Sung morning prayer. This is the first act of communal worship in our weekday timetable at the Novitiate. And yet, meeting as community to recite the Divine Office (let alone to sing it) is a very “un-Jesuit” thing to do, indeed an anomaly of the noviceship. We are unlikely to have the experience again in our Jesuit lives. This is because freedom from the obligation to recite the Office in choir is an important aspect of our Constitutions and way of life.
A little history lesson sheds light here. Personally, Ignatius liked music and the sung Office, but he knew that the needs of the church would not allow Jesuits the luxury of meeting daily to chant the Divine Office together. In short, he didn’t want Jesuits to be tied down to a set liturgy that might impede their apostolic effectiveness. Not long after Ignatius’ death the Society was notoriously temporarily forced by Pope Paul IV (who never liked either Ignatius or his order) to accept the obligation to choral Office. Diego Laynez, one of Ignatius’s first companions and his successor as Superior General, protested, but to no avail. In the true spirit of Ignatian obedience, the Jesuits began celebrating the Divine Office in choir; and in the true spirit of Ignatian independence, dropped it three years later, with the permission of Paul’s successor Pius IV, a Pope much more sympathetic to the Society and Ignatius’ vision for it. Interestingly all this had an impact on the architecture of the early Jesuit churches: our two great Roman churches, the Gesù (1584) and Sant’ Ignazio (1650), have enormous sanctuaries, designed to be clearly visible from the entire nave, but unlike the churches of older religious orders, neither one has any choir stalls. “Jesuita non cantat” (Jesuits do not sing) became axiomatic among Catholic clerics.
Anyway, back to our communal Morning Prayer at Manresa House. Given it’s so uncharacteristic of the Society’s way of proceeding, why do we bother with it? I suppose the first thing to point out is that, when not on experiments, our life at the Novitiate is relatively settled and almost monastic, and hence there are no apostolic factors against our meeting together to recite the Office. There is something powerful about uniting with others to pray from the breviary. As one Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium puts it “the divine office is the voice of the Church, that is of the whole mystical body publicly praising God”. Now whether our early morning croaking of psalms and canticles is actually pleasing to God is another matter, but at least we know that our attempts to praise God are augmented by other members of the mystical body of Christ whose efforts are perhaps a little more tuneful! Then there’s the advantage of teaming up with others to get to grips with the format of the Office: appreciating the difference between solemnities, feasts, memorias and how they interface with the Society’s own liturgical celebrations and prayers. Lastly there is another practical incentive. As one senior community member (who is no fan of our morning choral ablations) shrewdly commented, “if nothing else, at least it gets you lot out of bed in the morning!”