The Choral Office: The Work of the Preacher

The Dominican Order’s official name is “Order of Preachers.” We embrace the apostolic life, possessing material goods only in common, and devote ourselves to preaching the Word. Lack of private possessions, in addition to serving as a means of detachment from this life for growth in love of God (its primary purpose), also gives us a freedom for preaching and study; after all, paying bills, shopping, and washing the car all take time.

Yet the Order, from its founding in 1216 to the present day, has legislatively bound itself to what we call the “choral office.” This practice goes back through Christian history to the Desert Fathers, who go out into the desert starting in the 4th century (as the persecutions of the Roman Empire die down) to seek God, and take to chanting the Book of Psalms in God’s praise. In fact, we see this in the example of Peter and John going to the Temple in Jerusalem at the public prayer hours (Acts 3),and even all the way back to King David’s liturgical reform as he brings the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (see 1 Chron 15).

The traditional Dominican practice paralleled the monastic tradition: the friars would gather six times a day and once at midnight, spending a total of at least five hours (probably more, especially on major feasts) chanting the Psalms in our distinctive version of Gregorian tones and melodies. Even those brothers dispensed from much of the common recitation for the sake of study and preaching (St. Thomas Aquinas, for example) would gather in small groups to chant these prayers more quickly, totaling probably three hours daily. While the Order adopted the much shorter Roman Liturgy of the Hours in the late 1960s, we still spend a significant portion of our day chanting the Psalms in praise of God. So we can ask: if our mission is preaching, then why bother with all the singing?

Much could be said, but I’ll limit myself to a reflection from a French Dominican, Humbert Clerissac, O.P.

The Apostle, the preacher, is above all the man of God; his testimony must come, in one way or another, from his personal experience of God. He is the man of Mount Sinai and the Holy of Holies: the sanctuary and the choir are for him his Sinai and his Holy of Holies. His whole life is regulated by the service he has to render there, and those to whom he is sent should see on his brow the sign that he is consecrated and is of the household of God.

Humbert Clérissac, The Spirit of St. Dominic, Cluny Media edition (Providence, RI: Cluny Media, 2015), 63.

There is an old scholastic dictum: no one gives what he does not have. If the preacher does not know the Word, the only-begotten Wisdom of the Father, in both his words and way of life, then he has nothing to give a world dying for a drink from that fountain of living water.

And what do we seek in choir? Nothing but the glory and praise of God, the Holy Spirit and Fountain of Life.

Br. Kevin Peter Cantu, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE