23 February 2013

Prayerful language


In one form or another, the traditional Book of Common Prayer has nourished the souls of more than twenty generations of Anglicans.  It provides the template for magnificent public worship, yet it can bring the solitary man into the presence of God.  It really is beautiful.  I don’t think very many people would disagree.  But let’s take a few minutes, and think about why it’s beautiful.

What is it about the soaring phrases and time-proven sentences that make them so memorable and pleasing to the ear? It isn’t accidental that such prayers as the Collect for Purity and the Prayer of Humble Access get into our hearts and minds and stay there. Of course, part of what makes them memorable is that our prayers are saying significant things.  But there’s more to it than that.  There are definite and objective reasons having to do with the rhythm of the words, the cadence of the phrases.  It’s much the same as why we consider a piece of music to be beautiful.  Irregular rhythms and too much dissonance are disconcerting.  I’m sure this marks me as being pedestrian, but I think music that’s most memorable is music that can be hummed.  And it’s the same with our prayers.  A prayer which says, “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night…” is memorable, not only because of what is said, but because of the way in which it is said.

There’s an excellent essay titled “The Prayer Book as Literature,” which was written by Dr. W. K. Lowther Clarke in 1932.  It’s included in his larger work, Liturgy and Worship. In this essay he discusses some possible reasons for the beauty 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.”

When I first read that, it seemed pretty dry.  But when I thought about it, I began to realize the important point he was making.  Just as music follows certain rules to achieve a beautiful end, so it is with literature. Excellent writing consists of more than 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 theological truth 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; there is little or no thought about the beauty of the language, because of the mistaken notion that ignoring all that would somehow make prayers clearer.

What was achieved with the Book of Divine Worship went part of the way.  As I’ve said more than once, its shortcomings reflect the difficult political realities present in the Church thirty years ago.  But through it, many of our most beautiful Anglican prayers already have found a place in full communion with the Catholic Church, and I believe there’s room for more.