The New Word on Fire Liturgy of the Hours and Bishop Barron Derangement Syndrome
“With every day that passes, the conflict between tendencies which set Catholic against Catholic in every order - - social, political, philosophical - - is revealed as sharper and more general. One could almost say that there are now two quite incompatible ‘Catholic mentalities.’ … And that is manifestly abnormal, since there cannot be two Catholicisms.”
(Maurice Blondel, "History and Dogma")
This will be a strange blog post, since it is really two posts in one. The first part is on the value of praying the Liturgy of the Hours. And the second part is on what I call “Bishop Barron Derangement Syndrome.” I link them together here however since the one leads into the other and, on a deeper level, are related to one another.
Like Dorothy Day, my wife and I are Benedictine Oblates. And the biggest aspect of this affiliation is our commitment to praying the Liturgy of the Hours. This was not a big deal for me since I have been praying the Liturgy of the Hours since I was in the seminary in my twenties. And even after I left the seminary I continued to pray the Hours since I found it immensely fruitful as both a prayer form and as a discipline. My wife and I have been praying it together for many years now and it is a pure joy for a husband and a wife to so pray together. Not without reason is the Liturgy of the Hours the second highest liturgical prayer form in the Church, second only to the Eucharistic liturgy. It also has broad ecumenical applications since both the Anglicans and the Orthodox have their version of the Hours as well, versions which are in many ways even more important (and often more beautiful) in those communities than it is in the Catholic Church. I myself have attended Evensong in my Ordinariate parish, complete with a chant choir, and find in its cadences and elevated language a true example of the coming together or prayer and beauty, with an absolute focus on the worshipping of God in spirit and in truth.
The Church, especially since Vatican II, has encouraged the laity to take up the discipline of the Hours and many of us have answered that call. But that is not to say that it is always easy which is where the “discipline” aspect of the Hours is most helpful, especially for those of us who are putatively “too busy” to pray in such a regulated way. For example, I must admit that I still find Evening Prayer a bit annoying since it comes at a time of day when I am tired and more interested in dinner and my post-dinner evening bourbon than I am in raising my mind to God. But that annoyance is exactly what the discipline of the Hours is meant to tame: First to browbeat me into prayer (it is NOW the time to pray you procrastinating fool), and then to soothe my soul with the psalms - - especially the ones about sybaritic louts like me getting their heads smashed in by the Amalekites as a punishment - - as my initial grumblings and rumblings about the delayed gratification of my belly is transformed into a serene gratitude, a quiet joy, and a calming of my carnally restless soul. In other words, the genius of the Hours is that it turns the very act of not wanting to pray, into a prayer, via the path of the ascetical renunciation of “my” time into God’s time, grumbling all the way, with those grumblings eventually turned into groanings, then turned into the chastened praise of God from a soul whose very recalcitrance has been transformed into an agonistic plea for grace. Mine is a conflicted soul which is why the psalms that speak to the unbelief of the believers hit me the hardest.
In short, I need this discipline since my seemingly bottomless capacity for distraction and sheer lassitude (“oh look, something new on Facebook!”) knows no limits. I am addicted to “push notifications” (like the latest missive from “uber eats” dinging on my iPhone and beckoning to me with Pavlovian power) and feel almost depressed when my phone falls silent for longer than half an hour. Doesn’t anybody love me anymore? I am a person too you know! Where is my digital dopamine? “Only one ‘Like’ for my last Facebook post of my dog? Seriously? Who are you fools anyway? Don’t you see my genius? Time to get serious and ‘unfriend’ some of these slackers. You don’t appreciate my dog photos? I better write something about why cats are Satan’s Marionettes.” Then there is the ever present temptation of the “academic” on Facebook: “I better respond to this comment since if I don’t defend Balthasar and de Lubac who will? … Crap… that took two hours.” Then there is the guilt inducing messages from friends: “Oh look, someone is texting me with an hour long podcast on the genius of Leonard Cohen. I love Leonard Cohen and the friend who sent it so I better watch this.” This is then followed by: “Wow, look at the time! Almost dinner hour. What? Evening prayer? Again? Didn’t I do that yesterday? Can’t that count for today too? I have limits you know!”
This is precisely why I think it is a horrible idea to pray the Liturgy of the Hours on a computerized device of some kind. Because in so doing even as we pray we are still feeding the digital beast. But I do understand why people do this. I know from talking to a lot of lay people who want to pray the Hours that one of the biggest obstacles is that they are intimidated by all of the ribbons and the flipping around that one has to do in a printed Breviary. To me it is second nature, but to many, many people it is so off-putting that they decide to just do it on iBreviary or some other “app” that has the Hours of that day all laid out for you without any need for ribbon flipping. Even I must admit that my heart fills with existential despair when one of my ribbons slips out of my breviary and I have to go looking for my place again. And it is not a good thing when in such moments of “breviary rage” one momentarily ceases to believe in a good God right in the middle of a psalm of deprecation. De profundis!
Still, I think it is spiritually counterproductive to pray the Hours electronically. Maybe that is just me, but I doubt that it is. Prayer is in an analog, and not digital, modality, and the pedagogy, if not the latent metaphysics, of the Whore of Babylon that is Big Tech, insinuates its inner logic into our souls with every swipe of our fingers across that screen. I am a complete hypocrite of course since I am typing these words on my iMac, even as I continually glance over at my dinging iPhone, and run this blog which is also internet based. And I post my various interviews through the Great Satan that is YouTube, owned by Google, which is the Antichrist. And all joking aside I do tend to view the rise of our digital masters in quasi-apocalyptic categories and have a dystopian vision of where it is all headed. Think C.S. Lewis and his “Abolition of Man” here and the coming era of the “man-molding conditioners” with the great masses of folks relegated to the status of the “conditioned.” And yet here I am. But that is part of the evil in all of this since in order to engage the culture in which I live I am forced to utilize such tools unless I choose to simply become a kind of “Catholic Amish” sort of fellow content with my front porch and my cider in blissful retreat from the world.
However, all is not hopeless since there are small things we can do to counteract our tech addiction. We can choose to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, for example, from a printed text. But what about those darn ribbons and all of the flipping around in the Breviary? It is for this reason that many people started subscribing to the wonderful little publication called “Magnificat”. Containing the daily Mass readings, many of the prayers from the Liturgy of the Hours, as well as some artwork and beautiful meditations, it has become a welcome prayer aid for thousands of devout Catholics. It has been universally praised and is encouraged by pastors all over the country, and rightly so. Because even though it does not contain the full Liturgy of the Hours, it comprises a beautiful prayer discipline all its own that has truly been a blessing for the Church. And no ribbons needed! Furthermore, it is an actual printed text which contains a different aesthetic, and a different pedagogy for the soul, and indeed a different metaphysics.
Therefore, I was really happy when I saw Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire ministry come out with a monthly, printed version of the Hours that one can subscribe to for a very minimal fee. And the beauty of it is that it too avoids all of the need for ribbon flipping and it takes all of the intimidation out of the prayer. And I was happy about this because as much as I like and appreciate Magnificat, it is not the full liturgical prayer of the Church and I think there is great merit in actually joining the Church universal in her common prayer. It is powerful when one remembers that one is praying the same prayer as the monks, and priests, and sisters, and millions of laity, and that your lone small voice is no longer so alone or so small. And so big kudos to Word on Fire for doing this and I hope it encourages thousands more to take up the Liturgy of the Hours as a powerful aid in their spiritual growth.
Okay, so far so good. That is the first part of what I wanted to say. Namely, how wonderful it is to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, to encourage people to do so despite our many prayer failings (as in my case), and to praise both the folks at Magnificat and Word on Fire for caring enough about lay spiritual growth to promote this beautiful prayer amongst the faithful. But somehow I knew as soon as I saw that Bishop Barron was promoting this that his critics would come out of the woodwork and find some reason as to why this is yet again more evidence of how “questionable,” and indeed, “objectionable,” Bishop Barron is. And sure enough, within days of the Word on Fire promotion beginning, many in the trad world responded with the usual disdain. One prominent traditionalist made fun of it for being a “disposable/throw away” Liturgy of the Hours which I guess was his way of saying that these new Word on Fire booklets are somehow disrespectful to the Hours. I don’t recall that same person ever criticizing Magnificat for being “disposable” and I doubt he would object if The Remnant decided to send out an equivalent monthly Breviary so long as it is the pre-1955 Latin version. But that dadgum rascal Bishop Barron is once again promoting “Catholicism Lite” with his “throw away” Breviary. Did it ever occur to these pinched-up pharisees that the idea behind the booklets is that they can act as a kind of gateway drug into the "real" books of the traditional Breviary? That one who is intimidated by the Liturgy of the Hours can begin here and then gradually become comfortable with it and move on to the standard books? And the Breviary, so I am told, is currently under revision and something tells me that once that is done that WOF will most likely come out with its own typically beautiful and impressive edition of the new Breviary. This is Bishop Barron using the vast influence and reach of WOF to promote liturgical prayers among the lay faithful, and all the Tradicals can do is complain that this is just further evidence of his perfidy in some bizarre way. They are like the annoying neighborhood Chihuahua that barks at everything... and nothing.
