WILLIAM ODDIE "road-tests" a magnificent Book of Hours specially designed for lay people stand first
A Book of Hours: and other Catholic Devotions, Compiled by Fr Seen Finnegan, The Canterbury Press £17.99
IT HAS BECOME A TIRED routine to say of books of Catholic devotions that they "fulfil a long-felt need"; here, the phrase must be taken seriously and literally, for it was the intention of the compiler, Fr Sean Finnegan, to attain precisely that end. His success makes this book not merely a satisfactory exercise but an important achievement.
There was a real need: and it is acutely defined by Fr Sean in his fascinating and erudite introduction. It is a need, not simply of some individuals, but of the whole Church at this juncture in its history that is in the wake of the liturgical movement of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which came to its climax with the reforms of the post-concilar period. For, the movement's indispensable encouragement of a conununal spirituality too often had the side-effect of undervaluing
or even downgrading "private" devotions, so that, Says Fr Sean, "the term 'Garden of the Soul' Catholic" was "used as a term of disapprobation, meaning one who 'got on with his or her devotions' at Mass while the more enlightened catholic followed the text in his or her Missal and participated".
Of course this was a necessary process: but it brought in its train dangerous losses which now need to be made goad. "Nobody", continues Fr Sean, "can deny that it is usefiil or desirable that people should be more directly involved in the Mass, but the change did have an undesirable knock-on effect of allowing a genuine and ancient form of vernacular prayer to decay. For many, following the Mass became a substitute for personal prayer, a trend that has continued to this day."
That is the problem, and it is one which this book is designed to remedy. In particular, it is designed (almost by definition) to fill one crying need resulting from the decay
among the laity of the practice of vocal prayer. The need in vocal prayer is for suitable texts to nurture it. The clergy have the Divine Office. Some Laity use it too: but the fullblown Office is not suitable for everyone. The longest section of the book based on the ancient tradition of simplified office books, or books of seven "hours" for lay use is given over to the Psalter, which is arranged with hymns, prayers and responses. Unlike the official breviary, it can be used in the old way (being unauthorised) entirely flexibly. Thus, the bedridden or those who work at home may say all the hours if they wish; others may use one or two hours a day: yet others may want to draw on the Psalter at any time they may feel the need to pray.
The book is thus in one way deeply traditional; but this does not mean that it is simply a rewarming of old stuff. Certainly, the book's second part, as Fr Graham Leonard puts it in his foreword, "provides us with a truly marvellous storehouse of devotions". The old texts are there: that in itself is something to be grateful for, particularly for recent converts, indeed for any cradle Catholic whose school career has unfolded under the shadow of the present Bishop of Leeds, a period in which acquiring texts by heart has been brutally dismissed as "rote learning", so that a generation of Catholics (if their parents mistakenly relied on Catholic schools) has grown up incapable of reciting, say, the Salve Regina or the Memorare, either in English or Latin.
AFTER THE PSALTER, AF are sections of devotions for any onceivable occasion, either in the church's year or in the life of the individual. As I say, the old prayers are there: but Fr Finnegan has not engaged in some arid exercise in nostalgia. His concept of tradition is a dynamic one, and there are surprises and new insights at every turn. The only way of judging a book of prayers is to
use it; so, faced simultaneously by the necessities of reviewing the book and preparing for my confession at Pentecost, I as it were road-tested the section of Devotions for the Sacrament of Penance. Here, as I expected, was the traditional Act of Contrition ("Oh my God, because you are so good, I am very sorry that I have sinned against you and with the help of your grace I will not sin again"). But here, too, was the most startling of the Divine Sonnets of the poet and Anglican Divine John Donne, which it would never have occurred to me to use in preparation for the confessional. Fr Sean's proposal of it in such a context is a mark, not only of his wide knowledge and ecumenical sympathies, but of his brilliant originality, too: Batter my heart, threeperson 'd God; for, you As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new... The book has many splendours, not least of which is the text of the Psalms and Gospel Canticles. Unable for copyright reasons to use the official ICEL texts, Fr Sean has sensitively and triumphantly modernised the Douai translations, which now spring wonderfully into life again in time for the third millennium. If only ICEL had done the same: we would then have been spared (among other gaucheries) that absurd and tortuous "translation" of the Nunc Dimittis ("At last, all powerful Master, you give leave to your servant to go in peace etc.) Instead, simple, lucid and accurate, we have this: Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your promise.
Here, as everywhere, we can rely on Fr Sean for clarity, faithfulness, and a consistently impressive spiritual depth. His book is surely one of the most important resources for the laity to appear for a generation; it is hardly possible to recommend it too highly.