St Benedict's liturgical Code: On Benedictine prayer (Feb 25 or 26/June 27/Oct 27)

Sodoma, Life of St Benedict, 1505
St Benedict frees a monk
And today, the last in this series of posts on St Benedict's liturgical code, on reverence in prayer.

Caput XX: De Reverentia Orationis

Si cum hominibus potentibus volumus aliqua suggerere, non praesumimus nisi cum humilitate et reverentia; quanto magis Domino Deo universorum cum onini humilitate et puritatis devotione supplicandum est. Et non in multiloquio, sed in puritate cordis et com-punctione lacrimarum nos exaudiri sciamus. Et ideo brevis debet esse et pura oratio, nisi forte ex affectu inspirationis divinae gratiae protendatur. In conventu tamen omnino brevietur oratio, et facto signo a priore omnes pariter surgant.

Chapter 20: Of Reverence in Prayer

If we wish to prefer a petition to men of high station, we do not presume to do it without humility and respect; how much more ought we to supplicate the Lord God of all things with all humility and pure devotion. And let us be sure that we shall not be heard for our much speaking, but for purity of heart and tears of compunction. Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure, unless it chance to be prolonged by the impulse and inspiration of divine grace. In community, however, let prayer be very short, and when the superior has given the signal let all rise together.


This final chapter of the liturgical code is interesting not least in that it stands in sharp contrast to some later schools of spirituality.

There is some modern debate on this chapter: the traditional view, embraced by Dom Delatte and others is that whereas the previous chapter refers to the Divine Office, this chapter is essentially about private prayers, with the last sentence most likely referring to the traditional period of communal prayer immediately after each hour.

Some modern commentators, however, such as Dom De Vogue, argue that St Benedict is really talking here about the pauses between psalms in the Office.  Personally I’m not terribly convinced by this, for reasons too complex to go into here.

In the end, though, whether we are talking about our approach to the Office here, or our private prayers, the same considerations surely apply.

First we are told to approach God with humility and respect, as we would a person in a position of authority in the world when we ask for things, rather than immediately treating him as if he were a close friend. We should be aware of the immense gap between man and God, St Benedict suggests, and start from an attitude of worship and devotion.

The recovery of this sense of the sacred, of the otherness and greatness of God, is of course one of the greatest priorities of the Church at the moment, something the Pope has been trying to lead by example through the use of more elaborate and beautiful vestments, Latin, chant, kneeling to receive communion and so much more.

Of course we can and should aspire to the status of close friend of God: but here as elsewhere in the Rule, St Benedict writes not for the saint, but for the person who still has some way to go in making progress in the spiritual life. So the message is that we shouldn’t presume, but rather start at least by regarding ourselves as labourers in the vineyard, even as we wait for God to invite us in further as we progress in his ways.

The second point to note is the emphasis on compunction, or remorse, and purity of heart, reiterating the tool of good work ‘Daily in one’s prayer, with tears and sighs, to confess one’s past sins to God’.

Again, these days there is a lot of emphasis on ‘moving on’ or putting things behind us. The more traditional view though is that even though we should have confessed our sins and been forgiven them, we must still do penance for them now, in order to avoid purgatory!

Confession, absolution and whatever penance we are set removes eternal punishment, but it doesn’t necessarily wipe out all the remaining temporal punishment that we have accumulated. Saying our Office however, or studying the psalms (even if we enjoy doing so), is a good work that can help make amends for what we have done wrong in the past.

Thirdly, St Benedict emphasizes non-vocal prayer. Whereas the earlier Eastern monastic tradition urges the use of short phrases throughout the day, and later traditions added in practices such as the rosary (all laudable in themselves), St Benedict, without excluding these, urges a more meditative, mystical approach, perhaps as a counter-balance to the hours of vocal prayer in the Office that he prescribes.

Finally, St Benedict urges brevity, particularly in communal prayer. It is notable that whereas St Teresa of Avila urged her disciples to spend as much time praying after Mass as possible for example, in order to capture the graces that followed from it, and set specific periods of meditation as part of the rule for her nuns, St Benedict does none of this.

Over time of course, what St Benedict left to the individual (see for example RB 52 which allows individual monks to stay after the Office and pray in the oratory) has tended to be formalized (largely to compensate, I would suggest, for the reduction in time typically allocated to lectio divina compared to that specified in the Rule). Still, I think this injunction fits in with St Benedict’s approach of viewing all of the monk’s activities as dedicated to God and times for awareness of his presence, not just the set times of prayer.

And on that note, we end this little series of notes on the liturgical chapters of St Benedict’s Rule. I hope you have found it interesting and useful.  Please do let me know if you have reactions, questions or points you would like to debate or explore further.


Joshua said...

Thanks for this - it has been very interesting.

I've never before heard of the theory you propose as to the apparently "random" selection of psalms in rough numerical order actually being quite wisely chosen to fit with the days of the week and their Christian significance - could you provide sources for this, and corroboration? For with ingenuity one can read all manner of things into the text, but that is eisegesis, not exegesis.

For example, Our Lord twice quoted the psalms while he hung upon the Cross for our salvation, saying "My God, My God..." (Ps 21:2) and "Into Thy hands..." (Ps 30:6). Mediævals deduced that He therefore prayed all the verses in between, and so devised the Passion Psalms, Pss 21 to 30:6.

This was the view of Honorius of Autun, Gemma animæ, Liturgica, cap. 83: De tragœdiis:
“Decem namque psalmos, scilicet a Deus meus respice usque In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum cantavit, et sic expiravit.” [“For He sang ten Psalms, that is, from the Deus meus respice to In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum, and then died.”]

And similarly of Durandus, Rationale Divinorum Officiorum, lib. 6, cap. 77, n. 11:
“Quia vero Christus in cruce pendens prolixe oravit decantans decimos Psalmos scilicet: Deus, Deus meus, respice in me, usque ad: In te Domine speravi, cum pervenisset ad locum illum: In manus tuas Domine, illo dicto emisit spiritum”. [“For truly Christ hanging on the cross abundantly prayed singing ten Psalms, that is: God, my God, look upon me, until: In thee, Lord, have I hoped, when he had come to that place: Into thy hands, Lord, having said that He gave up the ghost.”]

In the Benedictine Rule, these psalms are all read at Sunday Matins (sandwiched between Psalms 20 and 31) - and so it seems that Benedict's choice would be better used for Matins on Fridays!

What think you?

Kate said...

First let me say that this is my own theory not one I've found any modern support for (as yet).

Unfortunately, for reasons I can't quite understand, Benedictine scholars from Dom Gueranger onwards onwards have been rather more preoccupied with the Roman Rite than their own, paving the way, I suspect, for the wholesale abandonment of the Benedictine in modern times.

The case for adopting 'canonical exegesis principles' (currently very popular in looking at the reasons for the ordering of the psalter in Scripture for example)however, starts from looking at the care with which the saint constructed his Office.

He rejected the running cursus which was the norm for monks both before and after his time in most places. But nor did he adopt the Roman Office that he was obviously familiar with.

If he didn't have a program in mind, just why did he make so many changes to the ordering of the psalms? Why does he in some cases deliberately make the length of the Office at particular hours much shorter or longer on some days then others? And why does he pull out particular psalms that don't even fit with the running order of the psalter for particular days and hours? I haven't found any satisfying treatment of these questions.

My reading of St Benedict's program makes sense of some of the aspects of St Benedict's psalm allocations which have puzzled modern scholars: Paul Bradshaw for example puzzles about why Psalm 75 (76) is set for Friday Lauds; the answer I think lies in the verse 'Terra tremuit et quievit'!

That said, I'm still engaged in a hunt through the medieval literature, finding some support for my case in things like the hymns used in earlier forms of the Benedictine Office, medieval psalm and canticle commentaries, the medieval literature on hearing the Office, etc, etc. I'll say more about all of this in a forthcoming article (or two).

But as you suggest most psalms are about many things, so it is easy to read things into them. Nor am I suggesting that every single psalm said on a particular day neatly fits this scheme.

It is certainly true that Psalms 21and 30 have strong associations with Good Friday for example. In the Roman Rite Psalm 21 for example is placed on Friday for this reason. Yet as Pope Benedict XVI's recent catechesis on it points out, it is a psalm that starts in darkness, but ends in a hymn of triumph and thanksgiving for the Resurrection.