I saw many other traditionalists pile on with claims that this is just Bishop Barron, once again, looking to cash in on a “market need” and to add millions more to his already burgeoning coffers. Forget that he is actively promoting a liturgical prayer form that the Church herself has (rightly) been encouraging lay people to pray for decades now. Forget that it is very affordable with the monthly fee being so minimal that it probably barely covers production and shipping costs. Forget all that - - this is just Bishop Barron being greedy and seemingly in need of constant attention and who seems to want to take over the world. Like an ecclesial Dr. Evil in his underground lair in California, Robert Barron’s tentacles are now reaching out, gasp, into the Liturgy of the Hours in order to bilk people out of money and to expand his empire of doom. And then, right on cue and as if taken from some secret Trad set of standard talking points, came the (by now) almost creedal litany of complaints against Bishop Barron: Nobody goes to Hell, Ben Shapiro doesn’t need to convert, and James Martin wrote a good book on prayer. And now this latest outrage! Who will stop this man? Inexpensive and easy to use printed Breviaries for lay people? Where is Vigano when you need him? Because surely this is all part of the “Great Reset” engineered by Soros: disposable breviaries designed solely to extend the WOF “empire” must certainly be a part of the same plot to destroy the Church that Pope Francis is overseeing as we speak.
But the worst criticism I saw was that the good Bishop is guilty of promoting the post Vatican II Breviary which is, apparently, a complete abomination. Instead of promoting this deeply flawed version of the Breviary why doesn’t Bishop Barron promote the old Breviary, which is vastly superior? This criticism is the most telling since it brings out a difference between Bishop Barron and his trad critics that is important. Namely, that Bishop Barron is actually trying to encourage people to pray, liturgically, the same liturgical prayer that most of the rest of the Church is praying. And that would be the post-conciliar Breviary. The traditionalist critics, on the other hand, are promoting a Tridentine liturgical form that the vast majority of folks in the Church do not pray, and do not wish to pray. I actually think that many of their criticisms of the new Breviary have some merit. And I think there are aspects of the old Breviary that are superior in some ways. Just as I think the Ordinariate’s Breviary is superior in some respects as well. And I would welcome a reform of the Breviary which, apparently, is in the works. I would welcome a reformed Breviary that does not edit out the “hard” sayings found in some psalms and I would also welcome a revised translation that uses more archaic and “elevated” language. Nevertheless, the fact is that the old Latin Breviary is not the Breviary for most of the Church and therefore to criticize Bishop Barron for promoting the Church’s actual official prayer on the grounds that he is promoting something inferior is just mean-spirited silliness of the highest order. Furthermore, despite its flaws, the current Breviary is just fine, thank you very much, for promoting praying the psalms and the canticles of the Scriptures. To claim otherwise is just tendentious, ideologically driven, twaddle. I have prayed the current Breviary for 40 years and I have found it to be an absolute pillar of my spiritual life. Therefore, I find the sweeping condemnation of it from certain Tradicals to be worse than mere twaddle. It borders instead on a kind of monomaniacal neurosis of the soul that can’t find its way to praise anything that has happened in the Church since Pascendi.
I have a title for all of this and an acronym. I call it: “Bishop Barron Derangement Syndrome” or B.B.D.S. for short. I mean this. Because what else can one make of the fact that here is a man, Bishop Barron, who is trying to encourage as many people as he can to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and yet somehow, someway, by some kind of Tradical alchemy, this is once again just Bishop Barron spinning ecclesial gold back into straw. And the reason why this concerns me is that it goes far beyond the specific issue of Bishop Barron. I am not here as some kind of “Barron groupie” to defend him at all costs. He is a big boy, with a big brain, and he can defend himself just fine without my various lucubrations. What is at stake rather is that the Bishop Barron Derangement Syndrome is symptomatic of an even deeper derangement that continues to haunt the traditionalist movement and to hamstring its better efforts at reform. And it is a derangement that holds that what is wrong with Word on Fire is precisely that it is successful - - and wildly so - - at promoting the Catholicism represented by the theology of the Council, as well as its development and hermeneutical retrieval in the pontificates of John Paul and Benedict. Which is why increasingly even those popes are thrown under the Trad bus as “modernist” Trojan Horses. They despise Bishop Barron not because they think his method of evangelization “won’t work,” but rather because it does work, and manifestly so. But in so “working,” it is promoting John Paul II Catholicism, which the Tradicals increasingly reject as just another part of modern milquetoast Catholicism.
