The dense mystery of the Breviary: the experience of a young seminarian

Filed in Spirituality by on July 19, 2014 9 Comments


My breviary was a farewell gift from my mother and my sister. They presented it to me the night before I left for seminary. I had been told that this was the essential kit that I had to have, not just for seminary but for the rest of my life. “This is from us. We love you,” my mother said. The air around us thickened with emotion. I lifted the breviary from its bag –three fat, cellophane wrapped volumes. With a fingernail, I skinned the books of their protective wrapping and weighed them in my hands. They felt substantial, challenging and dense. And that would prove to be the case in ways that I could not begin to conceive of that evening.

The pages were gossamer thin. They were so tightly pressed together that I had to prise them apart with forensic care for fear I might tear or damage them. Turning the pristine pages felt like a furtive act of desecration. They crackled with the static of newness.

This was a book unlike any other I had ever handled. The Penguin Modern Classics, poetry and university text books on my shelves had an ephemeral and incomplete quality. For all their human insights, they lacked an interior life. The contents of this breviary, on the other hand, felt fashioned in eternity. Here was an account in song and word of man’s unique encounter with the Triune God, the holy ground where we begin to live from our interior beings.

That night was the first occasion I had ever handled a sacred book. Some aboriginal reverence within me stirred. And yet, this breviary in my hand was not some religious artefact or museum piece to be handled with white gloves and stored in temperature controlled vaults. This breviary was designed to be used. It had been designed to be manhandled by me on a daily basis. Every day of my life I would go to this book and finger these pages, reading their Braille for the things of God. Familiarity would breed devotion. I didn’t realise it back then, but as the years went on, my breviary would measure the temperature of my life as I encountered the Triune God through its pages.

Thin coloured ribbons spilled from the spine of the breviary. I ran a finger through this attractive fringe. Their purpose was hidden to me at that moment. But they provoked practical questions: Why were they there? How would I know how to arrange them? What spiritual treasures would they lead me to? I had intuitively understood that these ribbons were more than decoration or religious bookmarks, but that they had a more profound meaning. These threads would help bind me to prayer. After all, this was what I was to be about. Mine was to be a life of prayer and one day, of offering that great Eucharistic Prayer as a priest. My breviary was not a thing to do, but a reality to become. I was to be a man of prayer and I would wear my breviary ribbons as a sign of that identity.

With the gift of my breviary came a black, leather case. It was shiny with a zip. Depending on which volume was in use, the case would fit snugly around the book like a leather coat and be zipped up to protect the breviary from the wear and tear of the months and years ahead.

I placed each volume in my suitcase and cushioned them with socks and jumpers. They were to become my spiritual guides for my earthly journey to God. Here was an image of how the all-powerful God who is beyond and distinct from our material lives, makes himself accessible to us. He empties himself of his power and glory in order to make himself fit to the limitations of our beings and lives. Our God is to be found among life’s unremarkable realities. He, the all Holy One, reveals himself to us, reaches out to us in ways that we are able to comprehend. He allows us to approach his unsearchable depths. In the Psalms we are given a sure approach route for that encounter. This approach route is called praise.

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Fr Martin Boland

About the Author ()

Fr Martin Boland is a priest in the Diocese of Brentwood. He is currently Dean of Brentwood Cathedral. Some of his articles here were first posted on his personal blog The Invisible Province. They are used with permission. See:

Comments (9)

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  1. John O'Neill says:

    As a priest who is at present forbidden to minister publicly I have found my Breviary to be a treasure trove of comfort,wonder and solace. During my 34 years of Priesthood and Diaconate I often took the Breviary for granted, rushing through it and fitting it in where and when I could. Ironically. now that I am isolated and largely ignored by my Diocese and have lots of time to reflect I have found the Daily Hours my rock whilst I try to keep the Faith. So to all Bishops, Priests and Deacons who sometimes find the Breviary an inconvenience in a very busy life I say “love the Breviary and let it uphold your life in good times and bad”.

    • I don’t know you or your circumstances, Father John. If you will accept this advice for what it is, coming from a not very good Catholic, please do. I can only implore you to try as hard as you can to stay strong and to stick to all those things that have, throughout your Priesthood, been important and supportive to you. Also, and this will I think, be the harder part, think of those things which you may have advised people in similar circumstances to have done and do them yourself, if it’s appropriate to you. I hope this is of some help.
      Also, remember that it’s at those times we feel ourselves to be really alone, that we are truly not alone..
      All the best and God Bless you Fr John

      • John O'Neill says:

        Dear Simon,
        thank you so much for your message. I now live in Bretagne and have great support from the French Church in stark contrast to my own Diocese in England. I have waited for three years so far for a ruling from Rome about my priestly future. Please pray for me as I will for you
        every blessing,
        Fr John

        • ” I have waited for three years so far for a ruling from Rome about my priestly future. Please pray for me as I will for you”

          I hope the answer you hope for comes soon. Rest assured, I will pray for you.


  2. mary alcock says:

    I don’t know you, but you are not alone
    Whatever has gone wrong my thoughts and prayers will be with you. Stay strong in prayer.

  3. Teri says:

    Father Martin, please consider writing a book. Your insights to Faith are lanterns in the dark to those of us who know you. How lovely it would be to spread that light. Beautifully written story.

  4. Norma says:

    The office has inspired me, consoled me, educated me, changed me. How blessed we are.

  5. Sue says:

    Fr Martin, I agree with Teri, please consider writing a book! Your insight into God, faith and humanity continually stir my spirit. Thank you for opening your heart once again. God bless.

  6. Having once been a reader of you blog, I can only agree with Teri and Sue. Father Martin, you have a great style when writing, so do consider writing a book.

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