But perhaps most importantly, through baptism Jesus sets in motion God’s saving plan to renew all things according to the Divine Will. To “make all things new,” means to restore all things to the way God meant for them to be, including our human nature.
Beauty calls us to itself and then beyond, to the source of all beauty, God. God's creation is beautiful, and God made us to apprehend it so that we might see Him through it. The choice of images for our prayer, therefore, is important. Beautiful sacred imagery not only aids the process of prayer, but what we pray with influences profoundly our taste: praying with beautiful sacred art is the most powerful education in beauty that there is. In the end this is how we shape our culture, especially so when this is rooted in family prayer. The icon corner will help us to do that. I am using icon here in the broadest sense of the term, referring to a sacred image that depicts the likeness of the person portrayed. So one could as easily choose Byzantine, gothic or even baroque styles. The contemplation of sacred imagery is rooted in man’s nature. This was made clear by the 7th Ecumenical Council, at Nicea. Through the veneration icons, our imagination takes us to the person depicted. The veneration of icons, therefore, is an aid to prayer first and it serves to stimulate and purify the imagination. This is discussed in the writings of Theodore the Studite (759-826AD), who was one of the main theologians who contributed to the resolution of the iconoclastic controversy.
In emphasising the importance of praying with sacred images Theodore said: “Imprint Christ…onto your heart, where he [already] dwells; whether you read a book about him, or behold him in an image, may he inspire your thoughts, as you come to know him twofold through the twofold experience of your senses. Thus you will see with your eyes what you have learned through the words you have heard. He who in this way hears and sees will fill his entire being with the praise of God.” [quoted by Cardinal Schonborn, p232, God’s Human Face, pub. Ignatius.]
It is good, therefore for us to develop the habit of praying with visual imagery and this can start at home. The tradition is to have a corner in which images are placed. This image or icon corner is the place to which we turn, when we pray. When this is done at home it will help bind the family in common prayer.
Accordingly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church recommends that we consider appropriate places for personal prayer: ‘For personal prayer this can be a prayer corner with the sacred scriptures and icons, in order to be there, in secret, before our Father. In a Christian family kind of little oratory fosters prayer in common.’(CCC, 2691)
I would go further and suggest that if the father leads the prayer, acting as head of the domestic church, as Christ is head of the Church, which is His mystical body, it will help to re-establish a true sense of fatherhood and masculinity. It might also, I suggest, encourage also vocations to the priesthood.
The placement should be so that the person praying is facing east. The sun rises in the east. Our praying towards the east symbolizes our expectation of the coming of the Son, symbolized by the rising sun. This is why churches are traditionally ‘oriented’ towards the orient, the east. To reinforce this symbolism, it is appropriate to light candles at times of prayer. The tradition is to mark this direction with a cross. It is important that the cross is not empty, but that Christ is on it. in the corner there should be representation of both the suffering Christ and Christ in glory.
‘At the core of the icon corner are the images of the Christ suffering on the cross, Christ in glory and the Mother of God. An excellent example of an image of Christ in glory which is in the Western tradition and appropriate to the family is the Sacred Heart (the one from Thomas More College's chapel, in New Hampshire, is shown). From this core imagery, there can be additions that change to reflect the seasons and feast days. This way it becomes a timepiece that reflects the cycles of sacred time. The “instruments” of daily prayer should be available: the Sacred Scriptures, the Psalter, or other prayer books that one might need, a rosary for example.
This harmony of prayer, love and beauty is bound up in the family. And the link between family (the basic building block upon which our society is built) and the culture is similarly profound. Just as beautiful sacred art nourishes the prayer that binds families together in love, to each other and to God; so the families that pray well will naturally seek or even create art (and by extension all aspects of the culture) that is in accord with that prayer. The family is the basis of culture.
Confucius said: ‘If there is harmony in the heart, there will be harmony in the family. If there is harmony in the family, there will be harmony in the nation. If there is harmony in the nation, there will be harmony in the world.’ What Confucius did not know is that the basis of that harmony is prayer modelled on Christ, who is perfect beauty and perfect love. That prayer is the liturgical prayer of the Church.
