Modern Day Sarum Prymer

I’ve idly considered for some time now producing a usable version of the prymers that I’ve been studying. I do intend to do a lot more with them in my research—they’re fascinating subjects on their own terms as examples of biblical interpretation at work in liturgy and popular devotion as well as important precursors to the Books of Common Prayer. While I’ve put a few scripts together and have done some devotional offices allied with the breviary (for which I need to create a landing page with links), I haven’t done the full-on work due to so many other balls in the air.

However—my procrastination has not been in vain! While I have slept, others have labored!

Fr. Michael Shirk, a priest of the Independent Catholic Christian Church, is a friend of the blog and frequent correspondent. He’s also done yeoman’s work in pulling together liturgical materials for the publishing arm, the Rene Vilatte Press.

Michael’s latest labor is, in fact, a Sarum Prymer!

It contains:

  • The Kalendar
  • Hours of the BVM
  • Hours of the Cross
  • Memorials (with chant notation for the primary common memories)
  • The Gradual Psalms
  • The Litany (with chant notation)
  • The Penitential Psalms
  • The Passion
  • Psalms of the Passion
  • Offices of the Dead (with chant notation)
  • Prayers–a lot of prayers including the classic Marian “O intemerata” and “Obsecro te”, the original XV Oos of St. Bridget and many, many others

It’s all in traditional Coverdale English and, when feasible, many of the prayers have been adapted from Anglican prayer book materials to be consonant with the originals. And that’s one of the things I love about this project—Michael has put in the hard work to make sure that it is faithful not only to the original Sarum prymer tradition but that it also partakes of the spirit of the Anglican continuations and translations within that tradition. The postcript identifying the works he used and consulted is an excellent hand-list of the the best current resources and classic Anglican adaptations of this body of material. We also corresponded several times about it, and he graciously asked me to write the foreword. This is what I said:

The great Anglican spiritual writer Martin Thornton once wrote a profoundly true passage about the chief hallmark of Christian catholicity. While we may argue over interpretation of the Scriptures, the sacraments, the creeds, the finer points of apostolic succession and such, the purest and simplest test of a catholic and orthodox faith classically understood is the pattern of its spirituality: “the common Office (opus dei) supporting private prayer (orationes peculiares) both of which are allied to, and consummated by, the Mass” (Thorton, English Spirituality, 76). In the churches that keep this pattern of spirituality, the rites of the Office and Mass are fixed within the authorized books—whether those be missals and breviaries or the Books of Common Prayer of the Anglican traditions. However, all too often clergy and laity alike are left to their own devices when it comes to the practice of private prayer. While the authorized books serve as models and tutors of prayer, while the psalms remain the pedagogues of prayer par excellence, the faithful need resources for guidance, direction, and an informed understanding of how their private, individual prayers join the prayer of the Church Universal.

We now have just such a resource. In this volume, Fr. Michael Shirk has done a great service to all who seek to join themselves to the Church’s rule of prayer. In his instruction on prayer he offers useful, practical, comments about three principle means of praying; the body of the work, however, is the Sarum prymer and associated devotions. This work has been carefully researched and skillfully connected with temporally later but spiritually complementary Anglican materials which were selected for their linguistic excellence rather than any alteration to the theology of the original. It contains that rare blend of fidelity to the historical tradition and pastoral sensitivity to the modern context. Fr. Shirk’s effort enables us to join the great stream of lay devotion that undergirds the English spiritual tradition.

As the great Victorian liturgist Edmund Bishop demonstrated, the materials that would appear in the books of hours and prymers emerged as additional devotions added in and around the Office within early medieval monastic houses. As literacy and devotion grew among the laity, they desired to imitate monastic practice but within a form suitable to their active lives. Thus the little hours—devotional cycles modeled on the structure of the breviary hours but with fewer and shorter elements and minimally altered by the seasons and saints’ days—were the ideal choice. By the late medieval period, the Books of Hours were the chief devotional aid for the literate. Even the illiterate were edified by them as well as their frequent illustrations depicted the central scenes of the life and passion of Christ. Meditation upon both the texts and images of these books was a central practice of the anchorite mothers of the medieval church and the writings of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe (to name just two) are the fruits of these devotions.

