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Portús na hÉireann: A Book of Hours according to the Columbanian Tradition, Dustin A. Ashley, Resource Publications (Eugene, OR), March 3, 2022, 193 pages, including Introduction and bibliography. ISBN: 9781666738278

Praying the hours opens us to a deeper recognition that each day is holy, that the world and all that’s within is sacramental. Praying the hours gives voice – sanctifies – the day. Praying the hours through scripture and prayer is a meditative dialogue with the mystery of Christ. Each prayer is an incarnation into our daily life of the Logos. Each prayer is an incarnation of the LOGOS.

Let us pray … that we may grow into the life promised at Christmas. [NZPB p. 557] .

Unless we are priests or a member of a monastery or convent, most of us do not pray the hours. In a way that’s partly the fault of the Church. The hours have been taken out of the hands of the laity. The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) recognized that and sought to put the Hours back into the hands of the whole church.

The Liturgy of the Hours “is devised so that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God…. The purpose of the office is to sanctify the day (Vatican II).” Unfortunately, the effort was not all that effective.

I think many of us see the practice of praying the hours burdensome. After all, we live a hectic busy life. Family, work, and other obligations call.

Portús na hÉireann: A Book of Hours call us to take another look at the practice. Although, Portús na hÉireann presents a full liturgy for praying the hours, the author, Dustin A. Ashley, recognizes that many of us because of time constraints cannot fully pray the hours. Following the instructions of the Rule of Columbanus (Regula monachorum , VII: 2,3), Ashley suggests that we do what we can in a consistent way that works for us. Portús na hÉireann is a book of liturgy that provides with the tools to do just that.

Although most of the book is devoted to the liturgy of praying the hours, Ashley touches upon the Hebrew roots of practice. He notes that Jesus and the disciples, and the early church also prayed the prescribed four times followed by the Jews. Briefly, he mentions the Christianization of the Hebrew hours by Hippolytus, who pattern his practice of praying seven times during the day on Psalm 119:164 (“Seven times a day, I praise you ….”). Finally, he takes us to St. John Cassion and his Coptic roots, and from there to the 6th century, St. Columbanus. It is “according to” tradition of St. Columbanus, that the author builds his liturgy of praying the hours.

Portús na hÉireann is thorough in explaining the “why” of the hours and how they work.

In the introductory material, Ashley writes that the hours exist to represent Christ’s passion, death, descent and resurrection. While I don’t disagree, I do feel that the key aspect of praying the hours is missed.

The liturgy of the hours, according to Christian tradition is the “hymn that is sun in heaven for all eternity.” The hymn was introduced to the world “in the earthly exile by the Word Incarnate (cf. Pius XII, Mediator Dei: EE 6/565; likewise: Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Concilium).

Praying the hours is a mystical reflection on the Incarnated WORD (Logos). It is not a far stretch, especially from the pre-Christian Celtic perspective that tells us the world was sung into existence by divine song, to equate this heavenly hymn with the Logos. Realizing this, I think, provides us with the understanding that we are part and parcel of the hours that we are praying. Praying the hours unites us with both the heavenly and cosmic realms.

Nevertheless, Ashley selects the psalms, hymns and readings to fit the theme of each hour, which follows Christ’s passion, death, descent and resurrection. In the Liturgy of the hours, each hour consists of an invitatory, psalm, hymn, Gospel readings and a series of prayers that culminate in the Divine Prayer and a moment of silence.

The Psalm selection is drawn from the Navigation Sancti Brendani. Three Psalms are attributed to the minor hours and twelve to the major hours. The Collects and Versicles are drawn from the antiphonary of Bangor. Prayers and hymns are drawn from these two, plus the Stowe Missal. Ashley appears to attribute these texts to Columbanus (p. xi), although what he means is that they are part of the tradition in a general sense.

The Portús provides the Christian who wishes to adopt the Irish method of praying the hours a method consistent with both how the early Irish monks worshipped throughout the day and our time daily time constraints.

The Sources:

The Antiphonary of Bangor, BCE 680 is a book of canticles and prayers from the Banger Abbey’s liturgies. There are special prayers for Easter Eve, Easter Day, Eastertide, Saturdays and Sundays and on festivals of Martyrs. As it was written by Comgall who was the teacher of St. Columbanus, the assumption can surely be made that they influenced Columbanus.

The Navigation Sancti Brendani, 9th c., is a Christian epic that is based on the pre-Christian Irish Wonder Voyage. Although accepted as fiction today, Christopher Columbus believed the tale to be true. Thus, in part inspiring his voyage to prove the world was round. Brendan himself, is a 6th century saint. All we know for sure about the authorship of the epic is that it was an Irish monk who recorded it.

Although the Stowe Missal was not complied as such until around 750 CE, it appears to have roots back to at least the sixth century, and the roots could possibly be in part, Columbanian.

Dustin A. Ashley is a student at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee, where he is pursuing an MDiv in historical theology, specializing in the history of the early Irish Church.

© Frank A. Mills, 1997-2023

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