A 19th century painting of a Russian icon corner
Earlier in the summer I mentioned, here, that the newly created parish of St Gregory the Great in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts had commissioned a chalice and paten in a traditional English design. I am please to report that the vessels have been completed and were consecrated this past weekend. The artist, Vincent Hawley sent me these photographs of the completed works. He tells me that both the chalice and paten are solid Sterling silver and the inside of the chalice is gilded in 24K gold. The chalice is 7'' high with bowl diameter of 6'' and the paten is 9.5'' in diameter. It took 4 sq. feet of silver sheet, around 1mm thick, to create them. The chalice has two engraved insriptions and three medallions, a chi-rho, Christ and St Gregory. The paten has an engraved dedication on the back. The technique used to create them is 'hand-raising'.The chalice bears two inscriptions: 'This is my blood shed for you and for many', and the second is 'Holy Gregory pray that all may drink of this cup'. The paten carries the dedicatory inscription engraved around the underside of its rim: 'These vessels were given to the greater Glory of God in thankfulness for the establishment of St Gregory the Great parish and the ordination of its first pastor, Jurgen Liias, through the generosity of its people in September MMXIII. Exodus XXV:I-IX'. The scripture cited is 'The Lord said to Moses, "Speak to the people of Israel that they take for me an offering; from every man whose heart makes him willing you shall receive from them...let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. According to all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of its furniture, so shall you make it.'' Vincent can be contacted through his website vwhjewelry.com or directly on email firstname.lastname@example.org. The parish website describing the original commission is here.
How busy people can strive for the ideal of praying continuously. The Divine Office for lay people, part 2 (part 1 is here): St Paul exhorts us: ‘Always rejoice. Pray without ceasing.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17).
How can we do this? One can imagine the heavenly host of angels and saints doing this as they participate in the heavenly liturgy. But how can we, while here in this earthly life, strive towards this ideal? The answer is the liturgy of the hours, also known as the Divine Office.
The Church’s General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours reads as follows:
"Consecration of Time
10. Christ taught us: "You must pray at all times and not lose heart" (Lk 18:1). The Church has been faithful in obeying this instruction; it never ceases to offer prayer and makes this exhortation its own: "Through him (Jesus) let us offer to God an unceasing sacrifice of praise" (Heb 15:15). The Church fulfills this precept not only by celebrating the Eucharist but in other ways also, especially through the liturgy of the hours. By ancient Christian tradition what distinguishes the liturgy of the hours from other liturgical services is that it consecrates to God the whole cycle of the day and the night. 
11. The purpose of the liturgy of the hours is to sanctify the day and the whole range of human activity.'' [My emphasis]
If all times in the day and all human activity (no matter how mundane) can be sanctified by praying the liturgy of the hours, as the Church tells us, then this is this is a wonderful gift by which we can open ourselves up to God’s inspiration and consolation in all we do, and the degree that we cooperate, all our activities will be good and beautiful; and will be infused with new ideas and creativity. And we will have joy.
There are seven liturgical hours to be marked in the day and by tradition the process of doing something seven times symbolizes doing it perfectly or continuously. So for example, the psalmist (Ps 12:6) tells us that, ‘The words of the Lord are pure words: like silver tried by fire, purged from the earth refined seven times.’ This pattern of cycles of seven runs through the liturgy (see previous article, The Path to Heaven is a Triple Helix).
Even if we accept this and want to benefit from it, it is a huge problem for most lay people. If you get the full cycle of prayer of seven Offices in the day for seven days of every week in the year it adds up to a three or four volume set. Priests and religious who are obliged to pray it, devote a huge part of their lives to praying the liturgy of the hours. Benedictine monks can spend up to six hours a day singing the psalms in church. One might expect them to be able to cope as that is their special calling, but what about the rest of us?
