Tuesday, July 19, 2005

In verdant pastures

Uh-oh. I just noticed here at the back of a bookshelf a Roman Breviary, a thick compendium of prescribed daily prayers for clerics, known as the Divine Office. I borrowed it many years ago for something I was writing -- Honey From Stone, perhaps -- but I can't remember from whom. Do clerics still read the Breviary every day? I don't know.

As I thumb through it I see much that is beautiful, the Psalms, for instance. I admit to a lingering affection for liturgies linked to the diurnal and annual cycles of nature. The symbolism of earth, air, fire, water. Candlelight in darkness. Gregorian chant. All of that this book of tissue-thin pages evokes.

But what now strikes me as most alien to my present state of mind is the twenty-six pages of "rubrics" that precede the prayers, delineating every detail of when, where, and how to recite the Office. It is as if the intent of the rules is to suck every element of spontaneity out of the act of praying. Today, it is precisely the spontaneous element of prayer that is most meaningful to me -- falling onto my knees to see what nocturnal beast has left its scat on the garden path, listening in midnight darkness to the typewriter chatter of slates on the roof, or now -- just now -- watching a glacier of cloud slip low and liquid trough Mam na Gaoithe, the Windy Gap.

For all of the magnificent scriptural poetry of the Breviary, the "rubrics" (those myriad rules in red) iron it strangely flat. I think of a few lines of the poet Mary Oliver: "Of course! the path to heaven/ doesn't lie down in flat miles./ It's in the imagination/ with which you perceive/ this world,/ and the gestures/ with which you honor it."