The formal prayer of a Byzantine monastic community possesses two distinct aspects: Eucharist and the sanctification of time.
The Eucharist, or Divine Liturgy, is the Lord’s Supper, the sacrifice of His body and blood, which He commanded us to do in memory of Him. Its origins are divine; it is Christ’s gift of Himself to us, our sharing in His continual offering of Himself to the Father. It is, thus, eternal and stands outside of time. Except for the assigned Scripture readings and commemorations, its form and texts change little and are contained in one slim handbook; though usually a morning service, it may be celebrated at any time of day.
All the other Services pertain to the sanctification of time, or the Divine Office. Those who join us for Great Vespers on Saturday Evening experience but a small portion of the whole. When fully celebrated, it comprises Services at sunset, before retiring, at midnight, at dawn, in early morning, at mid–morning, noon, and mid– afternoon; its prescribed texts fill many heavy volumes. This great cycle is not specifically of divine origin, but rather is a gradually developed human attempt at fulfilling St. Paul’s injunctions to pray at every opportunity (Eph. 6:18) and without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17).
Though not entirely monastic in origin — Vespers and Matins, the Services at sunset and dawn, were celebrated in cathedral churches long before they entered the monastic schedule — it grew into its present form, which it had essentially achieved by the fourteenth century, in the monastic setting. Its simple beginnings may be found already among the earliest identifiable Christian monks.
The Desert Fathers were very concerned with heeding the Apostle’s exhortation to incessant prayer. Since they usually lived separately, their manner of observance was flexible and individualistic. Usually it involved the recitation of the Psalms — the Temple and synagogue hymns which the Church had inherited from its Jewish beginnings — perhaps interspersed with short prayers such as, Lord, have mercy. Most of these early monks were illiterate, and they had the Psalms by heart; they would recite them throughout the day as they went about their simple work of rope making or weaving mats. Many would recite the entire Psalter — all 150 Psalms — in a single day.
The Desert Fathers seem to have gone to the parish church for the Eucharist on Sunday and gathered together only one night a week for a Service during which one monk would recite psalms at length, while the others sat and listened, a manner of psalmody still employed in many of our Services today. As monks came together in communities, however, the old individualistic ways proved unsatisfactory, and more formal arrangements developed so that the monks might pray together. Fixed times began to be set aside throughout the day for psalmody in common. In time, certain Psalms became associated with particular times — the Divine Office was being born.
It remains today essentially Psalmody; Psalms and Psalm verses comprise about half its texts. The rest is litanies of petition and blessings — which derive from cathedral services — and hymnody. In its hymns lies the true uniqueness and glory of the Byzantine Divine Office.
Some are very old, but most date from the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries. At first monks were suspicious of hymns, fearing they might overshadow, or even supplant, the Psalms. Eventually, however, monasteries became great centers of hymn writing. Many of the sublime contemplative and theological texts that today fill our service books first flowed from ancient monks whose names we can still recall.
God grant us hearts filled with joy and awe as we hear the Psalms of His servant David and chant the hymns of our holy fathers in faith some thousand years past.