Loving the Book of Common Prayer 4: Beauty

Baskerville_titleOne of the (chief) reasons many people love The Book of Common Prayer is the beauty of its language (I have already blogged about catholicity, ‘Protestantism’, and theology). This past Thursday, this beauty was in full force at the evening Eucharist at my local Anglican church, as the clergyman’s rich voice read out Cranmer’s Preface for Whitsuntide (as in 1662; very different text in Canada’s 1962 BCP!):

THROUGH Jesus Christ our Lord; according to whose most true promise, the Holy Ghost came down as at this time from heaven with a sudden great sound, as it had been a mighty wind in the likeness of fiery tongues, lighting upon the Apostles, to teach them, and to lead them to all truth; giving them both the gift of divers languages, and also boldness with fervent zeal constantly to preach the Gospel unto all nations; whereby we have been brought out of darkness and error into the clear light and true knowledge of thee, and of thy Son Jesus Christ. Therefore with Angels, &c.

Beauty and theology! It is beautiful, catholic, and deeply theological. This preface encapsulates all that is best in the Prayer Book, I think.

I first found myself truly entering into the Prayer Book in Lent 2004. My Lenten observance that year was the praying of Compline every night before bed. Compline is not one of Cranmer’s or 1662’s offices, but it is in the Canadian BCP on page 722. I do not actually know where the service originated; I imagine it is Victorian.

Whatever the origins of this service of Compline, it is written with the same beauty of language as Cranmer/1662. The traditional Compline hymn, ‘Te lucis ante terminum’, is presented in J. M. Neale’s translation:

Before the ending of the day,
Creator of the world we pray
That with thy wonted favour thou
Wouldst be our guard and keeper now.

From all ill dreams defend our eyes,
From nightly fears and fantasies;
Tread under foot our ghostly foe,
That no pollution we may know.

O Father, that we ask be done,
Through Jesus Christ, thine Only Son;
Who, with the Holy Ghost and thee,
Doth live and reign eternally.

This is a wonderful, rhythmic Englishing of the hymn, and it is eminently memorisable — my wife and I often pray it aloud before going to sleep. One aspect of the sort of beauty found in the BCP and other, older English texts designed to be read aloud is their attention to the cadence and rhythm of the English language. This makes memorisation easier.

Now, I don’t want this series on the BCP to simply become a clash of liturgies. Other liturgies have their glories and their place. I am especially fond of the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great, myself, and I’ve blogged here before about some of the Late Antique and Early Medieval offerings that have touched me.

Nonetheless, if we are drawn to the beauty of the Prayer Book, this is because said beauty is often what other liturgical books lack. A few years after Neale’s ‘Before the ending of the day’ was embedded in my heart, I was browsing a Roman Catholic book shop, and I picked up a book of hours, flipping to Compline. What I found … oh! the horror! I do not now recall which book it was, but given that Neale is public domain, they should have stuck with the Anglicans in Englishing the Breviary. If not this actual translation, it was similar to the one in Benedictine Daily Prayer:

Before we reach the close of day,
Creator of the world, we pray,
That in your mercy you will keep
A guard around us while we sleep.

As we to end of life draw near,
Console us Lord, remove our fear,
May we with light and grace be blessed
And find in you eternal rest.

Most loving Father, hear our plea!
You rule the world with equity,
Together with your only Son,
And with your Spirit, three in one.

I’m not saying this is bad. It’s just not as good, largely on aesthetic grounds, although the content of the two is remarkably different.

In a world stripped of beauty, where the natural world is turned into a moonscape in search for oil, where contemporary architecture is vapid and utilitarian and ugly, where people graffiti (and non-artistically!) all the time, where Naples is falling apart before your eyes, where unbeautiful and ugly and painful things occur — cancer, terrorism, earthquakes — beauty is an imperative.

Beauty is redemptive, even.

Christ came that we might have life, and life abundantly. (John 10:10) Beauty is abundant living. It is a reflection of the Creator Who is Himself Beauty in all His glorious Oneinthreeness.

And remember, ‘Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.’ (Psalm 96:9 BCP [Coverdale] & KJV)

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2 thoughts on “Loving the Book of Common Prayer 4: Beauty

  1. Compline is actually an ancient monastic office before bed time. It was Vespers, the evening office at sunset, and Compline that Cranmer combined to form Evensong in the Book of Common Prayer. The revival of Compline is one of the products of the Anglo Catholic revival in the 19th century. The first version in an Anglican Book of Common Prayer was in the Proposed 1928 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England that was defeated by Parliament. The Americans included Compline in the Book of Offices, and the Canadians included it in the 1962 BCP.
    It is, of course, a lovely office. BCP Matins is a great start to the day and Evensong a great end, but as has always been the custom, people do not immediately go to bed at sunset but stay up for a period of time for reading, socializing or some other activity before retiring. Compline provides a fine form of prayer before retiring. (The 1928 Proposed BCP also tried to revive Prime, the office for rising from bed, but this has never become popular to my knowledge.)

    • Hi Brian! Thanks for the info re the arrival of Compline into the BCP. There is something most excellent about having a final office just before extinguishing the lights and going to bed! But I understand Cranmer’s desire to complete in the vernacular what Quignon had begun in Latin; nonetheless, especially in an age of electric lights, a final, post-Vespers, office is very welcome!

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