week and the saint of the day and the commemoration of the parish patron as well as the day of the week, and the hour of the day being remembered, should this be viewed as some kind of overly complex hoop to jump through? Is it all an arbitrary practice of some ancient and irrelevant Byzantines? We would only answer in such a manner when the distinct angles set forth are seen as redundant. If, however, they are all-encompassing reflections upon our spirituality that speak to who we are as humans on different angles, their presence is not only not redundant but necessary, if we have the time to celebrate all of the services that we can choose to celebrate. Breaking down the components as we have done above is precisely a means to establish the uniqueness of each service or perspective of time. Without that, we simply have books to pray through that seem to fall out of the sky, and they offer no uniqueness or speciality that actually speak to the way that the various services can themselves speak to our hearts.
Because of these unique perspectives, it is helpful to return to the psychological concept of the “poverty of choice”. There are quite a few services listed above and understanding which service or services to celebrate as well as the particular way that one would celebrate a service that was chosen can quite easily be challenging. We could easily look at this wealth of options from that perspective and say that the Tradition is quite simply difficult to follow. What is a better way to understand these options that the Byzantine Tradition offers?
I think there are two very important and complementary perspectives that may overcome the poverty of choice and reinvigorate prayer in our Byzantine Catholic Churches. First, we must understand that no stone is left unturned with our calendars and the service books that speak to them. We may at times be completely focused on the saint of the day, the movable calendar, the season of morning, evening, or bedtime. We may seek to pray at various hours of the day. We need, I believe, to come to see the abundance of services not as a burden but as a response to the fact that our hearts may cry out to God with a desire for prayer at any occasion throughout the day. As the “prayer of the hours” said throughout the hours states, “O good God at all times and places, You are worshipped and glorified both on heaven and on earth…” Instead of thinking that there are so many options that we become paralyzed by the poverty of choice, we need to see the divine office as a gracious offering that meets us no matter where we stand in life. Second, we need to realize that this blessing of no stone being left unturned in all-encompassing prayer is something that can be done but is nearly impossible to do regularly if we are not monastics. Just praying the hours, vespers, matins and compline can easily take over five hours a day. Is this feasible for the majority of people? I would argue that that is not normally the case. If, however, the particular emphases of these various services are something that we can understand as part of our symphony of faith and expression of our faith, we can make it a point (with spiritual guidance as well) to focus upon a various service or services in the Byzantine Divine Office. A simple way to see this is to spend time at monasteries for several days. The integration into this symphony comes across not as a task or a duty but is seen as something that can be done if time is dedicated to the Lord in prayer. In thanksgiving to God for the monks and nuns who do this regularly, this fervent celebration of the symphony of faith leaves no stone unturned and also can then invigorate our desire to pray back at our parishes.
As parishes therefore expand beyond just the Divine Liturgy in their liturgical celebration, pastors and leaders of parishes can look to the needs of the faithful and consider a consistent practice of only part of this liturgical symphony to speak to those needs that are seen. By spending time praying a particular liturgical service over several months, the fact that these “instruments” are beautiful means to connect with our life in Christ in the liturgical year, day, or hour can be highlighted. The complexity of a service within itself can also melt away as the familiarity provides a solid background as to what it is we are hearing. If we only hear Paschal Matins once a year, will we understand what is being set before us? If instead we make Matins something that comes more frequently, the beauty of this complex service (whose complexity cannot itself fit into a reflection like this) will become distilled to those who pray it regularly, and the heart of prayer as it is linked to the mind of the holy Fathers and Mothers who lived in monastic obedience may through the Grace of God, come to all who seek to embrace the divine office not as a challenge but as a blessing that is part of the symphony of faith. As we then move to pray not just one service but many, our blessing of how the Byzantine Divine Office speaks to all of life will expand because we will see its connection to more than just the morning or the evening or the week or the year. It will relate to all of our lives as all of our lives are transformed by the beautiful symphony of the Byzantine Divine Office. Glory to Jesus Christ!