16 June 2007

Prayerful cadence

As most people know, the Book of Divine Worship draws greatly upon the Book of Common Prayer, an Anglican work which (along with the King James Version of the Holy Scriptures) has shaped the most beautiful aspects of the English language. In fact, there are a few places which are immediately evident in the Book of Divine Worship, when it departs from its traditional roots.

What is it about the soaring phrases and time-proven sentences which make them so memorable and so pleasing to the ear? It isn’t accidental that such prayers as “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open…” and “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord…” get into our hearts and minds and stay there. Certainly, the sentiments expressed in so many of our traditional prayers mean that they remain with us. But there is more. There are actual physical reasons having to do with the rhythm of the words, the cadence of the phrases.

There is an excellent essay titled “The Prayer Book as Literature,” written by Dr. W. K. Lowther Clarke in 1932 and included in his larger work, Liturgy and Worship. In his essay he discusses possible reasons for the beauty of some of the phrases we use in our worship. In part, he says, “A particular theory has recently been propounded to account for the literary qualities of the sixteenth-century Prayer Book, namely, the survival of the cursus, or flow of the cadence in prose. The beauty of Latin prose depended on the arrangement of long and short syllables, especially at the end of the sentence… The cursus had three main forms: planus, with the accent on the second and fifth syllable from the end; tardus, on the third and sixth; and velox, on the second and seventh.”

Just as music follows certain rules to achieve a beautiful end, so it is with literature. Excellent writing does not consist simply of stringing words together. It involves a rhythm. It shows a sensitivity to the zenith of a phrase. It allows for a cadence. In the liturgy, when we think of a prayer as being “beautiful,” it describes not only the sentiment it contains, but also the way in which the thought is expressed. This is why so many contemporary prayers fall flat. The ancient principle of cursus has been put aside because of the mistaken notion that ignoring it would somehow make prayers clearer.

The “Prayer Book style” (if I may call it that) has survived in the Book of Divine Worship, and we can see this influence even in some of the translations now being considered by the Holy See for the Missale Romanum. It’s interesting, and almost ironic, that the principles of cursus (so much a part of liturgical Latin) should have been preserved by the Anglican Use, to be restored to the living liturgy of the Church.