Four practices in particular represent the spiritual centers of gravity of the Sarum prymer: the Hours of the BVM, the Hours of the Cross, the Litany, and the Office of the Dead. While medieval Books of Hours and the English-language or bilingual Latin-English prymers which developed from them often incorporated a range of different elements, these four elements were virtually universal. In them, personal devotion and the Church’s theology are united.

The Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary are an extended mediation upon the mystery of the Incarnation. The honors afford to the Virgin approach from several different directions the many paradoxes inherent in the Incarnation—a virgin giving birth, the Lord who spans heaven and earth enclosed in a womb, a creature bringing forth from her body that body’s Creator.  The images that historically accompanied the hours progressed through the story of Christ through the lens of his mother: the Annunciation, the journey to Bethlehem, the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, etc. As we pray through this devotion, the theological prescriptions of the Chalcedonian formulation are translated into the relationships between mother and Son.

The Hours of the Cross—each hour frequently prayed immediately after the associated hour of the BVM—are a constant reminder of the mystery of Redemption.  As the Hours of the BVM move through the life of Christ, the Hours of the Cross move through the events of the Passion. The hymn of each hour associates the time of day with the sufferings of Christ at that same hour.

The Litany is the devotion that explores the scope and directly participates within the mission of the Church. An extended sequence of alternating prayer that works equally well with others or alone, the Litany begins by calling to mind—through requests for intercession—the scope and extent of the Church; the Church at prayer with us is not restricted to the bodies we see in our immediate vicinity but consists of all those baptized into the mystery of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and is preeminently figured by those worthies who have demonstrated their excellence in the imitation of Christ and unity with his divine life. Thus we name the saints and we call to mind the great divisions of the Church Triumphant. Now, with the Church arrayed around us, we undertake the Church’s great work of intercession, praying for ourselves, for the Church, and for the whole world.

The Office of the Dead and related devotions originally tapped into the deep-set late medieval concerns of dying unprepared and the fates of the souls in purgatory. While these concerns no longer have the hold on the popular consciousness that they once did, these Offices continue to play an important role within the devotional life of the Church. In a society that attempts to sanitize death, hiding it from sight and mind (yet simultaneously glorifying casual violence in its entertainment), the Office of the Dead is a stark reminder of the inevitability of death. It oscillates between the pains of death and the promise of redemption, between human anxiety and divine consolation.

For generations, these devotions have fed the English spiritual tradition. Thanks to the efforts of Fr. Shirk, they have been given a new life in our time. May they enrich your devotion, bless your practice, and lead you deeper into the mysteries of Christ.

So—while you’re waiting for the Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book revision to come out, and if you’re concerned at all that it will be too “modernized,” this is a truly classic supplement that deserves a space on your bookshelf! Here’s the link again:  a Sarum Prymer (and no, I don’t get a kick-back from this one). I’m looking forward to using mine quite a bit this Lent.

A word on a digital edition… Due to the font that Michael used to type-set the volume, it can’t be released in a PDF format so there is currently no digital copy. If there is sufficient interest, ways might be found to do an e-book version, though.

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About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
This entry was posted in Liturgy, Medieval Stuff, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Modern Day Sarum Prymer

  1. Pingback: Modern Day Sarum Prymer | Gaudete Theology

  2. Pingback: A New Sarum Primer | As the Sun in its Orb & New Goliards

  3. +gary carson says:

    Greetings in Christ! I am a Western Rite Orthodox bishop in Aguascalientes, Mexico (Autocephalous Orthodox Church of the Americas). I’d love to be able to see the Hours of Our Lady according to the Sarum Use in PDF or other version. Ordering books from here is very expensive…taxes for sending money out of Mexico, bank fees, extra postage fees because the Mexican Postal Service is wretched at best….

    +
    Gary Carson Ferrone
    Aguascalientes, Mexico

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