This is how I approached the problem. First, as with all these things the help of a spiritual director is invaluable. He told me that I should take heart in the fact that through its priests and religious especially, the Church as a whole is praying the Hours on our behalf. As the globe turns, someone somewhere is praying for all of humanity (most of whom have no idea of the benefits they are getting as a result). So any additional contribution that I might make, no matter how small, to this prayer of Christ in the mystical body, the Church, will be good, but neither is everything going to collapse if I don't do it perfectly. Even one Hour (or ‘Office’) a week is worth it.
I was told to start modestly. If I found it beneficial, then I was told that I could increase what I did, but then it would be best to do so only gradually. There was a danger that if I took on too much too early that I would find it overwhelming and then give up altogether.
I started by aiming to read a maximum of two each day: Morning Prayer (‘Lauds’) when I got up and Night Prayer (‘Compline’) before I went to bed. I had a single volume version that just had Lauds, Evening Prayer (Vespers) and Compline for the year. If you want to try this but don’t even want to buy a book, you can see what each Office is for any day by going to www.universalis.com.
Mark the Hours
It took me a while to develop this habit, but once I had, I had to decide what to do next? I'd experienced enough to know that this was good and I knew I wanted to do more. But, like many busy people it seemed to me that trying to introduce even just Vespers on top of what I was already doing was going to be difficult. I was given an alternative. If at any time I could not recite a full Office, why not substitute it with a memorized prayer, and aim gradually to mark each Hour and aim for the ideal of sevenfold prayer each day?
I was helped by reading a book recommended to me by a fellow faculty member of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts called Earthen Vessels, the Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, by Fr Gabriel Bunge. Despite its daunting title it is in fact quite easy to read and very practical. Fr Bunge a Swiss Benedictine monk explains that the essence of the liturgy of the hours can be described as two things: first praying the psalms; and second, the marking of an hour. The official ‘off-the-shelf’ cycles of psalms, canticles, hymns and prayers are produced to allow people to sing in community, and this is why priests and religious must say a prescribed form. However, as lay people, we are free to devise any cycle of the psalms we like.
So this is what I did: for the most part I tried to keep to the standard form of each Office as in the Liturgy of the Hours book I had been given (which was according the Roman Rite, it said in the front) and from that to the schedule of Compline at night and Lauds in the morning. However, in between I marked the hour with a short memorised prayer, sometimes just the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be. If I could remember any, I tried to have just a line from a psalm. The ideal would be to memorise one psalm (and some are short!). This habit of continual prayer is what opens the door to the possibility of continuous prayer. The publication Magnificat is a cycle of the psalms, with some prayers and canticles, that one can subscribe to monthly, which has been designed with lay people in mind.
What are the Hours?
The hours are not set times according the clock, but to the traditional organisation of time in which, roughtly speaking, usual hours of daylight are broken up into twelve divisions. So it is roughly like this: Lauds at dawn or when you get up; Terce (the ‘third hour’)at 9am or mid-morning, Sext (the ‘sixth’ hour) at noon or the middle of the day, None (at the ‘ninth’ hour)at 3pm or mid afternoon and Vespers at dusk. Then there is Compline at bed time and during the night Matins, which is also called the Office of Readings. Because busy people are not expected always to be able to rise at midnight to praise God, this can be said at any convenient time and is often run together with Lauds, first thing in the morning.
The experience of doing this has been so positive that I can't imagine not wanting to pray at least part of the Hours each day. As someone said to me recently, he found that the praying of the liturgy of the hours was like regular physical exercise: although it meant an investment of time, there was a sense that in doing so, time was created because work seemed more efficient and productive and things just seemed to go more smoothly during the day. We both felt the same. We couldn’t prove it, but once we had tried it, we were convinced of its value.
I started doing the liturgy of the hours about 15 years ago and gradually, I have found that my life circumstances have altered to give room for it. I don’t do it all perfectly, but I now do most Offices each day. It does not feel like a burden, but a source of sustenance.
O praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people. For his mercy is confirmed upon us: and the truth of the Lord remaineth for ever.
You can read a more detailed article about it by following the link: Achieving the Pauline Ideal - Praying Continuously Body and Soul.
Those who want to learn to do the Divine Office, you might approach a priest or religious (ie monk or nun) and ask them to show you. Alternatively, the Way of Beauty summer retreats at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts will teach you how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and how you can realistically incorporated it into a busy working or family life
This is sacred music from pre-Reformation England. Sarum is old name for the town of Salisbury and it disappeared as a form of the Church's liturgy after the Council of Trent. However, it was retained in some form as it became the basis of Anglican church music and for the Book of Common Prayer. The concert takes place in a New York Episcopalian church - Trinity Church. I heard about it because it was posted onto my Facebook page by a TMC student who is currently out in Rome - thanks Taylor! Access the video through the image of Salisbury Cathedral below.
When Pope Benedict XVI spoke recently to assembled artists (in the broadest sense of the term) in Rome, he was echoing John Paul II and Paul VI in calling for a new culture of beauty. Benedict emphasised strongly, perhaps even more strongly than his predecessors, the importance of the evangelization of the whole culture and how beauty is a principle that can inform all human activity – work and leisure as well as worship. When we work beautifully, we work gracefully ie with God’s grace, and we are travelling on the ‘via pulchritudinis’ - the Way of Beauty - which leads us ultimately to God and attracts others to Him.
If this broader evangelization of the culture is to happen, it must begin with orthodox, dignified and beautiful liturgy. It must, in my opinion be closely followed by the art, architecture and music that is united to it. This will set the form that becomes the model upon which all aspects of the culture are based, just as it did in the past.
At the moment, the re-establishment of iconography is slightly further ahead than that of naturalistic Western art (as a sacred art form) and our Eastern brethren are setting the pace in this respect. Like Western art, iconography (even in the East), had degenerated under the influence of the Enlightenment. (For further discussion on this see the article about icons, here). Its resurgence began first in the Eastern Church in the mid 20th century, with figures such as the Greek artist Photius Kontoglou and the Russian émigré based in France, Gregory Kroug. Under their influence, the next generations of iconographers have come through. The Western Church has lagged behind slightly in this respect, perhaps 50 years (maybe hampered by the difficulties in its liturgy). However, just as we see light at the end of the liturgical tunnel now in the West with what I have heard people refer to as the ‘Benedictine Restoration’ (as in Pope Benedictine XVI), we do now see Catholic iconographers are beginning to emerge. One is Sr Petra Clare, who is a Benedictine nun based in a skete in the Scottish Highlands. It is a bus ride northwest of Inverness in a village called Cannich and it is a truly beautiful spot to visit if you get a chance. Here are some examples of her work. You also can see her website here. I first became aware of her work through visits to Pluscarden Abbey near Elgin in northern Scotland. She was commissioned by the abbey to paint two large icons, a John the Baptist (or John the Forerunner) and a St Andrew (seen here). They are facing the monks in the choir and visitors sitting in the transcepts have to strain their necks slightly to see them, but it’s worth the effort.
Sr Petra's style is probably closest to that of the Russian school. When I have written about her work in the past, some have questioned the validity of having an Eastern style in the Western liturgy. Shouldn't we, they say, use some of our own iconographic traditions? After all we have Carolingian, Ottonian, Celtic and Romanesque styles that all conform to the iconographic. My thoughts are that we have to start somewhere good, which Sr Petra does, and there has always been cross fertilisation in iconographic styles. Also, the Romanesque itself, was a style formed by contact with the East and when it began resembled greatly the Greek Eastern styles. Gradually, a distinct voice developed naturally. Also, I would say that Sr Petra is an experienced icon painter and without ever seeking to force it we can see her own style coming through. Who's to say that isn't Western?
Below: St Luke, left; and right, St Andrew. More of Sr Petra's work can be seen at www.sanctiangeli.org