Thursday, March 7, 2013

What R Antiphons Phor? Divine Office Factoid #4

this is a golden oldie from 2011, but it fit the next factoid that was waiting in line. 
Each hour of the Divine Office begins with a couple of Psalms and a canticle. But before you  plunge into the psalm there's a little one-liner to read known as the Antiphon. At the conclusion of the psalm or canticle, the Glory Be is said, and then the Antiphon is repeated.

What is the point of that? Inqiring minds want to know, especially the inquiring minds of those who use the one-volume breviary, which unfortunately does not reprint the Antiphon at the end of the psalm. You have to flip back to the beginning to find it.  As this is ever-so-slightly irritating to the non-saint, one at least wants to be assured that it is  worth doing.

I'm probably just articulating something that most of you have already  intuited, but here it is. The antiphon gives us:
a. a focus
b. a suggestion from the Church about how to view that psalm or canticle
c. a thought to take away with us after the breviary is closed.

That's a lot for one little antiphon, isn't it? And please, if any of this is new to you, don't drive yourself insane trying to  think of all this at once with every antiphon you see. Just do it with one or two of them. The Divine Office is a very rich smorgasboard of prayer and scripture study, and you aren't supposed to take  a helping of every single item each time you partake of it.

 If you pray the liturgy at home, you are not having the same experience as a nun in a monastery choir. You are frequently distracted by what is happening around you, or by thoughts of what has to be done as soon as you finish praying. That state of  being "recollected" that spiritual books talk about is something your rarely achieve, right?   You  read a psalm, trying to make a prayer out of all this blah-blah-blah about King David and the strong walls of the city and the glory of Jerusalem.  You reach the end thinking, so why did I read this? And face it, we don't always have time to go through line by line finding all the biblical types that remind us of Jesus and  the Church. The oven timer is about to go off and there are hungry kids downstairs. You can't sit in your bedroom pondering scripture all evening.

That's where the antiphon comes in. So what was the point of what I just read? Check the antiphon:
Give joy to your servant, O Lord, for to You I lift up my soul.
Blessed is the upright man who speaks the truth.
Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.

See? Each of these is short and easy to understand. You read it before the psalm, and know what to look for. Re-read it after the psalm, to recall to your distracted mommy-mind (or daddy-mind or praying- this during-a- break -at- work- mind) exactly what it was you just prayed about.

Then, when you're done, if one of the antiphons was especially striking to you, you might try to bring it to mind again during the day. Maybe put it on a sticky note over the kitchen sink. (this is just an idea, please don't do this if it does not appeal.)

And here's something else I do with antiphons. (Devout people with well-ordered prayer lives please do not read any further.) If it's one of those days when events plus my own laziness/scattered-brainedness  conspire to make me miss one or more of the hours, I go back at a later time, and only read the antiphons of the hour that I missed. Then I proceed with the hour that it is actually time to say.

One more cool thing about antiphons. During the seasons of advent, lent, Christmas and Easter, the antiphons for the Benedictus and the Magnificat come from the gospel of that day's mass!  I think it's Benedictus during year B and Magnificat during year A. (Or maybe its the other way 'round.)
So, if you don't get to daily mass, this is a quick clue to the day's gospel. Or if you did go to mass, it's a quick review of the day's gospel. Anyway, it's just one more of the things I love about the Divine Office, and how it ties into the Eucharistic sacrifice that is going on at every hour around the world.

And let this suffice about Antiphons. (As Herodotus would say if he was writing about the Divine Office.)


  1. And there are some psalms with built-in antiphons. If you look at Psalm 118, which is the first psalm for morning prayer of the Sunday in week IV of the psalter, it begins, "Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his love endures forever" and it ends the same way.

    1. And "praise and exalt him above all forever" in the Canticle of the 3 Children.

  2. And musically speaking, the antiphons complete the psalm, bookending the psalm-tone itself with a more ornate melody that prepares for the first verse and rounds things off after the Gloria Patri. A psalm sung simply to the psalm-tone without antiphons (which we Anglicans have done for centuries) is in one sense musically incomplete, and an antiphon in the same musical mode helps bring the praying of the psalm to a graceful conclusion.

    1. Do you have a source of musical settings for the antiphons (in English and preferably not in Gregorian notation?) I've got Fr,. Webers Compline (which is in Gregorian and a pain for me to mentally transpose) but I have nothing for the rest of the LOTH.

  3. I LOVE this post. Thank you! It's like you are inside my mind with this: "You read a psalm, trying to make a prayer out of all this blah-blah-blah about King David and the strong walls of the city and the glory of Jerusalem. You reach the end thinking, so why did I read this?" I always assume that everyone else is getting every-last-drop of richness out of it all, whereas I am usually floundering. My spiritual director just told me on Friday, "Don't give up!"

    Thanks again.

    God bless,
    Michele F.

    P.S. I haven't started your book yet, but plan to as soon as I finish one that I am reading now. Really looking forward to it!

  4. It seems that the comments:"black blah,blah" re praying the psalms is a tacit permission to not really respect the psalms as the true Word of God, but to pray the Hours as a task to check off. Hurts my heart to read this. All we do in the name of the Lord is in growing ever closer to him through the Holy Spirit to Him alone be the glory!
    If our lives are so full of distraction that we cannot grow toward contemplation I suggest backing up a little & to put first things first. God is all in all, died for our sins that we might be brothers/sisters in His 1st born. He loves us as we are as we seek to become ever closer to Him. And that is an amazing grace.