St Benedict's liturgical code: Vespers and Compline (Feb 23/June 24/Oct 24)

Stuttgart Psalter

Today, a look at the allocation of psalms to Vespers and Compline.


Vespera autem cotidie quattuor psalmorum modulatione canatur. Qui psalmi incipiantur a centesimo nono usque centesimo quadragesimo septimo : exceptis his qui in diversis horis ex eis sequestrantur, id est, a centesimo septimo decimo usque centesimo vigesimo septimo, et centesimo trigesimo tertio et centesimo quadragesimo secundo; reliqui omnes in Vespera dicendi sunt. Et quia minus veniunt tres psalmi, ideo dividendi sunt qui ex numero suprascripto fortiores inveniuntur: id est, centesimus trigesimus octavus, et centesimus quadragesimus tertius, et centesimus quadragesimus quartus. Centesimus vero sextus decimus, quia parvus est, cum centesimo quinto decimo conjungatur. Digesto ergo ordine psalmorum vespertinorum, reliqua, id est lectio, responsum, hymnus, versus, vel canticum, sicut supra taxavimus impleatur. Ad Completorios vero cotidie iidem psalmi repetantur: id est, quartus, nonagesimus, et centesimus trigesimus tertius.

Ch 18/3

Vespers shall be sung every day with four psalms. Let these begin with the hundred and ninth and go on to the hundred and forty-seventh, those being omitted which are set aside for special Hours, namely, the hundred and seventeenth to the hundred and twenty-seventh, the hundred and thirty-third and the hundred and forty-second. All the rest are to be said at Vespers. And since there are three psalms too few, let the longer psalms in the above number be divided, namely, the hundred and thirty-eighth, the hundred and forty-third, and the hundred and forty-fourth. But the hundred and sixteenth psalm, being short, shall be joined to the hundred and fifteenth. The order of the vesper psalms being thus settled, let the rest of the Hour, that is to say, lesson, responsory, hymn, versicle, and canticle, be carried out as we prescribed before. At Compline let the same psalms be repeated every day: that is, the fourth, the ninetieth, and the hundred and thirty-third.


The psalms allocated to Compline are the same every day, and the rationale for their selection is fairly obvious, so I won't go into it here.  St Benedict's arrangement of Vespers, though, takes a little more work to understand I think.

Vespers, as I’ve previously noted, has an association with Our Lord’s death, and traditionally monasteries use both lamps and incense in their Vespers rituals to symbolize this.

In terms of the psalms for the hour, it is often suggested that Vespers reverts to a running cursus of psalms. That’s true in the Roman Rite, but even a cursory look at St Benedict's prescriptions will show that isn’t really the case in the Benedictine rite.

As I've suggested previously, my view is that St Benedict is crafting the psalm allocations for programmatic effect: St Benedict is very explicit about where the psalms are to be split, and where the running cursus structure is to be ignored. Nor is the motivation to even out the length of the Office, because in fact the result of his efforts is to make some of them rather longer in length than others.

Psalm 113 on Monday (Sunday in the Roman Rite), for example, is extremely long (it is actually two psalms in the Hebrew psalter), and yet Monday actually gets an extra psalm added (albeit the shortest psalm in the psalter), adding up to a total of 53 verses to be said.  Personally I think that is because both Psalm 113 and Psalm 128 link very neatly to the themes of Our Lord's Incarnation and hidden life on earth up to and including his baptism.

This arrangement also allows Tuesday Vespers to continue the sequence of Gradual psalms started at the little hours on that day, leaving Wednesday to pick up the theme of Our Lord's betrayal by his own people (over and over in history, as well as by Judas and the priests and pharisees), resulting in the election of the gentiles (a theme also reflected in the Canticle of Hannah at Lauds).

In contrast to the length of Monday (53 verses) and Wednesday (69 verses) Vespers, Thursday, Friday and Saturday Vespers are much shorter (48, 47 and 43 verses respectively), the result of splitting psalms in two.  Sunday and Tuesday are even shorter still, at 34 and 36 verses respectively, making the decision to move Psalm 113 to Monday, and separate Psalm 128 from the other Gradual psalms even odder on the face of it.

But if you take a look at the actual content of the psalms and sections of psalms set for those days and look for the connections - for example viewing Thursday to Saturday as a weekly mini-Triduum - I think you will see why St Benedict has arranged the psalmody as he has.

Regardless of whether you agree with my view of St Benedict's programmatic intent, however, the evidence does point to the saints’ care for the construction of the hour, and reminds us, I think, of the central importance of the psalms to Benedictine spirituality.

As Abbot Lawrence of Christ in the Desert Monastery comments:

“For our spirituality, we need to have an easy familiarity with the Psalms. We need to continue to study them year after year and let them deepen in us. For Benedictine spirituality, the Psalms are the heart of the Divine Office and we need to spend our lives knowing them more and more.”

For the next part of the series, go here.

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