And in its place the Tradicals want to promote a form of evangelization that once again emphasizes, among other things, that most people are probably going to Hell (you hear that Balthasar?!), and therefore we need to have confessional Catholic States that deny full religious freedom to non-Catholics - - for their own good of course. We also need to pray again in Latin, deny married women the right to vote (or even speak and travel without their husband’s permission according to some), and reaffirm that extra ecclesiam nulla salus should be construed in the narrowest way imaginable. They also would have us return our theology to a strictly Tridentine iteration of the scholastic enterprise, rejecting all theologies that want to take into account the categories of historicity and subjectivity as so much warmed-over Teilhardianism. Their theology of nature and grace is thoroughly extrinsicist, and they reject all attempts to place Catholic theology into dialogue and engagement with the currents of modern thought, other than to criticize such thinking and to condemn it tout court.
Good luck with all that. It will be successful at attracting a certain kind of spiritual seeker who is looking for a more robust version of Catholicism than the beige Catholicism of a typical suburban parish. It will attract those suffering souls who have been harmed and/or left cold by the desultory Catholicism of modernity. I do understand the allure of radical traditionalism to some, and I am a kind of “traditionalist” as well, as any Catholic must be. But the attractiveness and appeal of this kind of Catholicism is undermined by the ideological and theological straightjackets it so often champions, and the entire affair has the tone and tenor, as my friend Kale Zelden puts it, of a “coping mechanism” rather than a true embracing of the full message of the Gospel. Viewed in this way - - as a coping mechanism - - the hostility and anger it often displays toward anyone not deemed “pure enough” (such as Bishop Barron, or John Paul, or Benedict, or Balthasar, or de Lubac) comes into greater focus as the kind of neurotic anxiety Balthasar described (“The Christian and Anxiety”) as one of the peculiar existential hallmarks of modernity. I normally do not like this kind of “psychologizing” of one’s theological interlocutors since it is often a dodge from serious conversation. But I never dodge serious conversations, and in this instance I stand firmly behind my assertion that the allure of radical traditionalism is not its purity of Christian spirit, but its status as a kind of “safe haven” amidst stormy seas. And I say that not with a tone of derision, but of sympathy, since this kind of anxiety afflicts us all today and we all react to it differently.
Some will inevitably say that I am criticizing a straw man here. I do not think that I am. Seriously, traditionalists need to stop playing this “straw man” card every time someone calls out elements of their movement and criticizes them. We have eyes and ears and this is not my first rodeo. And when you look to the leading social media influencers among the traditionalists one precisely sees the things I am talking about. If you doubt me, just go on the Facebook page of any traditionalist friend of yours and say something positive and nice about Bishop Barron or Balthasar, or even lately, John Paul and Benedict. I will await your report as to what happens next… Furthermore, I will only begin to take seriously the claim that “most trads are not like this!” when I see more and more trad voices (heck, even just a few voices) denounce the rhetorical and theological excesses of folks like Taylor Marshall, Michael Voris, Vigano, Patrick Coffin, et. al., and to do so loudly and consistently. Instead, what one finds in social media are that these shrill voices are actually applauded by almost every traditionalist who comments. And to the charge that “social media” are not representative of the broader trad movement I call BS. Social media are where we come out to play these days. And the trads who are “playing” there are almost uniformly of the kind I am describing.
To bring the two halves of this blog post together I will simply conclude by pointing out the beauty and the spiritual benefit of praying the Liturgy of the Hours and I commend anyone in the Church who places an emphasis upon this as a discipline that lay people can easily adopt. I cannot recommend such a discipline more highly. But sadly, even this most salutary of recommendations, which should in no way be controversial, and which should be praised by everyone without qualification, has gotten sucked up into the ecclesial battles of our era and turned into one more piece of weaponized theologizing. And the mere fact that the leading lights of the traditionalist movement cannot find it within themselves to praise Bishop Barron for promoting the Liturgy of the Hours, and have even gone out of their way to invent reasons for criticizing him for this, is, quite frankly, shameful. It is a derangement that is a symptom of a deeper hostility toward the post-1955 Church. And it is a derangement that needs to be overcome so that the truly wonderful aspects of the traditionalist movement can shine more brightly and help to leaven the Church of today as it careens ever further down the path of accommodation to the de facto atheism of bourgeois culture.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.